The expression “camp followers” does not actually refer to the wives of soldiers; it should be used to describe hangers on like common law wives, prostitutes, sutlers and the like. Soldiers wives were know as “the wives” or just “the women” except officers’ wives who were collectively known as “the ladies”.
If when he joined the army a man was already married, or he married whilst he was enlisted his wife officially belonged to his regiment and therefore were listed on the regiment’s strength. Permission to marry was sought from the colonel of the regiment and was limited to only a few soldiers of good conduct. It was also normal to check the women’s character so as to keep undesirables out. To marry without permission was a very serious offence and the women would not be recognised as a wife listed on the strength of the regiment and therefore she would not be able to draw rations or be entitled to help from any regimental charities such as they were.
Soldiers wife’s were allowed to live in the barracks with their husbands, though the only privacy they were allowed would be to screen off a small area within the barrack block with blankets. As a wife she would be able draw half of a daily ration (children allowed a quarter but neither where allowed the alcohol) the cost of any extra rations were stopped out of her husband’s pay, so wives tried to earn money, many were regimental washerwomen or they could get jobs working for the officers ladies such as cooks, cleaners, if the officers allowed it a women could set up a canteen and sell drink and other goodies to the soldiers. Failing that the wives might have got a job outside the army.
As the wives were on the regimental strength they were also subject to military discipline, which meant that they could be flogged, and flogged they were! It wasn’t just the army who flogged women, as flogging was a punishment in civilian jails as well (it was only abolished in 1817).
When a regiment went on active service abroad only a certain number of wives were allowed to travel with them, usually about six wives per company. It was usually decided who could go by means of a ballot. Women with children were often excluded from this ballot. Those wives that did not go abroad were not allowed to stay in the barracks, they were sent either to their families or had to return to their home parish. Before they were sent off they were given a small cash allowance so as to pay for the journey.
"To such wives of soldiers as are not permitted to embark with their Husbands, the Rates of Allowance, authorized by the Act of the 51st of George III., chap 120, will be granted, to enable them to proceed to their Homes, or to the Places at which they intend to reside, during the absence of their Husbands on Service" - The Regulations and Orders for the Army, 1811.
It was the duty of the home parish to support them out of the Poor Rates, if there was any doubt about whether she came from that parish the local authorities would try and weasel out of their responsibility to her and she would then be left to fend for herself. She could not expect any help from her husband even if he wanted to, as there were no arrangements for the soldiers to send any of their pay home. The wives that were left at home could expect a long wait before seeing their husbands again, if ever, for instance William Surtees of the 95th was married for eight years but only managed to spend a total of two years with his wife before she died!
Before the army arrived in the Peninsula they had to undergo a sea voyage which took roughly three weeks, depending on the winds. Conditions on board the ships were often very cramped and claustrophobic. The space allocated for a six men berth was about the size of a large blanket, thus the same area was also allocated for three married couples. Before embarking each were issued with a blanket and a mattress to be shared by two. There was no privacy for anyone below decks. To try and make things a little less cramped, and to give those below more room, the soldiers and families were separated into three watches, each watch would take a four hour turn on deck and stay there before being relieved by the next watch.
The wives that did go abroad had to march or if they were lucky, they would be able to buy a donkey, but they still had to carry all their own belongings and still was only entitled to a half ration. If her husband died her rations were stopped that day, so they would often remarry very quickly. The highest known number of husbands a woman had in the Peninsula is six. If she did not want to remarry she would be sent back to England via transport ship and then forgotten. Whilst on campaign the army would also accumulated a large number of common law wives, these common law wives had no official status and no right to accompany their men. At the end of the campaign these women where simply abandoned, most without much money, if any at all. It wasn’t just the rank and file who had women with them that they were not married to! There are a number of stories of officers eloping with local women, which caused much embarrassment to the British army.
The main tasks undertaken by soldier's wives whilst on campaign were to deal with the laundry and cooking for their (the same as when in barracks), plus foraging and buying food to supplement the daily rations, in fact the wives became such a problem with the buying up of food that in August 1809 The Duke of Wellington issued general orders that;
"Officers commanding divisions and brigades, will be pleased to take measures to prevent the women, and followers of the army, from buying up the bread which is prepared for soldiers' rations. This practice, carried on in irregular manner it is at present, must ultimately prejudice the soldiers, and prevent the regular supply of bread"
The Duke then goes on in further detail that;
"The women of the army must be prevented from purchasing bread in the villages, within two leagues of the station of any division of the army: when any women wants to purchase bread, she must ask the Officer of the company to which she belongs, for a passport, which must be countersigned by the commanding officer of the regiment. Any women found with bread in her possession, purchased at any place nearer than two leagues, will be deprived of the bread by the provost or his assistants; as will any women who goes out of camp to purchase bread without a passport. Women, who will have been discovered disobeying the order, will not be allowed to receive rations"
Most of the women who travelled with the army, whether officially or unofficially, where a very tough bunch; they had to be because of the sort of life that they led by following the army. Many were criminally minded and very brutal and most were very efficient body strippers and were renowned for their antics and quite capable of killing the wounded so they could strip the body. However it would be wrong to think that all of them were like that, many were devoted to their husbands and struggled as best they could to keep up some sort of standards.
Many of the wives suffered the same fate as their men or worse, during the retreat to Corunna a number of wives belong to the 95th where taken prisoner by the French and after using them as they pleased, gave them some food and sent them back to their husbands!! Below is a quote from Rifleman Harris about a couple who were unable to deal with harsh conditions during the retreat.
"Toward the dusk of the evening of this day I remember passing a man and woman lying clasped in each other’s arms, and dying in the snow. I knew them both; but it was impossible to help them. They belonged to the Rifles, and were man and wife…as he had not been in good health previously, himself and wife had been allowed to get on in the best way they could in the front. They had, however, now given in, and the last we ever saw of poor Sitdown and his wife was on that night lying perishing in each other’s arms in the snow." - Extracts from 'The Recollection of Rifleman Harris'
One of the most well-know marriages during the Peninsula campaign is that of Harry Smith of the 95th. Who married Juana Maria de Los Dolores de Leon, who was only 14 years old at the time, after saving her from the ensuing chaos after the fall of Badajoz. They remained married and she was tower of strength throughout his military service, he later became the Governor for the Cape in South Africa between 1847-52 and the town of Ladysmith was named after his wife. Also he had a brother in the 95th who was the Adjutant for the 2nd Battalion during the Waterloo Campaign.
Another love affair concerning the 95th, that did not end so happily was that of Sergeant Battersby and a women called Nelly. The couple met while the Sergeant was posted at Lisbon in 1812. The main problem with their relationship was she was already married to a grenadier of 61st Foot. When Sergeant Battersby was sent to rejoin the regiment near Ciudad Rodrigo, Nelly ran of with him. His comrades took it for granted that she was his wife and made them both welcome. Shortly after their arrival the regiment was ordered to move to Salamanca.
At the end of the first days march the regiment had halted for the night, Nelly's real husband had managed to catch up with them. During the following argument her husband told her that he did not want her back but wanted her to take their 3 year old son because she was not able to care for him, in the end Nelly agreed to return with him to his camp a few miles away. On the trip back Nelly changed her mind about taking her son and, wanting to return to her lover, and she wished her husband goodbye. At this he sized her by the hand and then stabbed her with his bayonet, she died instantly. Sergeant Battersby and a friend were following the pair at a discreet distance and witnessed the murder. It was as the grenadier was pulling out the bayonet from the dead body of Nelly that he noticed the sergeant and his friend, he rushed toward them with the intent to kill them both as well! They rushed back to their own camp and called out the guard. He was arrested without a fuss and only commented that it was a shame that her lover did not suffer the same fate. The grenadier was later tried by court-martial and was sentenced to only 3 months solitary confinement of which he only served one month before being allowed to return to his regiment.
As the army could be, and was away from home for years at a time it was fairly common for wives to give birth while the army was on the march, such as when the 95th were storming the heights of Vera during October 1813. A Portuguese wife of a rifleman gave birth to a boy shortly after the battle, but her labour started while she was also trying to climb the heights, neither her or her son where any the worse for the ordeal.
Unfortunately the same could not be said for a soldier’s wife during the retreat to Corunna. She was found under a cart with twins, the woman was dead but not the twins. Luckily some officers took pity on them and offered another woman a sum of money to look after the children which she did. Another birth that happened during the retreat to Corunna was commented on by Rifleman Harris.
"One of the men's wives... being very large in the family-way, towards evening stepped from amongst the crowed, and lay herself down amidst the snow, a little out of the main road. Her husband remained with her; and I heard one or two hasty observations amongst our men that they had taken possession of their last resting-place... To remain behind the column of march in such weather was to perish, and we accordingly soon forgot all about them. To my surprise, however, I, some little time afterwards (being myself then in the rear of our party), again saw the women. She was hurrying, with her husband, after us, and in her arms she carried the babe she had just given birth to." - Extracts from 'The Recollection of Rifleman Harris'