Prelude to Corunna: Campfollowers

Detail from ‘Soldiers Cooking,’ 1798. Source: National Army Museum

In Lisbon in October 1808, British General John Moore knew he was getting a late start on marching over mountainous country to assist the Spanish armies against Napoleon. Many roads could not support artillery trains, not nearly enough wagons could be found, and an untried commissariat already was having trouble keeping the troops fed.

At this time (and into the 1900s), quite a few families traveled along with the troops, usually as part of the baggage train, which could stretch miles along narrow roads. Each British company on active service in Portugal was allowed to bring a maximum of six wives “on the strength of the company,” though in practice some had fewer and some far more. Wives on the strength were expected to serve the company doing cooking, washing, and the like, and drew half-rations; their children drew quarter-rations. Wives and others not on the strength had to fend for themselves. (Officers’ wives who traveled to war did so mainly on family money, and usually stayed far behind the lines, often in hub cities like Lisbon.)

The life of “the baggage” was hard at all times, and a winter march would take a large toll, especially for an army that did not even have tents. (Tents weren’t issued to all British units until 1813.) Trying to forestall trouble ahead, Moore issued a General Order on 10 October:

As in the course of the long march which the army is about to undertake and where no carts will be allowed, the women would unavoidably be exposed to the greatest hardship and distress, commanding officers are, therefore, desired to use their endeavours to prevent as many as possible, particularly those having young children, or such as are not stout, or equal to fatigue, from following the army.

Those who remain will be left with the heavy luggage of the regiments. An officer will be charged to draw their rations, and they will be sent to England by the first good opportunity; and when landed, they will receive the same allowance which they would have been entitled to, if they had not embarked, to enable them to reach their homes.

This was more generous than usual: free transport, rations, and passage all the way home (not just to shore) were rare. But often the reason British women traveled with their men was there was no work at home; there are many stories of the wives who lost the “go with the regiment” draw and had to stay behind, ending up in poor houses, on parish charity, or worse.

Only a few families took up Moore’s offer. Hundreds (perhaps a thousand, records are frustratingly unclear) stepped out with their companies starting 11 October 1808.

Nor did the wives stay behind when General Baird’s forces arrived in Corunna on 13 October, despite a similar offer. For them, their children, and their men, it was to be a long haul.

Next month: The story of the Pullen family in 1809 after Corunna campaign ends.

Read more:
8 Fast Facts about Camp Followers at All Things Liberty focuses on British wars in America, but true for Peninsular war, too

Catherine Exley’s Diary: The life and times of an army wife on the Peninsular campaign, edited by Rebecca Probert (no online edition, but my review on Goodreads includes some quotes)


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