Married to the Military, 19th Century Style
June 11, 2012
Have you ever wondered what life was like for military wives hundreds of years ago? The Royal Navy can be traced back to the beginning of the 16th Century, the British Army to the very early 18th Century. Life was rather different back then for married couples.
Up until the middle of the 19th Century women were allowed to hold unofficial paid roles in the British Army. These varied from prostitutes to laundresses, cooks, nurses and seamstresses. They also worked as sutlers (think a mobile NAAFI). Well over 20,000 women followed the British Army in the early 1800s, they travelled with their respective regiment when it went to battle all around the world and made up the very fabric of the army.
During the latter half of the 19th Century the army became more professional and the roles women previously played were slowly cut out. Marriage was emphasised for officers as they were taught to feel protective of their soldiers and the hierarchy felt that if they were all family men this would come to be of second nature. Soldiers beneath them however were actively discouraged from marrying. The regiment was enough wife and family for the non-commissioned officers, family in tow would increase numbers, cost money and slow movement and as a direct result of this position they had to seek permission from their commanding officer to marry. Requests were rarely granted.
Those who had been permitted to marry and therefore had ‘official’ marriages were allowed their wives to travel with them, but it was expected that a wife would behave in a maternal way to her husband’s colleagues, performing duties for them such as laundry and basic medical care, much in the same way that women had before only now the role was unpaid with the wife sharing her husband’s pay and rations. If her husband were to be killed it was also expected that the new widow would quickly take a new husband from within this group of men. With death rates high it was not uncommon for men to attempt to secretively court a friend’s wife in order that he might be chosen should her existing husband be killed in the next battle. Unofficial wives, those who had married despite permission being refused by the CO and of whom there were plenty, had to stay behind. At the time, a soldier could expect more than two thirds of his 22 year career to be spent abroad.
A letter from Lance Corporal David Banham, 94th Regiment of Foot, Moulmein in Burma to a friend dated August 1845 stated rather depressingly:
“For I think of all the lives of misery in this world a married soldier’s is the worst. Would to God my poor deluded countrywomen who are continually marrying soldiers could picture to themselves one half of the misery and degradation which must follow such a step. If I had my mind, no man beneath a commission should be allowed to bring a wife into the army. I have seen simple country girls turn out such low detestable characters under the name of soldiers’ wives, that I have often found myself upon the verge of cursing the whole sex. It is indeed most awful.”
It was a direct result of the plight of non commissioned officers’ families left behind to fend for themselves that the charity ‘the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Families Association’ was born in 1885, who we now know as SSAFA Forces Help. They have been around for over 126 years helping former and current service personnel from all parts of the forces and their family members. Later on, charities such as the Royal British Legion joined the ranks to become the network of leading military charities filling in where our governments fall short.
Over the next few weeks I hope to tell you some of the stories of the women who lived in these times, some of whom travelled with the military, some who stayed behind and some of whom served. All of them are inspirational. I hope you enjoy my ‘Women of the Military’ series.