Wives and children in the English army at the beginning of the 19th century

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Cover of the book “In War and in Peace” by Luis Garcia Jambrina, dedicated to women in the British army

On this history I came across it by accident. It was incomplete and somewhat blurry. I decided to delve into foreign sources to find out whether this was true or not. It turned out that yes - in 1807, a thousand women and their children accompanied British infantry on a march across Spain in the hope of driving away Napoleon.

They suffered, died and were forgotten. They were something like baggage or equipment typical of early 19th century battles. There was no room for them in the carts, even when they were wounded. After all, carts are only for weapons, wounded soldiers and food.



The women walked in the rain and snow. They had to learn to survive on half the food rations of the soldiers. Also living with the shadows of unfounded doubts about their reputation cast by those who wondered what these women were doing in a battalion full of men.

Their exact number is unknown, they have no name or past, they are simply not listed, as if they never existed. Just a faint trail accompanying an army of 31 men.

Why did the women accompany you?


The English battalion, together with its wives, advanced on the cities of Castile, Leon and Galicia. They did this under very harsh conditions for six hellish months, from July 1807 to January 1808. They saved Spain from the clutches of Napoleon. But then they were forced to retreat from Salamanca to La Coruña.

These women were the wives of soldiers and the mothers of their children. The women, more out of suffering than out of love, were forced to follow them across the Iberian Peninsula, first in attack and then in retreat.

There is very little information about the withdrawal of British troops. The Spaniards did not help them, because they themselves were already at zero. Napoleon could have finished them off with one march, but the British were saved by winter, and the French did not pursue them. However, winter played a cruel joke both on the British themselves and on their wives, of whom several hundred died.

They chose to accompany the men themselves. They drew lots, and almost every soldier's wife dreamed of this. This has been a long tradition in England. Approximately 6% of soldiers could take their wives with them. And about 1 women went on a hike. This step was actually a leap from one misfortune to another, from peace to war. Those who were chosen by lot to be included in the group of "followers" ended up in an army in which they had no rights.

Most of the infantrymen came from Ireland and Scotland and belonged to dysfunctional families. For men it was a way to provide themselves with food and drink. There were those who did it to understand the world.

What choice did their women have in the difficult circumstances in which they found themselves?

To remain alone would mean facing hunger, poverty and possibly prostitution, so many asked permission to accompany their husbands.

The battle between the British and the French in the Pyrenees
The battle between the British and the French in the Pyrenees

A year of torment


For women there was hardly any difference between the hardships in which they lived and those that awaited them in the war. In both they had to fight for survival, so many were able to endure all these hardships. Not all women present in the troops lived the same way. Officers' wives had rights and privileges that were denied to other wives. For example, such as travel in carriages or access to good food. The officers had attendants. The wives of infantrymen were, in many cases, assigned to serve the wives of high command.

That winter of 1807 - early 1808 was especially cold and harsh. Disease, hunger and low temperatures sometimes killed more than gunpowder. The ladies had to do work in the camp. These were seasoned women, accustomed to hardships. Many were from rural areas and worked as laundresses or in the textile industry.

Without rights, but with responsibilities: while men served, they had to take care of food, work as nurses, cook and look after their children. Under these conditions, they also performed tasks such as transporting firewood, food and ammunition, making cartridges, sewing uniforms or helping the wounded. In many cases, they had to transport the bodies of their dead husbands or the bodies of other soldiers. The wives were given half the ration. Having dry clothes was a luxury.

The death of her husband meant leaving. Widows remarried because otherwise they would have been kicked out of the camp. Some did this three or four times in one campaign.

In many cases, the husband himself prepared his wife, saying that if the opportunity presented itself, she should marry his friend, whom he trusted. Colonels were legally authorized to perform ceremonies in situations where priests were not present.

In November 1808, the British army waited almost a month to regroup in Salamanca. There is joy in the city, they are trying to help the British, because they came here to get rid of the French. Women were housed in nunneries. But there was a case when the nuns in the monastery of Santa Clara opposed this. They mistook the soldiers' wives for prostitutes. Well, it’s true, it’s hard to believe that wives and children themselves went to war. And women were thought so poorly of in many Spanish towns, although they were still heroines helping soldiers just like that. By the way, those nuns in Salamanca later became friends with the women and accepted them.

In December, women are invited to return to Portugal and from there back to the UK. Only a few agree; most stay with their husbands. The British decide to retreat, because 40 soldiers are coming to them from France. From Salamanca begins the challenging journey to A Coruña. 000 kilometers of cold, hunger and looting on the part of the British troops gave rise to hostility instead of the good reception they had previously received.

Not much information has reached us about this march and the role of wives in it. Irish General Charles Stuart wrote about the campaign of British troops in Spain.

There is even less information about the hardships of women, but the diary of Catherine Exley, the wife of a British soldier, survives in English. Here is a line from the diary:

I was penniless at the time and without a bed except bare ground to rest on.

Quite a terrible fate for these women. On their islands they lived poorly, their husbands went to fight for food, glory, travel, less often at the call of their hearts or the call of the government.

His wife, most likely, could not build a normal life without him. All that remained was to go to war with him, where she would not be considered a full-fledged person, and her husband could be killed at any moment. If she has a child there, then she will have to take care of him right on the hike. And all this with terrible logistics.
  • Zotov Sergey
  • https://www.britishbattles.com, https://www.elindependiente.com
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23 comments
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  1. +5
    February 12 2024
    cities of Castile, Leon and Galicia.
    “Where does the guy get Spanish sadness?” (c) fool
    1. +3
      February 12 2024
      hi The author writes: “I decided to delve into foreign sources” (c) the costs of Google translation .. smile
      1. +3
        February 12 2024
        This explains everything! lol
        Good morning, Aleksey!
        1. +5
          February 12 2024
          Hello honest company!
          It’s curious, but “tears did not flow from the heartbreaking” article.
          The institution of marquee ladies, regimental (and not only) wives, mistresses, laundresses, cooks, servants, etc. was always present in the war.
          To what extent this practice is vicious, I will cite Peter I’s Prut campaign from Russian history as an example.
          If we put aside the “snot” of the English historiography of the Napoleonic wars, there are similar ones in the works of the French. The latter also advanced and retreated with “wives and children.” By the way, poor wives, both subjects of the British crown and citizens of France, were not prevented from participating in the robbery of the local population. They try to keep silent about this.
          Good morning everyone!
          1. +4
            February 12 2024
            always present at war
            I don’t know about “always”, but since the Second Crusade - definitely.
            Hello, Vlad!
            1. +4
              February 13 2024
              Quote: 3x3zsave
              always present at war
              I don’t know about “always”, but since the Second Crusade - definitely.
              Hello, Vlad!

              Good night Anton!
              Non-combatants (female) are first documented in the legions of Rome at the beginning of the civil war.
          2. +5
            February 12 2024
            Good morning Vlad! hi

            About the Prut campaign. It was the wife of Peter I, Catherine, who saved the situation by pawning her jewelry to the vizier.
            1. +5
              February 12 2024
              Quote from Kojote21
              Good morning Vlad! hi

              About the Prut campaign. It was the wife of Peter I, Catherine, who saved the situation by pawning her jewelry to the vizier.

              Typo: lay it downв, and don't lay it downл.
            2. +2
              February 13 2024
              Quote from Kojote21
              Good morning Vlad! hi

              About the Prut campaign. It was the wife of Peter I, Catherine, who saved the situation by pawning her jewelry to the vizier.

              Good night!
              My personal opinion is that the large number of non-combatants was what ruined this campaign.
          3. +6
            February 12 2024
            “On January 6, 1842, the British, having abandoned Shah Shuja and his remaining supporters in Bala Hissar, left the Kabul camp. About 16 thousand people went on a campaign - 4,5 thousand military personnel, who were accompanied by 12 thousand non-combatants, baggage trains and personal servants , soldiers' and officers' families of the unit. The British were deceived: no one accompanied them, the promised food and fuel were not delivered. Moreover, the retreating British and their servants became the “legitimate” prey of the Afghans."
          4. -2
            February 12 2024
            If we put aside the “snot” of the English historiography of the Napoleonic wars

            The British have a lot of research on this particular issue without any snot. Illustration from one of the books.
            1. -1
              February 12 2024
              Good evening, Viktor Nikolaevich! hi

              Please tell me, do you happen to know the name of this book?
              1. 0
                February 12 2024
                Jennine Hurl-Eamon, Lynn MacKay/ Women, Families and the British Army 1700–1880

                But it's not free. At least I didn't find it.
                1. -1
                  February 12 2024
                  Quote: Dekabrist
                  Jennine Hurl-Eamon, Lynn MacKay/ Women, Families and the British Army 1700–1880

                  But it's not free. At least I didn't find it.

                  Thank you very much, Victor Nikolaevich! hi
        2. -5
          February 12 2024
          Quote: 3x3zsave
          This explains everything! lol
          Good morning, Aleksey!

          Good morning Anton! hi

          Oh, how I missed you! It was oh so sad without you! Glad you are here with us! hi
          1. 0
            February 12 2024
            And good morning and good day to you, Artem!
            1. -1
              February 12 2024
              Quote: 3x3zsave
              And good morning and good day to you, Artem!

              You know, Anton, I am happy that I can communicate with such wonderful friends as you. hi
    2. +8
      February 12 2024
      Quote: 3x3zsave
      cities of Castile, Leon and Galicia.
      “Where does the guy get Spanish sadness?” (c) fool

      More like Galicia... Galicia is part of present-day Ukraine, and Galicia (as the Spaniards themselves pronounce it) is part of Spain.
  2. +11
    February 12 2024
    https://kulturologia-ru.turbopages.org/kulturologia.ru/s/blogs/191118/41348/
    Painting by Adrian Moreau.
    The number of women officially serving the battalion was, by law, no more than four. These four persons usually included one cantiniere, one vivandiere and two washerwomen. Soldiers' wives and army prostitutes stayed with the battalions illegally. Most of the time they turned a blind eye to this, but from time to time inspections were carried out and unauthorized civilians were expelled.

    Unlike the laundress, in order to work with the battalion, the sutler had to obtain a special license. In addition, unlike the washerwoman, the sutler, not being, strictly speaking, a military serviceman, nevertheless often wore the uniform of her regiment with only one addition - a fluffy short skirt over trousers, indicating her gender. There was also usually a civilian hat on the head, the kind worn with a riding suit, and the skirt was protected from dirt by a short apron.
  3. +11
    February 12 2024
    a way to provide yourself with food and drink.
    What a deep thought... Really, logical.
    .
    Both animals and cattle drink,
    And trees and flowers, -
    Even flies without water -
    And neither there nor syudy!
    No, comrades, not in vain
    There are rivers and seas,
    Because without water
    And neither there nor syudy!

    Although... the author, unfortunately, did not specify what kind of drink, maybe not water at all

    Long time ago I realized
    Where death lies.
    Nobody drowns in beer
    They always drown in water.
    Rivers, seas, straits -
    How much harm they do!
    It's not beer that kills people
    Water is killing people!
  4. +11
    February 12 2024
    Remembered

    And I was a young girl
    I don’t remember when;
    I am the daughter of a young dragoon,
    And I am proud of this relationship.
    The buglers sounded carelessly,
    And the horses lined up
    And I fell in love, of course,
    With a badger plume of a soldier.
    And the first love fog
    He covered me like a cloak
    No wonder he walked with a drum
    In front of a whole dragoon regiment;

    The uniform is on fire,
    The mustache sticks out like broadswords...
    No wonder, no wonder, no wonder
    I loved you, soldier.
    But I don’t feel sorry for the former happiness,
    There's no need to remember him
    And me a drumstick
    I had to exchange it for a cassock.
    I risked my body and my soul
    The priest let me rent it.
    Well then! I will break my oath
    I will betray you, soldier!
    What could, what could be worse
    Old man's drooling mouth!
    My temper is friendly with the military,
    I became the wife of the regiment!
    I don't care: young or old,
    Commands, blows in harmony,
    The harness would play with fire,
    The soldiers would nod like a sultan.
    But wars end in peace,
    And I wandered around the world.
    Hungry, trembling, drunken,
    I slept under the bench in the tavern.
    In the market, right next to the road,
    Where beggars sit nearby
    I ran into you, legless,
    Armless and red-haired soldier.
    I didn’t count my free years
    Giving out your love;
    Over a glass, over a mug of daring
    I sing the same songs.
    While the throat is still swallowing,
    While your teeth are still grinding,
    My voice glorifies you
    With the badger plume of the soldier!
  5. +5
    February 12 2024
    Blessed England...
  6. +5
    February 13 2024
    When such armies, burdened with wives and non-wives, like the English and French, crawled one after another across the Pyrenees, everything went wrong.
    But... the British already had a negative experience when the redcoats, also burdened with women and convoys, tried to chase the Minutemen-trappers of Washington, and as a result lost the North American colonies.

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