Role of Camp Followers in the British Army

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     Camp followers are all women, children and non-combatant men who were part of martial society in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

 

     C.F., particularly women, are the forgotten characters in the great military dramas of the 18th century.  Women C.F. were not, as has often been suggested, parasites who battened on to an army and progressively weakened it.  Quite the opposite: Men and women who followed the army fulfilled many important functions around camp.  Women provided vital logistical support such as cooking, cleaning, mending, nursing, carrying water into battle, protecting baggage carts and occasionally raising arms themselves, though not very often.  Non-combatant men provided auxiliary skills the army needed such as blacksmithing and carpentry.  C.F. were also the officer’s servants and sutlers.  Most of all they helped make military life bearable.  It is also found that many of the sutlers in camp were also women, who had a reputation for being formidable.   C.F. were allowed rations, and children rations.   Rations were granted to no more than 12 women and their children per company.  It was expected that the rations be topped up by provisions purchased privately.

 

     Prostitution and other forms of sexual misconduct were perhaps not as common as is imagined, although a certain amount of women camp followers, as well as male soldiers were known to misbehave.  The majority of C.F. were in fact the wives and children of the men serving in the ranks.  It should be noted that a good reason for the misconception that C.F. were of less than honourable character was that marriage customs were also somewhat less formal or regulated among the ‘lower orders’ that made up rank and file.  Many marriages considered valid by those involved were often judged unsanctioned and immoral by outside observers.  Also, if a woman lost her husband in battle, she had very little time to find a new husband if she wanted to stay in camp, and would seem barbaric to outsiders. Many men and women had other men ‘lined up’ to step into the husband role, should they fall in battle.

 

     Occasionally, some Ladies would also come to follow the camp, but mostly only came for short visits.  A “Lady” signified the spouse of an officer, and would generally have the monetary means to be able to stay at home with her servants.  Sometimes, however a lady gained official status in the army, such as one who was assigned Matron to the General Hospital in 1754.  Her status was evidenced by the fact that she was sanctioned a maidservant and a wagon to use as shelter.

 

     Women and children of the ranks traveled by literally ‘following’.  They were forbidden to ride on wagons and should only walk behind the ranks.  Wives of enlisted men did not have the means to stay at home and take care of farms with no help, and most eligible men were in the army.  Therefore, the choice was often made to stay with her husband, and leave the homes they knew to follow the army.  rations were often better than nothing!

 

     Families of soldiers were caught up in and part of the martial culture.  With so many women following the army, there were many children.  The estimate is that there were 8 births per company annually, or 50 per regiment per year.  Boys were literally ‘born into’ the army, and those growing up in the army were understood to become soldiers themselves once reaching the required height.  Boys by the age of six were granted half pay.

 

     The look of the 18th century army is vastly different that the army of today.  Instead of the absence of women being used to heighten aggression in the men, making them better soldiers, the presence of their own wives and children was used to raise the protective instincts of the soldier; and strengthen the identity of an arms-bearing male.  The close proximity of those with whom he had emotional ties would have been a powerful motivating force.  A woman often shamed the cowards among the soldiers into battle, and was a traditional role.

 

     Unfortunately, there is very little record of C.F., but it is known that they were not parasites that mulched the soldiers of their pay, and felt very much a part of the army.  They provided a large range of goods and services to the army and helped make the military life tolerable.

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