Napoleon’s Women Camp Followers
Terry Crowdy, illustrated by Christa Hook
Osprey Publishing (Men-at-Arms No.538), 2021
Paperback, 48 pages
Osprey Publishing produce a wide range of titles covering all periods of history that provide us with slim but often detailed histories, and I am sure that most of us have a few of their titles on our shelves. This new title is a real gem, providing the Napoleonic historian with a detailed account of a subject that is invariably touched on in many histories but not examined in detail.
The study begins with the story of these women from the last years of the ancien régime, placing them in the social context of the time. Soldiers could marry but only if they proved that the union would have some benefit for the regiment, in that the woman possessed a useful trade such as laundress or seamstress, so that she could support herself without being a burden upon the regiment. This meant that marriage was a profitable enterprise for the couple especially when the soldier was granted permission to serve as a sutler to the battalion, and the regulation controlled the number of women officially attached to the regiment. The National Convention overturned this practical arrangement and decreed that soldiers were free to marry without the permission of their commanders, and this resulted in a chaotic increase in the number of women attached to the regiments. It is from here that the story really begins.
The narrative examines how women were treated by the authorities and their expected role within the army world. Despite this, many women followed their husbands and lovers on campaign. Napoleon attempted to regulate the number of women following his army in Italy but without success. The author examines the other class of women who followed every army throughout history, known as filles de joie (girls of pleasure) who caused many casualties through the spread of disease amongst the pleasure-seeking soldiers.
The French Army issued numerous regulations over the period to control the number of women (cantinières) following the armies, stipulating the number that could officially be attached to the regiment. These women had roles to play in supplying the troops with food, drink, tobacco, clay pipes and even writing paper. This study is comprehensive in that the author describes the lives of these women both in garrison and on campaign with a look inside the sutler’s tents and tales of discipline or a lack of. There were also other types of camp follower; those who did not belong to any regiment but could follow the armies and set up restaurants and cafés in the main areas of conquered countries. Additionally, there were the blanchisseuse or laundresses, who were soldier’s wives paid to wash the clothes of the regiment, with interesting details on how the laundering of clothes was performed. The examination of these women and their roles is illustrated by soldier’s accounts and many images of French encampments where these women and their activities are portrayed.
This study dispels the myth that Napoleonic cantinières of the time wore a formal uniform, this did not appear until later in the 19th century. They dressed in the female clothing of the time and the section on Costume follows the change in fashion over the period. The colour illustrations by Christa Hook, alongside contemporary illustrations, wonderfully follow this change in fashion, examining these women from the early 1790s, in Italy and Egypt 1796-98, Spain, Russia and the final years of 1813-15.
To accompany the story of the women in the French armies, there is an interesting section on Regimental Children, those born from unions between soldiers and their camp-follower wives. Boys were seen as the soldiers of the future and the author has examined how such youngsters were schooled within the regiments to produce useful technicians and musicians for the army. This part of the book provides an insight into the regimental family.
Napoleon’s Women Camp Followers is a detailed and informative study of the subject using contemporary accounts and the official regulations adopted throughout the period. It is very much a social history, and I was keen to review this title as having an interest in prisoners of war of the period, I have often come across many of the women being swept into captivity alongside their menfolk. I was interested to learn more of their story within the French army, and this title did not disappoint. Terry has produced a useful addition to any library on the Napoleonic period, and the illustrations by Christa Hook skilfully complement the narrative. Highly recommended.