the wives and children of soldiers -- 12/18/18

Today's selection -- from Army Childhood by Clare Gibson. If the wives and children of British soldiers in the Age of Empire were left behind when that soldier went abroad, it was bad. If they were allowed to join, it was worse:

"Army pay has never been noted for its generosity, and the rank-and-file soldier's wage was so meagre during the eighteenth century that, after compulsory stoppages, it was barely enough to support him, let alone a family. In addition, the army authorities discouraged marriage, regarding wives and children as unwanted nuisances who at best would distract their men from the serious business of soldiering, and might even cause significant disruption.

"Since 1685, soldiers and junior officers had been required to ask their commanding officer's permission to marry, requests that were not always granted, particularly if the prospective bride was disapproved of for some reason. So if a soldier did marry during the eighteenth century, it was frequently without the knowledge or sanction of his superiors. This meant that many army children of that period (not all of whose parents were married) tended to grow up 'off the strength', that is, independent of the practical support -- however limited -- that the army extended to those whom it had accepted and recognised as being 'on the strength'. For the army would then assume a measure of responsibility for these fortunate few, providing sustenance, for example: half the food and drink ration issued to their husbands for army wives, and half-or third-rations for army children, according to their age."Life was usually hard enough for 'off-the-strength' families, but if soldier husbands (or partners) and fathers were ordered abroad on active service, or to a garrison in a distant part of the British Empire, their dependants' situation became critical -- even catastrophic -- for they were banned from going too.

'Soldiers on a March', 1811 (c).

"As well as being bound together by ties or affection -- often extremely strong -- many army families depended on their soldier menfolk's pay for survival, And because that money was paid directly to the soldier, without him, and without it, destitution loomed unless a family was able to fend for itself. Without large, organised charitable bodies and a welfare state to provide some sort or supportive social safety net (these would not be established until the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries), the situation of most abandoned families was desperate, and many young army children consequently went to work or did whatever was necessary to try to keep hunger at bay and a roof over their heads.

"In 1800, the army's commander in chief, Frederick, Duke of York, stipulated that six (and sometimes up to twelve) on-the-strength wives per company of one hundred men (or four women per sixty soldiers) would be allowed to accompany them when posted abroad, thereby making official a previously informal practice. Which of the women went was decided by the drawing of lots the day before embarkation, and while army children were discouraged from travelling, many nevertheless did. The families who remained in Britain might receive a payment judged sufficient to enable them to travel to their home town or village, where they might have relatives who, theoretically, could support them. But after that they were on their own, and, under the terms of the Poor Law, many ended up being dependent on parish­-provided poor relief, with older children being apprenticed to a trade (the boys) or domestic service (the girls); after 1834, and the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act, the dreaded destination was often the workhouse.

"They may have been considered the lucky ones, but permission to accompany their soldiers overseas did not mean that on-the-strength families had it easy. Indeed, most suffered -- some terribly, and some even fatally -- on the ships that carried them to the foreign destinations to which their menfolk had been ordered, or while trying to keep up with an army on the march. The harrowing first-hand accounts of those who took part in the retreat to Corunna between 1808 and 1809 during the Peninsular War are unsparing in their descriptions of the army women and children dying by the wayside. Rifleman Benjamin Harris of the 95th Rifles, for example, tells in his memoirs of seeing a mother dragging her young son along the road:

"'At last the little fellow had not even strength to cry, but, with mouth wide open, stumbled onwards, until both sank down to rise no more ... This was not the only scene of the sort I witnessed amongst the women and children during that retreat. Poor creatures!'"



Clare Gibson


Army Childhood: British Army Children's Lives and Times


Shire Library


Copyright 1995 by Dava Sobel


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