Wednesday 1 April 2015

A Salon Guest: Camp Followers in the Peninsular War

My guest today is Susana Ellis, who is here to share a little something on camp followers. Do read on to find out more about a new anthology that is released today, Beaux, Ballrooms, and Battles: A Celebration of Waterloo.


Camp followers were unrecognized people who accompanied the army. While a limited number of officers’ wives were allowed to accompany their husbands—about six per company—and were entitled to half-rations, many others did so as well. “Unrecognized” followers received no official support and their expenses had to be paid for by a soldier or earned in some way. No, they weren’t all prostitutes, but they were looked down upon by many in the hierarchy due to their scandalous dress or behavior or the menial tasks they did in order to survive. 

But let’s face it, the army life is not for the feint in heart. The officers’ wives, while they may have slept in tents next to their husbands and not out in the open, still had to deal with hardships, such as the heat (and women couldn’t strip down as men did), mud, dangerous river crossings, food shortages (even if you had money there might not be any to buy), disease, and, of course, being killed or captured by the enemy. And, of course, the officers’ wives were often required to do their own cooking and such—unless they brought and paid for servants. For this reason—and because only so many officers’ wives were “recognized,” many wives either stayed home or set up housekeeping in relative comfort in Lisbon or Salamanca so that their husbands could visit. If a husband was killed in battle, it was not uncommon for her to remarry shortly afterwards in order to keep the promised half-rations. One woman was married six times during the Peninsular War.

Unrecognized Camp Followers

These may be officers’ wives and families who came anyway, who had to be funded entirely by their husbands, often staying with local families. Or they might be the wives or mistresses (one man had both) of enlisted men, who usually had a much more difficult time (see below). Many of them could be categorized as tradesmen, offering their services as laundresses, cooks, sutlers (people who sold their drink and other wares, often out of a wagon), and prostitutes, or a combination of the above. Some even took civilian jobs—as the soldiers often did when they were between battles. 

Many of these were Spanish and Portuguese women picked up along the way, either as wives, mistresses or servants.

The most celebrated match between an officer and Spanish woman was the marriage of Juana Maria de Los Dolores de Leon to then Lieutenant Harry Smith. He rescued her during the siege of Badajoz when she was fourteen. It was love at first sight. She remained his constant companion for the majority of the war, following her husband everywhere. Lady Smith, South Africa was named after her when her husband was governor there. (See my blog post on this romance here:

Of course, you can imagine how hundreds of camp followers and their horses and baggage added to the rest of the company and their baggage, weapons, horses, etc. could make travel problematic. Technically, all the wives and camp followers were supposed to follow the army proper, but few did. Both Wellington and Napoleon would like to have banned women entirely from the army, but neither was able to. Too many believed camp followers necessary for maintaining both comfort and morale. If there were no sutlers hawking their wares, then someone else would have to do it.

The Story of Catherine Exley*

This account was only published in The Dewsbury Reporter in August of 1923 after being found among a relative’s effects.  

Catherine was born in 1779 to a comber in the worsted business and the daughter of a wealthy Quaker in Appleby.  Catherine’s mother died of consumption soon after Catherine’s birth.  The father moved to Batley and married seven years later. He died a little before her 19th birthday. She worked as a servant in several houses. When she was in Leeds, she met Joshua Exley, a militiaman while recruiting in Leeds who she married at the age of 26. She writes of this time:

I had no certain home, no parents, no kind friends with whom I could advise, and alas, I knew no Heavenly Guide. Ho! How I wished for a loving mother to counsel me. 

Her husband John joined the regular army, the 2nd battalion of the 34th  regiment and after only a month was called away to Jersey. Catherine followed to South Hampton on foot.  After a harrowing voyage aboard ship, they stayed there nine months, then at the Isle of Wright for seven months, and finally the regiment was ordered to Madeira.  By this time, Catherine was pregnant and not allowed to go.  She was returned to Batley where the parish overseers recommended her to the poor house, “which in my case was only such in name, for every comfort was afforded me.” 
Catherine learns that her husband will be arriving at Stenning, near Chichester, so she and another wife of the regiment, with the contributions of neighbors, took a wagon to an Inn and the innkeeper who had formerly lived in Leeds, recognized her and provided a chaise to within 12 miles of Chichester. With her baby, she and the other woman walked the rest of the way, being met by two soldiers on furlough sent by Catherine’s husband to meet her.  She finally meets her husband both his unit is soon to be sent to Lisbon. Though she has not gotten a ‘to-go’ ticket, the battalion’s lieutenant colonel is persuaded to write to his general and is given permission to take Elizabeth with the regiment.

This kind of unexpected kindness or help happens often throughout Catherine’s sojourns in England and the Peninsula. When she lands with the regiment, they are encamped at Alcantara, a suburb of Lisbon. Three weeks later the women of the regiment are left in camp. Catherine writes:

My child lived only six weeks after his father left me in camp. I was penniless, and without a bed save the naked earth on which to lay. All our baggage had been ordered to be sent on board, reserving only a change of linen: these articles were never recovered, for the vessel returned to England, and after so long a time the expense attending their restoration would have exceeded their value. 

A captain in Lisbon who knew her husband advanced Catherine the money to bury her boy.  She would bury two more children in the Peninsula in as many years.  During her lifetime she gave birth to twelve children.  

This points up how small a world it was, who Catherine meets such as the innkeeper and the captain. It just so happens that two officers of the 34th , an Ensign Bell and Lt. Sherrer both wrote memoirs of their time with the regiment in Spain. Much of what Catherine relates is confirmed by the two officers in their stories.  One such coincidence is Mrs. Skiddy.

That Mrs. Skiddy, an Irish sergeant’s wife ran the women’s society of the regiment.  One can imagine Catherine landing on the beach in Lisbon and left on her own to find out ‘how things worked’ in the regiment for women who were not officially recognized.  The Mrs. Skiddys helped make the transition easier.  

During her time in the Peninsula, Catherine and her husband are deathly ill more than once.  In Catherine’s case, because of her experiences—and survival—she becomes something of a nurse.  In fact, at one point the regiment’s colonel makes Catherine’s husband the “Ward Master,” caring for the sick with Catherine and tending the regiment’s provisions. 

The marches and camping took a terrible toll on Catherine.  She and other describe men and women so fatigued from marching, torrential rains and the knee-high mud, that they simply sank into the mire and died.  That she found a place with the regiment is evident. At the battle of Vittoria in 1812, she writes:

 “After marching in double quick time, the colonel called a halt, and ordered the men to load their guns and fix bayonets. As usual, I marched with the regiment. As I was loosing down my husband’s ammunition [in his cartridge box], the colonel, asked me to remain with the men all day. [This during the battle!] I found a quantity of rice that had been left by the enemy, and though I had often heard they were in the habit of putting poison in the food thus left behind them, I could not resist the temptation of eating, and allowing my child to partake of the rice also, for I felt that if we refrained we might die of hunger, not being able to get at our provisions. I know not how to describe the scenes I witnessed that day.  The first shock given to my feelings arose from the sight of a man’s head severed from the body…”

Here she is, on the battlefield, asked by her colonel to remain with the battalion [probably as a nurse for the expected wounded] with her child on her back.  I find that truly amazing from the colonel’s request to her child present with her.    
Her adventures are too many to relate here, but her husband was captured in 1813. She was told he was dead and returned to Batley, only to find out a year later that he was alive. 

Catherine lived to be 79, dying on April 20 1857.  Her husband died just before the birth of her twelfth child. 

*Credit for this story goes to Bill Haggerty from his recent Beau Monde course on Women in War. His source was:

Catherine Exley’s Diary: The life and times of an army wife in the Peninsular War.  Ed. Rebecca Probert.  2014  Brandram  ISBN 978-0-9563847-9-9


Beaux, Ballrooms, and Battles:
A Celebration of Waterloo

June 18, 1815 was the day Napoleon Bonaparte's Grande Armée was definitively routed by the ragtag band of soldiers from the Duke of Wellington's Allied Army in a little Belgian town called Waterloo. The cost in men's lives was high—22,000 dead or wounded for the Allied Army and 24,000 for the French. But the war with Napoleon that had dragged on for a dozen years was over for good, and the British people once more felt secure on their island shores.

The bicentenary of the famous battle seemed like an excellent opportunity to use that setting for a story, and before I knew it, I had eight other authors eager to join me, and to make a long story short, on April 1, 2015 our Waterloo-themed anthology was released to the world.

You are all invited to

One randomly-chosen commenter will receive a Beaux, Ballrooms, and Battles mug.

Our Stories

Jillian Chantal: Jeremiah’s Charge
Emmaline Rothesay has her eye on Jeremiah Denby as a potential suitor. When Captain Denby experiences a life-altering incident during the course of events surrounding the Battle of Waterloo, it throws a damper on Emmaline’s plans.

Téa Cooper: The Caper Merchant
The moon in Gemini is a fertile field of dreams, ideas and adventure and Pandora Wellingham is more than ready to spread her wings. When Monsieur Cagneaux, caper merchant to the rich and famous, introduces her to the handsome dragoon she believes her stars have aligned.

Susana Ellis: Lost and Found Lady
Catalina and Rupert fell in love in Spain in the aftermath of a battle, only to be separated by circumstances. Years later, they find each other again, just as another battle is brewing, but is it too late?

Aileen Fish: Captain Lumley’s Angel
Charged with the duty of keeping his friend’s widow safe, Captain Sam Lumley watches over Ellen Staverton as she recovers from her loss, growing fonder of her as each month passes. When Ellen takes a position as a companion, Sam must confront his feelings before she’s completely gone from his life.

Victoria Hinshaw: Folie Bleue
On the night of the 30th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, Aimée, Lady Prescott, reminisces about meeting her husband in Bruxelles on the eve of the fighting. She had avoided the dashing scarlet-clad British officers, but she could not resist the tempting smile and spellbinding charm of Captain Robert Prescott of the 16th Light Dragoons who— dangerously to Aimée— wore blue.

Heather King: Copenhagen’s Last Charge
When Meg Lacy finds herself riding through the streets of Brussels only hours after the Battle of Waterloo, romance is the last thing on her mind, especially with surly Lieutenant James Cooper. However, their bickering uncovers a strange empathy – until, that is, the lieutenant makes a grave error of judgment that jeopardizes their budding friendship...

Christa Paige: One Last Kiss
The moment Colin held Beatrice in his arms he wanted one last kiss to take with him into battle and an uncertain future. Despite the threat of a soldier’s death, he must survive, for he promises to return to her because one kiss from Beatrice would never be enough.

Sophia Strathmore: A Soldier Lay Dying
Amelia and Anne Evans find themselves orphaned when their father, General Evans, dies. With no other options available, Amelia accepts the deathbed proposal of Oliver Brighton, Earl of Montford, a long time family friend. When Lord Montford recovers from his battle wounds, can the two find lasting love?

David W. Wilkin: Not a Close Run Thing at All
Years, a decade. And now, Robert had come back into her life. Shortly before battle was to bring together more than three hundred thousand soldiers. They had but moments after all those years, and now, would they have any more after?

About Lost and Found Lady
On April 24, 1794, a girl child was born to an unknown Frenchwoman in a convent in Salamanca, Spain. Alas, her mother died in childbirth, and the little girl—Catalina—was given to a childless couple to raise.

Eighteen years later…the Peninsular War between the British and the French wages on, now perilously near Catalina’s home. After an afternoon yearning for adventure in her life, Catalina comes across a wounded British soldier in need of rescue. Voilà! An adventure! The sparks between them ignite, and before he returns to his post, Rupert promises to return for her.

But will he? Catalina’s grandmother warns her that some men make promises easily, but fail to carry them out. Catalina doesn’t believe Rupert is that sort, but what does she know? All she can do is wait…and pray.

But Fate has a few surprises in store for both Catalina and Rupert. When they meet again, it will be in another place where another battle is brewing, and their circumstances have been considerably altered. Will their love stand the test of time? And how will their lives be affected by the outcome of the conflict between the Iron Duke and the Emperor of the French?


September 14, 1793
A beach near Dieppe, France

“I don’t like the look of those clouds, monsieur,” Tobias McIntosh said in fluent French to the gray-bearded old man in a sailor hat waiting impatiently near the rowboat that was beginning to bob more sharply with each swell of the waves. “Are you sure your vessel can make it safely all the way to Newhaven in these choppy seas?”

The old man waved a hand over the horizon. “La tempête, it is not a threat, if we leave immédiatement. Plus tard…” He shrugged. “Je ne sais pas.”

“Please, mon amour,” pleaded the small woman wrapped in a hooded gray cloak standing at his side. “Allow me to stay with you. I don’t want to go to England. I promise I will be prudent.”

A strong gust of wind caught her hood and forced it down, revealing her mop of shiny dark locks. Tobias felt like seizing her hand and pulling her away from the ominous waves to a place of safety where she and their unborn child could stay until the senseless Terreur was over.

“Justine, ma chère, we have discussed this endlessly. There is no place in France safe enough for you if your identity as the daughter of the Comte d’Audet is discovered.” He shivered. “I could not bear it if you were to suffer the same fate at the hands of the revolutionaries as your parents did when I failed to save them.”

She threw her arms around him, the top of her head barely reaching his chin. “Non, mon amour, it was not your fault. You could not have saved them. It was miraculeux that you saved me. I should have died with them.” 

She looked up to catch his gaze, her face ashen. “Instead, we met and have had three merveilleux months together. If it is my time to die, I wish to die at your side.”

Tobias felt like his heart was going to break. His very soul demanded that the two of them remain together and yet… there was a price on both their heads, and the family of the Vicomte Lefebre was waiting for him in Amiens, the revolutionaries expected to reach them before midday. It was a dangerous work he was involved in—rescuing imperiled French nobility from bloodthirsty, vengeful mobs—but he had pledged himself to the cause and honor demanded that he carry on. And besides, there was now someone else to consider.

“The child,” he said with more firmness than he felt. “We have our child to consider, now, Justine ma chère. The next Earl of Dumfries. He must live to grow up and make his way in the world.”

Not to mention the fact that Tobias was human enough to wish to leave a child to mark his legacy in the world—his and Justine’s. He felt a heaviness in his heart that he might not live long enough to know this child he and Justine had created together. He could not allow his personal wishes to undermine his conviction. Justine and the child must survive.

Justine’s blue eyes filled with tears. “But I cannot! I will die without you, mon cher mari. You cannot ask it of me!”

“Justine,” he said, pushing away from her to clasp her shoulders and look her directly in the eye. “You are a brave woman, the strongest I have ever known. You have survived many hardships and you can survive this. Take this letter to my brother in London, and he will see to your safety until the time comes that I can join you. My comrades in Newhaven will see that you are properly escorted.”

He handed over a letter and a bag of coins. “This should be enough to get you to London.” 

After she had reluctantly accepted and pocketed the items beneath her cloak, he squeezed her hands.

“Be sure to eat well, ma chère. You are so thin and my son must be born healthy.”

She gave him a feigned smile. “Our daughter is the one responsible for my sickness in the mornings… I do not believe she wishes me to even look at food.”

She looked apprehensively at the increasingly angry waves as they tossed the small boat moored rather loosely to a rock on the shore and her hands impulsively went to her stomach.

“Make haste, monsieur,” the old sailor called as he peered anxiously at the darkening clouds. “We must depart now if we are to escape the storm. Bid your chère-amie adieu maintenant or wait for another day. I must return to the bateau.”

“Tobias,” she said, her voice shaking. 

He wondered if he would ever again hear her say his name with that adorable French inflection that had drawn him from their first meeting.

“Go, Justine. Go to my family and keep our child safe. I promise I will join you soon.”

He scooped her up in his arms and carried her toward the dinghy, trying to ignore her tears. The old sailor held the boat as still as he could while Tobias placed her on the seat and kissed her hard before striding back to the shore, each footstep heavier than the last.

He studied the darkening sky as the sailor climbed in the boat. “You are sure it is safe?”

“La Chasseresse, she is très robuste. A few waves will not topple her, monsieur.”

“Je t’aime, mon amour,” she said to him plaintively, her chin trembling.

“Au revoir, ma chère,” he said, trying to smile, although his vision was blurring from tears.

Will I ever see her again?

He stood watching as the dinghy made its way slowly through the choppy sea to the larger ship anchored in the distance, grief-stricken and unable to concentrate on anything but his pain. When the ship finally sailed off into the horizon, he fell to his knees and prayed as he had never done before for the safety of his beloved. He remained in that position until drops of rain on his face reminded him of the Lefebre family waiting for him in Amiens.

With a deep breath, he rose and made his way to the nearby forest, where his horse waited, tied to a tree.

“Come, my friend. We have a long, wet journey ahead of us.”

Setting foot in the stirrup, he swung his leg over the saddle and urged the horse to a gallop, feeling his heart rip into pieces with every step away from his beloved.

About the Author

Susana has always had stories in her head waiting to come out, especially when she learned to read and her imagination began to soar. Voracious reading led to a passion for writing, and her fascination with romance and people of the past landed her firmly in the field of historical romance.

A teacher in her former life, Susana lives in Toledo, Ohio in the summer and central Florida in the winter. She is a member of the Central Florida Romance Writers and the Beau Monde chapters of RWA and Maumee Valley Romance Inc.

Written content of this post copyright © Susana Ellis, 2015.


Susanna said...

Fascinating article, thank you.

caroline Wrarfield said...

Oh bravo, Susana! Very informative. I can't wait to read your novella.

Unknown said...

Thank you. A superb article.

Catherine Curzon said...

I thought so too; thank you!

Catherine Curzon said...

This has certainly whetted my appetite!

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you, Jude!

Anonymous said...

Great article, Susana! And thumbs up for the mention of Juana Maria de Los Dolores de Leon and Harry Smith. I first read about them in Georgette Heyer's The Spanish Bride. Who says you can't learn history from a romance novel?

Catherine Curzon said...

Thumbs up for your comment too!

Unknown said...

Thank you for hosting me, Catherine! I'm glad you enjoyed the post! Isn't it fun to learn all these things?

Unknown said...

Mimi, you are the random winner of the mug. Email me your snail mail address at Congrats!

Catherine Curzon said...

It was a pleasure and congratulations to Mimi!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Catherine and Susana!

Unknown said...

Can I just make a correction. There were no restrictions on the numbers of officers' wives. The restriction was on 'other ranks' and NCOs. Up to 6 wives per company were allowed 'on the strength'. A regiment had 10 companies, nominally of 100 men per company but usually fewer. So that would be 60 'official' wives per regiment.

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you for clarifying!