Friday, October 05, 2012

Following the drum: the women in Wellington’s army

The glamour quotient at the HNS Conference in London last weekend was greatly enhanced by the presence of a number of soldiers from the Napoleonic Association, a re-enactment society – all of whom looked splendid in their scarlet uniforms.

With them was Maureen Lancaster, whose husband Ian is a sapper in the East Kent Buffs. Maureen as been with them as an army wife for twenty years, and she made not only her own costume but her husband and son Stephen’s, too. Stephen joined as a drummer boy when he was only thirteen, so a love of military history is obviously in the family.

We discussed the role of ordinary women in Wellington’s army. Officially, only six wives per hundred men were allowed to follow the drum, all chosen by lot. In Maureen’s view, without the women, the whole campaign would have ground to a halt. Women did the washing, the mending and the cooking. A contemporary print shows a couple of women washing garments in a river, whilst another hangs the clothes on a makeshift washing-line. Nearby a cauldron hangs over an open fire.

Women often went ahead of the column (many of them acquired a donkey) to buy what they could in the next village before the quartermaster got there, which was strictly forbidden and heavily punished. The women took no notice: they were determined to have a meal waiting for their husbands at the end of the day, and doubtless the cauldron in the print contained a nourishing stew for their dinner.

Official rations were sparse: only two meals per day were allowed for: breakfast at 7.30 and a meal at noon. Official women’s rations were half that of the men; unofficial women – of whom there were hundreds - were entitled to nothing at all. Prices could be ludicrously high with a loaf of bread costing half a crown (12½p).

The ordinary soldiers’ rates of pay were abysmal. An infantry sergeant received from 1s 6d to 2s per day (7½ - 10p) and a private got merely 8d (about 3½p). Even a loaf of bread would be beyond the reach of many. As Maureen said, ‘Many wives became very good at pilfering.’ They had to be.

The general practice was to billet the soldiers in the nearest village or town. If none were nearby, the men had to shift as well as they could: some cut down branches and erected huts, others just wrapped themselves in their army blanket and shivered. Later on in the campaign – which suffered some horrendous weather - the army eventually supplied tents.

I asked Maureen what happened if your husband was killed. ‘You were allowed three days to re-marry, otherwise you’d lose your rations’ entitlement,’ she replied. When I exclaimed with horror, she added, ‘It wasn’t unusual for soldiers to sell their wives.’

Of course, there were plenty of examples of devotion and heroism, too. Soldiers helped carry babies and children if there was no room on the baggage train – which stretched back for miles. And women rushed onto the battlefield, sometimes even before the fighting had stopped, to find their men, tend to their wounds or seek a proper burial.

The East Kent Buffs attends the annual ceremony to commemorate the battle of Albuera on May 16th, 1811. Maureen was so disgusted that the women’s contribution went unrecognized that she took to scattering poppies in the small military cemetery at Elvas in their memory. It has now become a recognized part of the ceremony – and quite right, too.

Photos: Top: Men of the East Kent Buffs
             Centre: Maureen Lancaster, an army wife
             Bottom: Even the underwear is authentic 
Elizabeth Hawksley


Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

Fascinating, Elizabeth. One can learn so much from the re-enactors. What a hard life the army wives had then. Thank you for posting this.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you, Sarah. I learnt a lot from my conversation with Maureen Lancaster, the 'army wife'

She told me about a Welsh woman, called Biddy, who, on the retreat from Corunna, actually carried her wounded husband on her back while her young son carried his father's rifle and her daughter carried his knapsack.

They made them tough in those days!

Michelle Joyce said...

Reading about the conditions for army wives always calls to mind Heyer's 'An Infamous Army' and Juana Smith.
On a completely different note, I'd very much like to know what is happening with Elizabeth's book, Tresillian. Late last year I recall seeing that she had finished it.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Juana Smith was certainly an intrepid army wife, Michelle! I remember she had an army wife maid, the redoubtable Jenny.

Thank you for asking after 'Tresillian'. It turned out a much longer book than my usual novels - 140,000 words. I cut it to 120,000 but it was still too long for Hale. It's now looking for a publisher.

Hero, Adam Pascoe, the illegitimate son of who knows who, returns to Cornwall having made his fortune in the E. Indies. He meets Thomasine, an orphan staying with the autocratic Miss Menheniot of Tresillian. Throw in smuggling, a villainous doctor, a seductive man-hunter and a family secret.

Jane Jackson said...

A fascinating account of the realities of war for the wives of soldiers, Elizabeth. The re-enactors bring the past to vivid life.

Re. Tresillian - I hope very much it finds a publisher soon. I'd love to read it.