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Following the Drum: Women in Wellington’s Army

One of my favorite aspects of writing historical fiction is the research. Learning the details of daily life in bygone eras, how men and women dressed, what they ate, how they traveled and what books they might have read. Most of all, though, I love reading through the primary sources–diaries, letters, cookbooks, contemporary accounts–and actually hearing the voices of the women and men who lived in the time periods I write about.

Edward, one of the main characters in Georgiana Darcy’s Diary, is a Colonel in the army, which sent me on a mission to discover as much as I could about the British army during the Regency era. Though Jane Austen scarcely mentions it in her novels, England was at war with France through almost the whole of her life, often under serious threat of invasion by Napoleon’s forces. I read through general histories of the Napoleonic wars, of course. But for me the most fascinating and vivid accounts are those written by the soldiers themselves.

One of these accounts is titled, The Recollections of Rifleman Harris. Benjamin Harris was a young shepherd from Dorset who joined the army in 1802 and later joined the 95th Rifles Batallion. His Batallion was ordered to Portugal, where he fought against Napoleon’s armies and suffered almost unimaginable hardships. He speaks of starvation, of men falling dead of sheer exhaustion during the long forced marches of retreat from the enemy, of the terrible noise and fierce joy of battle. He recounts at last returning to England with his fellow surviving soldiers, saying, “Our beards were long and ragged; almost all were without shoes and stockings; many had their clothes and accoutrements in fragments, with their heads swathed in old rags, and our weapons were covered with rust; whilst not a few had now, from toil and fatigue, become quite blind.”

It’s an extraordinary picture of what it must have been like to be a soldier in the Napoleonic wars. But for me the most poignant accounts in Harris’ Recollections are those that detail the experiences of the women who traveled with the British army. On any campaign, a certain number of the men were permitted to bring their wives and children along, those who were to receive this privilege being chosen by lottery. (And it was a privilege, since those wives unable to accompany their men were given a small sum, but would have to house, feed, and support themselves and their children entirely on their own while their men were gone. They faced the very real possibility of starvation, the workhouse, or being forced into prostitution). On the campaign Harris writes of, though, the suffering of the women and children who ‘followed the drum’ as the contemporary expression goes, is absolutely heartbreaking. The whole of the army was starving and exhausted almost to the point of death; there could be no help for anyone who couldn’t keep up.

During one disastrous retreat across snow-covered mountains, Harris recalls, “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. The man’s name was Joseph Sitdown. During this retreat, as he had not been in good health previously, himself and his 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.”

Harris also writes: “About this period I remember another sight, which I shall not to my dying day forget; and it causes me a sore heart, even now, as I remember it. Soon after our halt beside the turnip field the screams of a child near me caught my ear, and drew my attention to one of our women, who was endeavouring to drag along a little boy of about seven or eight years of age. The poor child was apparently completely exhausted, and his legs failing under him. The mother had occasionally, up to this time, been assisted by some of the men, taking it in turn to help the little fellow on; but now all further appeal was in vain. No man had more strength than was necessary for the support of his own carcass, and the mother could no longer raise the child in her arms, as her reeling pace too plainly showed. Still, however, she continued to drag the child along with her. It was a pitiable sight, and wonderful to behold the efforts the poor woman made to keep the boy amongst us. At last the little fellow had not even strength to cry, but, with mouth wide open, stumbled onwards, until both sank down to rise no more.”

Other stories, though, are an incredibly testament to the human power of endurance. During this same retreat, Harris recounts: “One of the men’s wives (who was struggling forward in the ranks with us, presenting a ghastly picture of illness, misery, and fatigue), being very large in the family-way, towards evening stepped from amongst the crowd, 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. The enemy were, indeed, not far behind at this time, the night was coming down, and their chance seemed in truth but a bad one. 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 woman. She was hurrying, with her husband, after us, and in her arms she carried the babe she had just given birth to. Her hausband and herself, between them, managed to carry that infant to the end of the retreat, where we embarked. God tempers the wind, it is said, to the shorn lamb; and many years afterwards I saw that boy, a strong and healthy lad. The woman’s name was M’Gwuire, a sturdy and hardy Irishwoman; and lucky was it for herself and babe that she was so, as that night of cold and sleet was in itself sufficient to try the constitution of most females. I lost sight of her, I recollect, on the night, when the darkness came upon us; but with the dawn, to my surprise, she was still amongst us.”

Incredible enough to be part of a novel . . . but Harris’ stories are entirely true, authentic voices from the past.

This entry was posted Tuesday, June 7th, 2011 at 10:50 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

9 Responses to “Following the Drum: Women in Wellington’s Army”

  1. JR Tomlin Says:
    June 7th, 2011 at 11:36 am

    Great article. I’ll definitely be back.

  2. R. Doug Wicker Says:
    June 7th, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    Some incredibly tragic stuff there, such as Sitdown and his wife. Real heart-tugger.

    Love the article.

  3. Renee Lannan Says:
    June 8th, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    Oh, the story of the 7-8 year old son being dragged by his mother grabs my gut. Heart-breaking love and desperation.

  4. anna Says:
    June 8th, 2011 at 5:06 pm

    JR, thank you for stopping by!

  5. anna Says:
    June 8th, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    That’s what strikes me so much in reading Harris’ Recollections–all the tragedies that would have been entirely forgotten if he’d not recorded them.

  6. anna Says:
    June 8th, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    Renee, it’s almost unimaginable, isn’t it? As a mother, I could scarcely bear to read the story, it’s so heart-breaking.

  7. xo.sorcha.ox Says:
    June 9th, 2011 at 12:47 am

    Thank you for sharing this, Anna! I found it so interesting and inspiring – I think I will research this topic some more.

  8. Laura Says:
    June 9th, 2011 at 9:35 pm

    You already know how much this interests me, especially this period. I find first hand accounts simply fascinating also, but so precious little remains. Even the Roman graffiti that is all around Pompeii is interesting, we get a glimpse into the minds of the people instead of the historic (bias) account of events at the time, we hear their voice. Excellent post! x

  9. Michael Says:
    August 27th, 2011 at 5:06 am

    The content of this blog post is great. The struggle of humanity to get us here was paved with many bodies and suffering the likes of which our video game playing youth have no idea. When I was reading the “Gulag Archepeligo” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, he mentions that during the War, in the Volga region of Russia, there was a famine so great that parents ate their children. Being a father of three, I cannot imagine this and as horrifying as it is, it is a part of human experience.

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