The Napoleonic era is often referred to as the Age of Elegance, but in fact life for the majority of people in Europe at that time was short, hard and frequently painful.
It should also be borne in mind that the Industrial Revolution (and the social changes that eventually followed on from it), was then in its infancy and modern concepts such as Universal Suffrage and equality of Race, Sex or Religion were unheard of - slavery itself was only officially abolished in 1807 due to the efforts of William Wilberforce!
And unlike the World of today, the roles of men and women were clearly defined - as was the behaviour expected of them.
So, whilst both sexes of the peasantry/working classes were expected to work, men (and only men), were expected to fight for their country. Therefore, in the British Army of the day there were NO female combatants.
Indeed, whilst there are records of women having served in disguise in the French Army and both the Spanish and Portuguese Partisans included numerous womenfolk amongst their ranks, there is no equivalent precedent in the forces at Wellington’s disposal.
Women did of course form part of the fabric of Army life - even as they do now - but unless they were an Officer's wife, the conditions under which they were tolerated were harsh and often cruel. It is also true that in essence there were only two sorts of women who followed the Army; the ladies of easy virtue (or prostitutes), who have always rendered their services to fighting men, and the wives – sometimes many of them in may different countries.
On home service there was no such thing as married quarters for the common soldier and it was not unusual for a wife (and the children) to live a hovel, or even in the streets; on the periphery of the fort, barracks or lodgings where the Battalion was staying.
To make matters worse, there was no social welfare system for these women and the most they could hope for was a ½ ration for themselves and a ¼ ration for the children. Needless to say malnutrition, disease and exposure to the elements were the order of the day. As a means of achieving some kind of subsistence, married women frequently earned a few extra coppers by providing cooking, sewing, laundry and ‘barber’ type services to the men of the Battalion.
Life on campaign was different again. Whenever the Battalion served overseas the number of places provided for wives onboard the transport vessel were very few and this resulted in a practice known as the wives ballot, whereby names were put into a hat and a fixed number were then drawn at random.
Any women not so chosen either stayed at home, or found some other way to make it overseas and follow their men, but off the ration if they did so. Of course, when a soldier was killed on active service his wife’s entitlement to any kind of ration ceased altogether and so it was not uncommon for a woman thus bereaved to remarry almost immediately in order to ensure her own survival.
Bizarrely, the survival rate for men on campaign often became so poor that a list of many succeeding suitors was established by desirable women well in advance of the current husband’s demise - ever practical the soldiers wife and justifiably so!!
Service overseas would often involve lengthy tours of duty, especially in the Americas and the East or West Indies.
At that time Governments frequently did not wish to pay to transport the men (let alone the women), home and many army personnel became pioneering families by default in the new frontiers that were being opened up across the World.
In North America and Canada this quite often involved grants of land, or some other form of ‘bounty’ being offered to the soldier as an incentive to stay, but in other territories the soldier and his wife were simply just left behind to get on with it.
As can be imagined the mortality rates for common women in such situations were even worse than usual due to factors such as predation by wild animals, child birth and of course (in the case or Red Indians), murder by the indigenous population…
With life being so hard, it is therefore a testament to these common women that they so often showed extreme courage and resilience in the face of adversity. Many are the stories of the women who risked death in battle to tend their men folk whilst still in the field, or nursed them back to health from the often crippling injuries they received.
Unnamed and unnumbered they may be. Forgotten they are not.
Chsm Brian James
1 Coy No. 7, 2/44 (East Essex) Regiment of Foot
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