Waterloo and the Peninsular War: it’s a familiar story, isn’t it? Heavy artillery, sieges, muskets and cannons. A young man chosen to be the first up the siege-ladder at Badajoz, knowing that death is just around the corner; a dashing officer at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, rushing into battle still clad in his regimentals. Overall, it’s fair to say that history’s attention has largely focused on the lives of men who fought and died. It’s a rousing story, but is there more to it than meets the eye? Not all of those soldiers went to war alone: some were accompanied by wives, partners and young children – a situation almost unimaginable today. So who were these camp followers and how did they survive in this theatre of war?
For many, the term camp follower is synonymous with sex work. Some women likely did engage in it, amid complex circumstances. That said, there are also accounts of soldiers selling their wives at auction and mistresses left destitute when their lovers died in battle, running barefoot through the mud. When I first began to research these women for my historical romances, I found them flitting through the pages of history in other guises, too: ghoulish figures stripping corpses on the battlefield or respectable wives elected by ballot system, six for every hundred men in a regiment, earning their keep by washing, sewing and cooking for the men. Those who were selected ‘to go’ followed their husbands aboard ship. Those not chosen were left behind to face a life of destitution. You might hear that your husband was dead and marry again, only for him to turn up in the village years later. The soldiers’ pay was barely enough to support one man, so there was nothing to send home and the levels of poverty and destitution in Georgian England are almost beyond imagination now. This is, after all, a time when a six-year-old child could be hanged for stealing bread. For the poor, life was a battle to survive. When even a handful of rice could mean the difference between life and death, the ugly task of stripping dead men for every last valuable might just be the price you paid for your children to survive another day.
Dipping deeper into the stories of these women reveals extraordinary lives that defy first impressions, as well as shocking injustice. Agustina Zaragoza Domènech is well known in Spain, sketched by Goya, but she’s less of a familiar figure in the UK. At a critical moment in the first siege of Zaragoza in 1808, Agustina rushed forwards and fired a cannon. There are other fascinating snapshots, too. Mrs Skiddy defied Wellington’s expressed orders for the camp followers to march at the rear, hurrying ahead make sure she had a kettle on for her husband at the end of a long day’s march. During the defence of Cadiz in 1812, Mrs Reston found herself under heavy fire. When a young drummer boy was too frightened to fetch more water for the surgeon, Mrs Reston took over. Long after the war, when Sergeant Reston was too old to work, the couple appealed to the authorities for assistance, supported by officers who remembered Mrs Reston’s bravery. No help came, and she died in a Glasgow poorhouse.
Were these women powerless in the end, in the face of living in such a harsh environment? The only known first-hand account of the Peninsular War written by the wife of an ordinary soldier tells a different story. Catherine Exley was encamped on Jersey with her husband when the news came that the regiment was to depart for Portugal. Catherine had befriended the widow of a sea captain, who offered her a place to stay or – as Catherine puts it – ‘to share her loneliness’. Catherine makes no mention of a dockside ballot: instead, she describes preferring to accompany her husband, and his colonel writing to their general requesting permission. Her choice made, Catherine followed the drum for years, learning Portuguese ‘to make my wants known,’ traversing the Pyrenees barefoot, and often with a child in her arms. But only rarely do we hear these women telling their own stories on their own terms, and I for one can’t help but wonder what we’ve lost in not being able to hear more of their voices. Theirs is a fascinating story, and it will be a long time before I tire of learning more.
Issue Four of Aspects of History is out now.