Following the Drum: Cantinières
By Tom Holmberg
Cantinières held commissions from a regiment's or battalion's council of administration to sell to that unit's soldiers food or drink beyond that which may be provided as rations. Cantinières were required to be married to a soldier of the regiment; if their husband was killed in action she would often marry another enlisted man to retain her position.
Some cantinières served up to 30 years in the army. The cantinière was required to sell her goods at a fair price on pain of confiscation. She received no pay, living off her earnings and that of her husband. The cantinière was a civilian contractor subject to military discipline. The cantinière wore no regulation uniform, her garb might be a mixture of civilian and military wear-- a bonnet de police, a peasant dress with an apron, a pelisse or shawl and sabots. Other cantinières might be well turned out by the regimental commander or with plundered clothes.
Some cantinières had their children in tow even on campaign. One eyewitness recalled seeing a cantinière washing her linen in the Danube on campaign. "She had an infant at her breast, two other small ones nearby." She told him, "I have made eight campaigns and this one has been the best. I followed the regiment because I loved a sergeant….He gave me a child, I bore it in the ambulance." Some would follow their captured husbands into prison. A cantinière who followed her regiment into captivity on the 'death camp' isle of Cabrera, gave birth to twins, yet "was seen constantly working to help the sick prisoners."
The most important of the cantinière's wares was alcohol, usually brandy of various qualities, ranging from 'rotgut' to the best cognac. She carried this in her red-white-and-blue-painted 'tonnelet', a small cask which was hung from a wide leather strap across her chest. She also carried a number of small cups of tin or copper which held about two ounces to serve her precious brew. In addition to dispensing drink and food, a cantinière might also do cooking, laundry or sewing for a fee. She might also fetch firewood and water and indulge in a little foraging and looting if the opportunity arose. "None of my stock has cost me a sou," one explained. "It all came from the regiment. The old ones set aside a share of the last pillage for me. And it is to these same soldiers that I sell the provisions that they willingly pay for and which they did not trouble to keep or to transport." The cantinière also provided much-missed female companionship to men away from their mothers, sisters and wives. General Lasalle wrote a song about a cantinière on the eve of Marengo: "She likes to laugh, she likes to drink, she likes to sing like us." Some cantinières however were much disliked. When a cantinière's buggy with an officer's wife overturned in the Danube, the officer's wife was rescued but no one was willing to go to the aid of the poor cantinière. The regimental cantine was a social gathering place for the regiment, where they could drink, smoke, gamble or converse.
On days of battle the cantinière might dispense her drinks to the soldiers for free, sometimes under fire. This could be a boon to the men dry-mouthed from fear or biting cartridges. She might also help carry away or tend the wounded. Though technically a non-combatant, a cantinière might go armed and was willing to use her weapon. As one officer observed, "Many cantinières were as brave as veteran grenadiers." The same dangers that confronted a soldier of her regiment on campaign would also imperil the cantinière, including death or wounds in battle, disease, rape or robbery at the hands of the enemy or stragglers, inclement weather, long marches, etc. A cantinière of the 14th legere carried her wounded husband on her back for five miles to an ambulance. Another of the 57th of the Line was mentioned in dispatches for having, under a hail of bullets, "twice entered a ravine where our troops were fighting in order to distribute two barrels of brandy." The celebrated Marie Tête-de-bois, served in a Line regiment until 1814 and then in the Guard and was killed in 1815 during the last combats around Paris. A cantinière was wounded at the battle of Lützen while distributing cartridges with one hand and brandy with the other.
Most cantinières came from the lower classes, many from peasant or small town artisan families. Some might be from the urban poor. Some could end up marrying an officer and one married a Marshal! A decree of the Convention on 30 April 1793 ordered all 'useless women' to be expelled from the armies, but allowed for up to four blanchisseuses (laundry-women) per battalion and an unspecified number of vivandières (sellers of food, drink and other necessities) as approved by the divisional commander. The cantinières were also issued medallions or badges indicating their position. A law of the Year VIII restricted the number of women, either blanchisseuses or vivandières, to just four per regiment. These women were required to register with the gendarmerie and bear a certificate issued by the battalion or regimental council. By the time of the Empire the term cantinière had largely replaced blanchisseuse and vivandière in general usage, though the positions still remained. After 1804 cantinières were entitled to be treated in military hospitals in time of war.
By the time of the Empire the cantinières were often able to replace their mules or horses with carts or even wagons loaded with liquor, food and other goods (whether purchased or plundered). Her wagon was placed under the direction of the unit's wagon master. The well-stocked cantinière might carry cheeses, salamis, sausages, coffee, tobacco and other provisions. She might also possess a large tent which would become the social center of a regiment. "…At night one gambles and drinks warm wine amidst the smoke of pipes." A cantinière was forbidden to sell her goods to civilians or to the men of another regiment. If the cantinières became to disorderly, impairing the military functions of the army, an order of the day might be issued allowing the men to loot any cantinière not in their assigned place or without her badge.
"La Belle Cantiniére: Women in the French Army, 1789-1913." Thomas Cardoza. Proceedings. Western Society for French History 1995. Pp. 45-54.
Elting, John Robert. Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon's Grande Armée New York : Free Press, 1988.
Blond, Georges. La Grande armée London : Arms and Armour Press, 1995.
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