Women with the Gloucestershire Regiments

by J.R. Turland
Throughout the period 1807-1814 the British Army supported a female contingent in Spain and Portugal. These women, the wives of the rank and file, the officers' ladies and the prostitutes and girl friends of both, travelled and suffered with their menfolk, sharing in their Regiments' duties, glories and hardships. They followed their partners for many reasons; for love, for protection, for adventure and, perhaps most importantly, to escape poverty and destitution. Their contribution to the history of the Peninsular War was as hard-working camp-followers, merciless scavengers, defenceless victims and brave heroines; Oman describes them "... as an extraordinary community - hard as nails, expert plunderers, furious partisans of the supreme excellence of their own battalion, much given to fighting".[1] The two Gloucestershire Regiments involved in the Peninsula, the 28th and 61st Regiments of Foot, had their fair share of this feminine influence. In particular, the writings of Mary McClelland and Lieutenant-Colonel Cadell show the importance and influence of several women to the 28th Regiment.

On the 29 October 1800, HRH the Duke of York issued a Standing Order to the British Army: "Except on occasions when circumstances may render it necessary for troops to embark entirely without women, His Royal Highness permits women, being the lawful wives of soldiers, to embark in the proportion of 6 to 100 men".[2] This measure was taken in order to restrict the number of women following the army, and was eminently sensible. The British Army was a well trained, manoeuvrable and professional unit, and these factors were used to its advantage on campaign. Large numbers of women, children and hangers-on slowed down and strained the supply of many European armies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and British generals were determined to avoid this fate. By restricting the number of women officially travelling with a regiment to six, and later four, to every 100 men, the British army succeeded in this aim to a large extent.

When a battalion embarked many wives and girlfriends were left behind. The few women allowed to accompany their regiments were usually selected by lottery, amidst great tension on the quayside; women with children were almost always excluded due to the nature of campaigning. For the lucky few the dubious pleasure of accompanying the army abroad loomed. The women had to be prepared to suffer the cold, hunger and exertion that their partners had to endure, and, in addition, make themselves useful to the regiment by cleaning, sewing and cooking. Theirs was not an easy lot, but was perhaps preferable to that of the families left behind to the mercy of the inadequate Poor Law. The Army's responsibility to the majority of women left behind amounted to a small sum to get them safely to a relative or guardian if they had one. William Thornton Keep, an ensign in the 2nd Battalion of the 28th Regiment, recalls seeing a most distressed woman who had followed the regiment for years, and who was being left behind as the regiment sailed for Portugal. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she cried, "Fight 28th - fight boys - fight'em".[3]

These restrictions did not apply to officers' wives, though most chose to stay at home. Those that did accompany their husbands often stayed in coastal cities in Portugal, but some accompanied the troops, often in style. One French officer, Colonel Lejeune, was surprised to see a British captain resplendent on a tall white horse. followed by his wife, elegantly dressed with her parasol raised high, riding a donkey, carrying a King Charles spaniel on her lap and leading a goat by a blue ribbon behind. An Irish nurse carried their baby wrapped in green silk, preceding an ass on which teetered the family's luggage, complete with tea kettle and a cage of canaries.[4] At the other extreme, several wives of cavalry officers, including Lady Waldegrave and Lady Charlotte Harley, often rode into battle with their husbands, being excellent horsewomen. Most ladies were not so extravagant or eccentric, and many helped to care for the sick and wounded.

Although the legislation of 1800 did much to keep the numbers of women following the army down, problems still arose. Once the soldiers realised that they were to stay in Spain and Portugal for some time they began to take foreign girls as their companions. The arrival of red-coated foreign soldiers was welcomed by the young Spanish and Portuguese girls, as many young Spaniards had been killed in the wars with France. Many girls chose to follow their British lovers, and there was little the army could do to stop them. They received no payment or provisions, unlike the officially recognised female contingent, who received one half of a soldier's rations, and any children they bore one quarter.[5] In addition the women could supplement their incomes by finding extra work, often sewing and washing, or by foraging and trading.[6] It was often the woman's job to bargain with the local folk for small luxuries such as fresh meat, tobacco and wine. For the men who did not want a long-term relationship there was always an opportunity for company. Prostitution was widespread, and both the rank and file, and particularly the officers, spent huge sums of money on this vice. [7] Often loyalties between spouses were weak. Affairs were commonplace, and sometimes disputes ended in violence. One grenadier of the 61st Regiment killed his wife and nearly killed her lover in a mad rage, but was given only a three-month sentence.[8] It was not uncommon for soldiers to sell their wives to the highest bidder.[9] The women concerned were often reported to be glad of the change.

It was practices like these, in addition to the women's effect on discipline and supply costs that concerned Wellington greatly. He said, "It is well known that in all armies the women are at least as bad, if not worse, than the men as plunderers, and the exception of the ladies from punishment would have encouraged plunder".[10] He agreed with Napoleon when he said, "Women when they are bad are worse than men and more ready to commit crimes," and "Women are always much better or much worse than men". [11] Wellington decided that the foreign wives of his soldiers could not accompany their partners home on conclusion of the war in 1814. These women, who had proudly followed the British Army, were left stranded and defenceless many hundreds of miles from home.

It was not only Wellington as Commander-in-Chief in the Peninsula who disapproved of women following the army. Sir Robert Ker Porter, an historical painter who travelled with Sir John Moore in the early part of the campaign, offered an independent view of the situation. He deplored the lack of measures taken by the British military administration to restrict the number of women following the army. His reasons were practical. He suggested that the women filled their partners with "anxieties regarding their safety and accommodation"; that women and their children occupied the conveyances intended for the sick and weary, and that they consumed provisions necessary for the support of the army.[12] More sympathetically, he believed the conditions to be unsuitable for women. He wrote: "If men find it hard to bear the fatigues of a severe campaign, how must women sink under them and if men find them unsupportable, what must be the dreadful fate of the feebler sex!".[13] The author's fears were realised during Sir John Moore's retreat to Coruna in 1808 and 1809. This disastrous chapter of the Peninsular War saw the death of Sir John Moore and caused losses to the British Army, in terms of men, baggage, animals and equipment, equal to those that could be expected from several large battles. On Christmas Day 1808 Moore found himself outnumbered and outmanoeuvred by Soult and Napoleon in central Spain. He decided to head for the safety of the British Fleet, and so began the 220 mile retreat across the mountainous terrain between Madrid and the port of Comma. The army was already drastically short of supplies, as the breakneck advance to Madrid in eleven days had placed them beyond the lines of supply. With no food and little rest, in severe weather conditions and with poor morale, the British Army retreated without having fired a shot.[14] The 28th Regiment, acting as rearguard, a position of honour, performed magnificently during the retreat, gaining much respect and recognition. Napier describes scenes of men dying from fatigue, cold and hunger, "dropping to the rear by hundreds while broken carts, dead animals; and the piteous spectacle of women and children struggling or falling exhausted in the snow completed the picture of war".[15] 

The baggage train, with which the women travelled, was situated at the head of the column of march on this occasion, to prevent its falling into enemy hands. Thus the women of the 28th Regiment could not have been further from their battalion during the retreat, and so any assistance from their husbands was impossible. As the retreat began Sir Robert Ker Porter noted, "It is truly pitiable to see the trains of women burdened with poor, helpless infants, either tied on their backs or stuffed into the panniers of asses, trudging along, exposed to cold and wet and all the terrible accidents attending their unassisted situation".[16] Ker Porter also recalls a dreadful sight later in the retreat. By the roadside "lay a woman, half enveloped in a blanket, the wife of a soldier; she was also cold in death. A little infant, yet living, was hanging at the breast of its inanimate mother, vainly trying to find that warmth and nourishment that fate had forever withdrawn".[17] Lieutenant Blakeney of the 28th Regiment saw a similarly distressing spectacle; "Through exhaustion, depravity or a mixture of both, three men, a woman and a child all lay dead forming a kind of circle, their heads inwards".[18]

The wife of a Sergeant Thomas McClelland of the 28th Regiment of Foot, Mary McClelland, wrote of her experiences with the 'Slashers' and detailed the retreat to Corunna. Mary, an Irish Protestant girl who through her intelligence, diligence and religious nature had become very popular within the regiment, lost much on the retreat:

"On Christmas Day 1808 I well remember leaving this place (Salamanca) for Toro. The snow was lying thick on the ground, both my children were very ill and I was but little better. I placed my little girl in one of the commissariat wagons while I carried my boy in my arms. What was my despair when I heard orders given by Captain Daulton that everything save luggage (my child included) should be taken from the wagons that nothing might impede their progress! I think the light left my eyes when I saw this pale dying child laid down upon the cold iced snow. All were passing on. I could not carry both. I was too ill. I could not leave my child, though the French were following close and perhaps might find but me living when they passed! But oh! I must perish rather than forsake my child! Colonel Brown ... was passing at the time and seeing who it was he stopped: and turning to General Paget, who was with him (and who was formerly the Colonel of our Regiment) he said 'There is a little child belonging to a brave soldier, a man you much respect, her mother is ill and the little creature does not weigh more than fourteen pounds. May she not be placed in one of the wagons?' He replied, `By all means let the child be taken up.' We arrived at Toro but there my little girl died".[19]

That night Mary spent in a dark cold room with one dead and one dying child. The next day the local Catholic priest would not bury Mary's Protestant daughter in the hard earth until a kind local man pretended it was his daughter. Later, at Lugo, Mary's baby boy also died. Her plight was typical, and her description of conditions becomes even more shocking. "During eleven days we never put a morsel of bread within our lips, or indeed any solid food, and small quantities of wine continually was all that supported us - we dared not take much, fearing its effects on our weak state".[20] The dead, dying and drunk littered the roads to Corunna.

Mary's story of her life with the 'Slashers' is a moving one. Although conditions never again quite reached the awful levels of the retreat to Corunna, Mary's life continued to be hard; the advance to Vittoria and the struggle through the Pyrenees were very harsh. In 1809 her husband Tom died bravely at Barossa, and Mary was in much distress for many days, causing her to lament, "Every object dear to me now lays cold and dead within the shores of Spain and Portugal, though scattered from each other by hundreds of miles" [21] Despite her mourning, Mary was tactfully reminded by Captain Mullins of the Slashers that she could not remain with the regiment for long as an unmarried woman. He advised her to receive the attentions of her late husband's best friend in the regiment, Sergeant Ball; "he is a brave soldier and I doubt not will make you a good protector; besides you are much needed in the regiment. I know not what we should do without you." [22] This Mary reluctantly did, though advising Sergeant Ball she might never love him. They were married in Gibraltar in 1810. This was a very common practice amongst army wives for practical reasons. An unmarried woman could not remain officially with the regiment for long, and the shortage of women meant that widows were never short of suitors. When Colonel Abercromby took over command of the 28th Regiment that year, he sent for both Sergeant Ball and Mary, reminding the former to look after his wife well and saying to Mary, "Colonel Brown has spoken so highly of your conduct and usefulness in the regiment that we must take great care of you". [23] Mary followed the army for the rest of the war and her fortunes improved somewhat; she had two more sons and even managed to save some money. She was especially pleased with the acquisition of a lace shawl and muslin gown at Vittoria which had come from King Joseph's Royal Carriage.[24] The couple survived the war and Mary was able to return home briefly to Ireland to be reunited with her family and to recount her experiences before retiring to live in Somerset.

The obvious respect earned by some women in the British Army is made evident in the `Anecdotes' of Charles Cadell of the 28th North Gloucestershire Regiment. A particular reference deals with the rare promotion of a Sergeant Major John B...t to commissioned Ensign and Adjutant and the reaction of his wife Elizabeth. The moment the Sergeant received his commission the other young officers, now his equals, came to pay their respects. John's wife Elizabeth or 'Bee' was a child of the corps; she had grown up with the army and made herself useful washing clothes of the officers and tending to their wives. "By her good humour and smart repartee she was a general favourite with all ranks" Cadell writes, "This Bet had become a privileged person, she was on familiar terms with all and addressed everyone, from the Colonel to the drummer boy, by his Christian name". The officers were looking forward to seeing Bet, but found John alone. When they eventually found her. Bet was "located on a three-legged stool by the fireside and smoking a short black pipe". One of the younger officers ventured to ask why she had not been present to entertain her husband's guests. "I know my duty, Johnny, as well as ever a soldier in the regiment," returned Bet. "But no duty o' the like of what you say will cheat me out o' my pipe and chimbley corner, and I'll tell you what it is, old cock," she added with the easy familiarity of friendship, "The King may make my Jack a gentleman if he likes, but I'm blessed if neither he nor the Sultan of the Ingees can make Bet a lady. So now, Johnny, you may trot you've got your answer!" [25]

This anecdote demonstrates the respect that the officers and other ranks had for certain women and the work they did for the regiment It is important to note that, in the prejudiced and disciplined atmosphere of the British military system, it was possible for women to overcome the formalities of rank and barriers of class and sex to gain praise, respect and recognition, even from senior officers, by virtue of their actions. By enduring the same hardships as the men, women gained a level of respect and independence that previously they would not have known. We should not simply view the women who accompanied Gloucestershire Regiments and the rest of the British Army in the Peninsular War as superfluous baggage or even misguided victims, but as valuable contributors to the success of the war effort in Portugal, Spain and France. The women cooked, washed, sewed and cared for the men in their regiments, leaving the soldiers rested and ready to play their part. George Bell of the 34th Regiment of Foot puts it well: "Collectively and individually they formed cameos of the Peninsula campaign, a colourful kaleidoscope of the romance and tragedy, devotion and self-sacrifice, the hardships and endurance of women at war".[26]


Note For abbreviations found in these references the Bibliography should be consulted. RHGR refers to documents which may be found at the Regimental Headquarters, Gloucestershire Regiment, Gloucester.
  1. William p 49
  2. Ibid p 17
  3. Keep p 5 of typescript copy of original letters at RHGR
  4. Lejeune II p 108
  5. William p 56
  6. Ibid p 68
  7. Ibid p 34
  8. Costello pp 102-3 p 162
  9. Page p 50
  10. William p 49
  11. Ibid p 31
  12. Porter p 211
  13. Ibid p 267
  14. See Gates p 111 Glover p 81
  15. Napier I p 318
  16. Porter pp 210-211
  17. Ibid p 265
  18. Blakeney p 67
  19. McClelland pp 12-13
  20. Ibid p 14
  21. Ibid p 22
  22. Ibid p 27
  23. Ibid .p 28
  24. Ibid p 49
  25. Anecdotes, typescript copied at RHGR
  26. Bell p 61
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