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Camp followers

Within all regiments of 1690  – 1715 you will find elements of civilian life, which without whom the army would cease to function properly.

Since the English Civil Wars there has always been a strictly imposed limit on all British regiments as to how many women they were permitted to take with them, but records show that in practice the army rules went out of the window once the regiments left British waters. Officers wrote that the comfort that (preferably British) women provided to their men was great – it was known to reduce desertion for instance. The women also made money on the side by providing sewing, mending and washing, nursing the wounded and cooking. Ex-London seamstresses were very sought after by the army officers who wanted a constant supply of replacement clothes. British army wives or “Camp followers” also developed a formidable reputation during the Spanish Wars for their fast looting abilities after battles, by quickly and efficiently searching the slain soldiers on the fields [sometimes swiftly dispatching the barely alive ones too]. One woman, ‘Mother Ross’,  became famous through her exploits, and Daniel Defoe wrote a book about her:
D. Defoe: The Life and Adventures of Mrs Christian Davies, commonly called Mother Ross (1740)


Occasionally, a woman was able to disguise herself as a man and join the army, usually as a musketeer or drummer. This was obviously rare, although a recent European archaeological excavation at a battle site found three women in men’s uniforms in a mass grave of about  500 men. 15 more women were found in the grave, but there was no clue as to what they were wearing when they died. This has naturally started a debate in the academic world. One of these women, Christian ‘Kit’ Cavanagh (or Davies), better known as “Mother Ross” was one of several women who served as dragoons in the British Army. She enlisted in the 1690’s and fought as a soldier first disguised as a man and later openly as a woman. She fought with honours at Blenheim: Born in Dublin, daughter of a prosperous brewer, she married a servant, Richard Welsh. In 1692 he was forcibly conscripted into the army and in 1693 she disguised herself as a man and enlisted to find him. She served against the French with Marlborough in Holland and soon transferred to the cavalry, joining her husband’s regiment the Scots Greys and remaining with them during the renewed fighting of 1702 and 1703. She was reunited with her husband but remained in the army. She was wounded at Ramillies and her sex was then discovered, but she was allowed to stay with the Dragoons as an officers’ cook. Richard Welsh was killed at the battle of Malplaquet, and soon after she married a grenadier with the Royal Greys, Hugh Jones, who was also killed, in 1710. In 1712 she returned to England, became an innkeeper and married a dissolute soldier named Davies. Eventually she was admitted to Chelsea Hospital where she died. She was buried with military honours.

Gentry and the wealthy classes

By contrast officers wives were a very rare sight in the British army. You were more likely to see them while husbands were drilling their men at British musters, and extremely rarely on campaign. Few did travel across the channel to join their men for the winter quarters, when officers usually rented adequate housing, but this was not common. Some local privileged women would travel by invitation to meet the British officers, and this would be more likely who the soldiers saw in camp. Many officers received letters from their wives on a regular basis, and often this was the only way they got news from home. Marlborough wrote regularly to his wife Sarah, as did Orkney and other officers. Marlborough felt that the army was no place for a Lady and disapproved women visiting, even his own wife, although this did not seem to apply to the lower class women frequently found there.

Leaguer Ladies and Widows

There were several types of women found within the army – Although they may have left Britain with a handful of women, by the time they were on active campaign several types could be found. The most common would be Leaguer Ladies or prostitutes, usually from the region they happened to be camped in. There was an unwritten rule that they had to very discreet with the soldiers [both privates and officers used their services], as they risked a public whipping if caught. Many hoped for the outside chance of marriage to get them out of the poverty trap. Less common would be the widow of a soldier. They tended to get remarried very quickly and often, usually to a succession of men due to death in battle. The obvious tally of army brats would follow. Officers sometimes recorded an anonymous birth during a march in their diaries, with the women stopping, giving birth, wrapping up the baby and carrying on. Sutlery cooks employed women to help them with the preparation and serving of the food, so many became sutleresses and managed to earn enough to survive for the duration of the campaign. All women had one aim – to survive the campaign, get enough money to live on and make it back to Britain. Foreign wives followed their husbands back, as a soldier would have to buy his way out of the army if he wished to stay. All women had to pay for their passage on the ships back home, so it was vital to save as much money [by whatever means] as possible.

Originally published HERE

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