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Monday, August 1, 2011

Women and the war

Yes........ yes.......... The subject is being brought up again.......... Women and the war..........
By this I don't mean those women that stayed at home waiting for their husbands, fathers, brothers, lovers, etc to come home. That must be one of the most ungrateful things to do in life, poor things!
I'm talking about those women that walked, fought and lived alongside the army (whatever side!) during the Napoleonic Wars, the so called camp-followers. And please.... You all know that these women existed......... DON'T YOU??? Or are you still in denial?
If you are, here's some more historical proof.

The most documented woman during the Napoleonic wars was the Vivandière that was employed by the French army. She was the sutler for goods like food, alcohol and tobacco, providing the regiments with these comforting things. She would be known having a little barrel with a measuring-beaker and cup at her side with cognac or other beverage of the sort and gave a dominant male and aggressive environment that feminine flair. A Vivandière would wear the colors of the regiment she would work for, wearing breeches under her short skirt and a military jacket.
It is said that this was a way to calm the feminist movement that had appeared in France after the Revolution, by giving women that wanted to fight in wars just as men did a “controlled purpose” by being sutleresses and washer-women (blanchisseuses).
Anyway, they were there.

Detail from a painting of the Battle of Chiclana by Baron Louis-François Lejeune

Vivandiére, from the book "Uniforms of the retreat of Msocow 1812", by Philip Haythornthwaite and Mike Chappel.

Take a look at the end of the page of book 11 of the Napoleon Series.


For more information on vivandìeres I recommend reading the text below from the the book "Military Dress of the Peninsula War", by Martin Windrow and Gerry Embleton.

Vivandière, French 15e Léger, 1809-10
«To close this book we have decided to show a single representative of the thousands of women who followed the armies of both sides of campaign, suffering great hardships and danger; in an age lacking the most elementary welfare services for the troops, it was to theses staunch camp-followers that the men looked for some touch of comfort or compassion. Officers were often accompanied by their wifes, who traveled on mules or ponies and each night attempted to set up a little camp which would provide some echo of the comforts of home life. Some of the more dashing, particularly among the French, were accompanied by charming mistresses tricked out in saroual trousers and suitable modified forms of trousers or dragoon uniforms. In the ranks life was harsher. Only six men per British company were allowed to take wifes on the ration strength, and the other camp-followers had to shift themselves. On retreats or forced marches their fate was pitiable but it must be also be said that they were often of unmitigated nuisance, blocking the roads and accepting no sort of discipline. One cannot fail to be moved, however, by the accounts of their sturdy courage. More then one exhausted redcoat would have been left in the road if his wife had not carried him on her back, firelock and all. In the aftermath of the battle the wifes of titled captains an illiterate privates could be seen together, searching among the piles of dead and wounded for their men, while the local peasants stole from cover, knife in hand, and casual plunderers of both armies stripped the corpses and rifled pockets all around them.
A French regiment was usually accompanied by a vivandière, a woman who sold liquor, tobacco and the small luxuries from a cart. They had semi-official status, and were often given a form of uniform to mark their allegiance to the regiment. Some 19th Century prints show trim and jauntily costumed girls but in reality most of them probably looked more like Mother Courage. Nevertheless they were sometimes married to a string of NCO's, according to the chances of war - for on campaign they were as eligible as any brewery heiress! The 15e Léger, who apparently had a vivandière dressed in this braided red jacket faced light blue, served under Loison at Vimeiro, and with Clausel at Bussaco.»

Vivandière of the French 15e Léger, 1809-10

But not only sutleresses accompanied the military. There where all sorts of other camp-followers that where part of a the daily lives in war. I don't need to mention those who had the oldest job in the world (because that goes without saying and a good deal is a good deal!) but I'm going to mention the wives and the partisans.
Here's a good website of the National Army Museum in the UK that dedicates some pages to the subject and that shows wonderful etchings by W. H. Pyne (“Camp Scenes”). My favorite one is the scene with the cart/wagon.


On more details on the women that accompanied the military, please read this amazing resume at this address. Please note, that even if only 6 or 4 wifes were allowed per british company, some made a difference, like:

- The wife of the Quartermaster of the 14th Foot Alexander Ross, who fought at his side on the battle field;
- The Sergeant Major's wife of the 7th Hussars that was expected by her husband to join the fight;
- Jenny Jones' tombstone reminds everyone that she fought at Waterloo with her husband of the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers;
- Elske van Aggelin a dutch sutleress that died at the end of the century;
- Barbara Moon that was born during the Peninsula Wars and died in 1903;
- Private Peter McMullens' wife of the 27th Foot carried him of the battle field after he was wounded;


There were also those women, specially during the Peninsula Wars and more particularly in Portugal (given the traumatic experience being invade by the French while the army and King were fleeing), that went into war carrying weapons, alongside with all the militia groups that were formed at the time.
Here's a drawing of one of them, by Auguste Racinet in his book “Le Costume Historique”:

And last but not least, I would like to remind the reader of other women that made it into European History and that you can google about. Here are some examples:

- Francesca Scanagatta, that served in the Austrian Army as a Lieutenant and was only discovered to be a woman when she received a granted pension by the Kaiser;
- Madame d'Oettlinger, who was a Napoleon's spy;
- Jane Townsend, that served at the Battle of Trafalgar;
- Agostina de Aragón, that launched an attack against the French occupying forces at Zaragossa;
- Joanna Zubr, who was the 1st woman to be granted the highest Polish military award;
- Anna Lühring and Friederike Krüger that served in the Prussina army;
- William Brown, a british sailor discovered to be a woman.

To all of the women witnesses of the Napoleonic War, participating or not in the battles, whatever background or activity they had, I salute you!


Le Loup said...

I knew about camp followers, but not about the women wearing breeches. Very interesting.
Regards, Keith.

Sara Seydak said...

Didn't had a clue on the extention of women's participation in the wars. Now I have new material to research, which is always good.

DeanM said...

I've been doing some internet searching on Vivandieres and found your excellent post. Thanks, Dean

Sara Seydak said...

Thankyou for the compliment. I hope that the links I've posted about the subject are helpfull to you since there's a lot of stuff out there that has no garanties of being accurate.