This month we commemorate the Battle of Waterloo, which was fought 200 years ago on 18th June. What would be more appropriate than to also remember the women who fought and died on this day?
It’s not very surprising that women should have been present at Waterloo. For a start, there exists a long tradition of women donning men’s cloths and joining the army, a tradition that reached its peak in the 18th century. Yet we have only scarce evidence of women disguised as men at that battle. One is that among the dead, a woman was found in the uniform of an officer of the French hussars.
Much more numerous were the camp followers. Every army of this time relied on women to keep going. They did the washing and cooking, cared for the wounded and provided all kinds of comforts to the men. Often, the wives of soldiers and officers accompanied their husbands into battle. Wellington’s army was accompanied by several thousands of women when it arrived in Belgium. Although he ordered all women back behind the lines immediately before the battle of Waterloo, several disobeyed the orders and decided to stay.
In the French army, the ‘official’ female camp followers were organised into cantinières (or vivandières, the terms were used interchangeably) and blanchisseuses. Cantinières were officially allowed to sell food and drink and had to be married to a soldier of the regiment. Blanchisseuses were responsible for the laundry. Each infantry battalion had up to four cantinières attached – meaning there were probably around 600 of these women present on the French side at Waterloo. However, there certainly were an unspecified number of ‘unofficial’ camp followers, such as wives, lovers or prostitutes.
Camp followers often hovered around close to the battalion when it was deployed in the field. They brought brandy, water and sometimes ammunition to the men and helped to carry back the wounded. Being that close to the action meant that they were as affected by enemy fire as the soldiers. At Waterloo, a cannon ball killed a cantinière of the Old Guard grenadiers when the battalion was positioned at the Brussels road. The wife of a sergeant of the 28th foot was wounded when she dragged her injured husband into safety. After the battle, corpses of French as well as British women were found among the dead.
In the heat of battle, the line between ‘proper’ soldiers and non-combatants could blur. Cantinières could and did fight (while, on the other hand, there were soldiers known to vanish miraculously each time a battle was about to get serious). One eyewitness writes:
“As is common in the camp, the camp followers wore male attire, with nearly as martial a bearing as the soldiers and some were even mounted and rode astride.”
Most cantinières were armed and fought to defend themselves when caught up in an attack or threatened by marauding cavalry. Some were even known to join the firing line. The most famous example of such a fighting woman is Marie Tête-de-Bois. Working as a cantinière during the First Empire, she had to leave the army during the Restauration, which cut back on cantinières as it suspected them of harbouring pro-napoleonic sentiments. When Napoleon returned, she immediately rejoined the army and received a position with the Imperial Guard. She was known to be dependable, brave and ready to enter the fray. One of her officers wrote:
“Her place on a day of battle was at the most perilous point… Marie knew how to fire a musket and follow up with a bayonet thrust.”
At the Battle of Waterloo, she stayed with the Guard till the end and died in their last stand.
Putting those women back into the picture also shows that napoleonic battlefields were not exactly the neat parade grounds so beloved by wargamers and diorama builders, where ramrod straight formations march in perfect order over deserted fields. Judging from contemporary reports, there was a constant to and fro of people: Officers riding around trying to understand what’s happening elsewhere, men falling to the rear to help wounded comrades, to replace a broken musket or just to make themselves scarce, others heading towards the front bringing ammunition, water or simply hoping to get some plunder – and women were in the midst of the fray. This chaos is modelled by rules such as Sharp Practice, but it is seldom represented on a visual level, that is with figures.
So what figures are available to represent the women of Waterloo?
In 28mm, Westfalia Miniatures has a splendid French cantinière depicted in the act of loading a musket. Warlord Games has another one that can be fitted with a pistol, ready to defend herself and her donkey. Foundry also offers a suitable figure, as does Eureka Miniatures.
Elite Wargames and Models have a selection of female napoleonic figures, including a female French hussar and a cantinière. For more information, please contact elitewargamesmodels [at] gmail.com.
Dave Ryan at Caliver Books was kind enough to send me a sample of the lovely 15mm Minifigs Vivandière set, which comes with a cart and two Vivandières, one driving the cart and the other walking.
Stonewall Figures offers three 15mm Sutleress in their Les Carabiniers Cassique range. Warmodelling also had some suitable figures on offer, but they are out of production at the moment. However, Dermot Quigley of Campaign Game Miniatures told me they might be recast, so watch their website.
If you prefer 1/72, Schilling has two sets, one with a vivandière’s cart on the move and one with a camp scene.
Barbero, Alessandro: The Battle. A New History of Waterloo, London: Atlantic Books 2006.
Cardoza, Thomas: Intrepid Women: Cantinières and Vivandières of the French Army, Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2010 (the author also has a homepage dedicated to the subject).
historynet.com: Napoleonic Wars: Women at Waterloo
This was a nice post. There are a few pages in John Elting’s book on Napoleon’s army, Swords around a Throne, about cantinieres. Tough ladies to be sure.
Thanks Michael! Elting’s books sounds fascinating, I’ll look into it.