Soldiering can be all too easily regarded as a purely male activity, especially if a study focuses on the mechanics of training, battles, and campaigns. That the contribution of women has been neglected in older studies can be attributed in part to the aforementioned focus on combat, in which women played little if any part. Those who did were few in number, many of them achieving legendary status. But despite the best efforts of many in authority, for many different reasons, armies of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were accompanied by large numbers of female camp followers. Whatever their role or circumstances, they provide a prism through which to examine certain aspects of British military identity. One early conclusion that can be drawn from their mere presence is that while soldiering was considered an essentially masculine activity, it was not one which required the total physical exclusion of women. It would have been difficult, though not impossible, for soldiers to function without them. One of the most common and sought-after tasks performed by women was laundry. While there were almost certainly women willing to take any laundry for money, the account of Joseph Donaldson implies that unmarried or unattached men had to wash for themselves. Donaldson was by his own admission ‘awkward enough when I began, but practice soon made me expert at it.’0
The presence of at least some women was accepted as necessary by the authorities, though contemporary social mores were a strong influence on policy. Where relevant, the rules always favoured formal marriage over whatever informal arrangements that a soldier might have with his female companion. Of those women allowed to accompany a battalion ‘on the strength’, only wives were eligible.0 Of these, six per one hundred men were chosen by lot, with the remainder being given a cash allowance with which to return home. If the behaviour of those accompanying the 42nd Royal Highlanders on the Waterloo campaign is anything to go by, soldiers’ wives might go to great lengths to remain with their husbands. When ordered to remain in Ostend while the battalion travelled to Ghent by barge, the wives somehow managed to evade or suborn those set to guarding them, and succeeded in joining their husbands. They were promptly sent back, only to escape a second time, whereupon they were permitted to accompany their husbands for the rest of the campaign.0
That wives should be so determined to accompany their soldier husbands, and that armies abroad should so easily acquire additional women, says a great deal about the women themselves. Whether out of personal devotion or a simple desire not to be deprived of financial support, army women suffered the same privations and dangers as their menfolk, up to and including violent death. Women accompanying an army, whether or not they were married, were subject to military discipline. The Duke of Wellington certainly regarded this as necessary, finding that women were as likely to plunder as men;
As I said there was no order for punishing women! But there was certainly
none for exempting Women from punishment! Such an order would have
rendered the existence of such an institution entirely nugatory! It is well
known in all armies the women are at least as bad, if not worse, than the
men as Plunderers! and (SIC) the exemption of the Ladies from punishment
would have encouraged Plunder!0
On top of this, women and children alike had to face the same difficulties and dangers while on the march as the soldiers themselves. Rifleman Harris describes the horrors endured by men and women alike during the retreat to Corunna;
On the road behind me I saw men, women, mules, and horses, lying at intervals, both dead and dying; whilst far away in front I could just discern the enfeebled army crawling out of sight, the women huddled together in its rear, trying their best to get forward among those of the sick soldiery, who were now unable to keep up with the main body. Some of these poor wretches cut a ludicrous figure, having the men’s great-coats buttoned over their heads, whilst their clothing being extremely ragged and scanty, their naked legs were very conspicuous.0
Not only were women in as much danger from starvation and disease as the men, they were also in danger from the enemy, though this danger could be exaggerated. Rifleman Costello implies that the French simply found such prisoners inconvenient;
Among some captives the enemy made on this occasion were several children in paniers carried by donkeys. One Irishwoman, in particular, I remember seeing, whose grief seemed inconsolable for the loss she had sustained in that of her child. In a few days, however, the French, desiring to be as little encumbered as ourselves with children, sent them back with a flag of truce.0
The fact that the French did not kill or simply abandon the children can be taken to imply a certain humanitarian consideration. Furthermore, even in light of previous points regarding the sentimental nature of these accounts, the mention of a distraught mother serves as a reminder that as hardened as many soldiers and their womenfolk might be, they were not all by any means dehumanized. The same conclusion can be drawn from the relationships between soldiers and their wives, which while varying considerably, nevertheless offer proof of common humanity. Sergeant Donaldson provides an example which, by his own admission, affected him deeply;
We were to march the next morning early. The most of the single men were
away drinking. I slept in the berth above Sandy and his wife. They never
went to bed, but sat the whole night in their berth, with their only child between them, alternately embracing it and each other, and lamenting their cruel fortune. I never witnessed in my life such a heart-rending scene. The poor fellow tried to assume some firmness; but in vain: some feeling expression from her would throw him off his guard, and at last his grief became quite uncontrollable.0
Even if the commonplace sentimentality of contemporary memoirs is taken into account, this example could be discounted only by claiming that Donaldson simply invented it, which would render all such accounts entirely worthless.
The presence of women in armies had a significance that went beyond the practical issues of their being there. Both tie into the attitudes of officers towards women, and why so many sought to limit or even curtail the presence of women in armies. The most obvious reasons for the hostility of some commanders were essentially practical, being to do with the maintenance of discipline. Many, including the Duke of Wellington, cited a tendency of women towards plunder and alcoholism. The fact that soldiers all too often engaged in such activities themselves suggests that removing women, even if they were indeed having some influence in that regard, would have little effect. At the same time, to ascribe it to what Sir Thomas Macauley called ‘periodic fits of morality’ would be over-simplistic. The idea that women could corrupt men was a long-standing one, which found its origin in neo-classical thought. In classical republicanism, the ideal man was austere, self-sufficient, and derived honour from selfless service to the state. Labelled as physically weak, irrational, and dependent, women were considered a threat to the purity of masculinity.
In the eighteenth century these attitudes came into conflict with the new culture of civility, which placed women at the centre of culture and sociability. The new culture required a new variety of man, one possessed of masculine virtues yet able to occupy a civilized sphere alongside women. These ideals appeared in the new ideology of liberalism, as presented by John Locke. The liberal gentleman was still independent, but he valued his independence, embodied in private property, far more than any connection to the state.0 This became the dominant ideal of Georgian society, to the dismay of classical republicans. William Cobbett, who cultivated himself as an ‘independent man’, warned his readers against falling into debt, which curtailed independence, and against the weakening and feminizing effect of luxury. Masculinity could be maintained, Cobbet advised, through the practice of healthy sports such as boxing.0 Carroll Smith-Rosenberg sees in their dismay at the supposed ‘feminization’ of men, and the corruption of the economy by fiscal capitalism, the ideological roots of the American War of Independence.
It was in response to this sense of crisis that a new ideal of manliness, tied in to gentlemanliness, emerged in the early nineteenth century. This new approach combined the values of the new commercial and industrial age, such as professionalism and self-reliance, with older chivalric and aristocratic values, as well as those of classical republicanism. The ideals of public service were combined with those of deference and reciprocity. Thus a man should serve the body politic, but through service and obedience to those set above him in the hierarchy, who would then reward him appropriately. A man should be proud and courageous, but there was also room for gentleness and piety, deriving both from chivalry and Christianity. These developments represented not only a reconciliation between stereotypically masculine and feminine traits, but also resolving a conflict between aristocracy and Christianity, which declared that all were equal. By holding himself to ideals of duty and service, a gentleman could prove himself worthy of his status.0