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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Women and the war VI - Army wives

In my constant research on the the role of women during the Napoleonic Wars, I was given copies of a book by Anthony Brett James and Tom Donavan, in which chapter 17 is about, and is called, Army Wives. I have to thank Anthony Gray for sending me the scans of this chapter. Here are a few notes on the sort of faith they faced from the moment they were allowed to follow their husbands until their return:

«By regulation and custom, only six wives were allowed to travel on service with each company. The women drew lots as to which should go, and this casting of lots was usually left until the last evening before a regiment embarked for the war. Tickets inscribed “To go” and “Not to go” were put in a hat, and when the moment of suspense and destiny arrived, most affecting, pathetic scenes occurred, because wives left behind often faced starvation or charity, though individual regiments did gave allowances to carry the women and children home.»

The 1st half of the 1st paragraph of this chapter says it all: women in those days were so absolutely dependent on their husbands, to the point that they rather face the carnage of battle and the uncertainties of the army life during war, then the certainty of poverty by being left behind. It makes me think about that saying “between the devil you know and the devil you don't” and that these women rather preferred the devil they didn't knew. It certainly must have been an unfair and excruciating decision to make.

Here are some of the numbers of women following their husbands, according to numbers written down by General Lowry Cole, on return of the 4th Division in 1813:
7th fusileers – 17 women
20th – 22
23rd Fusiliers – 25
27th – 34
40th - 24
48th – 19
60th (1 single company) – 2
2nd Provisional Battalion – 6
The Portuguese infantry battalions serving in the Division:
11th – 37
23rd – 42
7th Caçadores - 11

While wives and children's details were written down on the regiment's records as to their name, age, height, color of eyes and hair, skin complexion, children's gender and of course, husbands name, rank and company, few of them would show up on the records as having been killed by enemy fire or even the knowledge to what happened to those who never made it back.
Yet, as we can only imagine, many escaped from this certain death in the most astonishing way. They also became prisoners of war, having to go through rape by the enemies hands and then being sent back to their regiments after the deed (or not) and not being the purpose of a search party or even the thought of the men or of the regiments they belonged to.
There are stories of women following their husbands into the battlefield, whether it was because they would be to afraid to stay behind in the camp, whether to help them in case of wounding or whether they were afraid of loosing their husbands, specially if they would die and the body would not be claimed.
Widows, with no means to travel back home, and most of them hadn't (unless wife of an officer), would remarry as many times necessary until the campaign was over. There are stories of women being married more then 2 or 3 times over. Widowhood was painful but, yet, short.
Also indiscipline was a reason for concern in the companies, not only the soldiers, but also the women who followed them. There are accounts of women plundering fields of villages or breaking into cellars looking for wine. They would often do what their husbands couldn't, also for survival reasons and they would be punished for it (flogged?).
Another way of indiscipline were the accounts of wives sitting on donkeys sticking to the columns of soldiers in such a way that they would hinder the column's progress on road and in such a way that shooting their donkeys was the only deterrence to make them obey.
Often seen as a nuisance and that there was no place for a woman in an active army, army wives where also payed tribute, if not during the campaigns then at least by the veterans of war, for their washing, cooking, nursing and for their ability to endure the long marches, hasty retreats, exposure to danger, poor living conditions and arduous circumstances.
These women sometimes would sleep beside their husbands away from the women's camps under the same conditions as them, some of them never leaving their side; other would find horses or donkeys to follow them into battle, they would loose all their property and small comforts when raided by the enemy and raised their children during war time.

 Sutlers tent, British camp, c.1808, Payne.

Cases of army wives giving birth during the campaigns are not as pretty as we may imagine. Birth giving was often in harsh conditions and often happened in the most unexpected ways – at the side of a road – or most unimaginable ones – during an attack. «When the 95th stormed the heights of Vera in 1813, one rifleman had a son born to him by his Portuguese wife, who gave birth soon after the battle, having been taken in labor while clambering up the mountainside.»
These babies had to live with whatever the adults could provide for them, in many cases living without tents or other comforts and having only soldier's jackets to cover them.

 "Daughter of the regiment" (don't know the author). This little (French) girl is sleeping on the tomb of some noticible anonymous person in a Cathedral, while we can see some skirmishing happening outside.

Examples of brave women who got the, seldom, attention and praising of men back then do exist, such as Susanna Isabella Dalbiac, wife of Charkles Dalbiac who commanded the 4th Dragoons, and who was seen riding at the head of the 4th carrying a haversack and bottle and who got praised by Sir William Napier himself for her action during the battle of Salamanca, in his book History of the War of the Peninsula:
«There was no man present that did not fight with more then double enthusiasm seeing that fair lady in such danger on the battlefield».
Also, Lady Walgrave who was an excellent rider and was seen for 4 days skirmishing alongside the men and Captain Gronow said to be «the theme of of the army and she won universal praise and admiration. She was a perfect heroin.»
And the wife of Sargent Reston of the 94th Regiment in Cadiz in 1810 was know to get water under bomb fire of the well in the middle of the fort of Matagordo (which was about a hundred square yards), to have assisted the surgeon, , attending the wounded, carrying sandbags, handing ammunition along and taking beverages to the gunners during the attack. According to Donaldson «Mrs. Reston exhibited the same undaunted spirit. She made three different journeys across the battery for her husband’s necessaries and her own. The last was of her child, who was laying in a bomb proof. I think I see her yet, while the shot and shell were flying thick around her, bending her body over it to shield it from danger by the exposure of her own person.»
Many other do exist, but this post will only be a small reminder of what we already know about these army wives.

1 comment:

Sara Seydak said...

Here's the full and corrected bibliography on the book mentioned above: Antony Brett James, "Life in Wellington’s Army", London : Tom Donavan, 1994.
I am grateful to Anthony Gray for providing me with a copy of the chapter in question.