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.
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.
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.