When I was researching my post on the battles of Quatre-Bras and Lingy, I discovered two more very personal true stories about the women’s presence among the soldiers, which I wanted to share as I feel it really brings some more life and realism to the story I shared about the women’s role and relationships in an army camp.
In my previous Waterloo bicentenary post on the women who supported the men, I talked about how the men did not dislike the women’s presence but almost adopted them as the regiment’s property. They were highly respected and seen as mothers and wives of them all as they supported the whole regiment with daily activities. I was surprised, though, when I was writing the story of how the British forces were mustered in a hurry, having been surprised by an attack from the French at an unexpected location and then had to march out of Brussels in hurry, to discover that some of the women followed.
Many people have heard of the Duke of Wellington being told at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball that Napoleon had attacked, and within hours he had regiments marching out of Brussels to take the 22 mile route to Quatre-Bras. I would not have thought the women would have followed. They were marching into a war zone, with utter certainty of a violent battle. Involving thousands facing thousands. The women must have known they were not safe. But still they followed. So here are the two true stories recorded at the time.
On the 17th June the sun rose over the battlefield at Quatre-Bras at four-thirty in the morning. The bodies of the dead, dying and many of the wounded, would have still lain on the field, and there is a record then of a woman, who was nine months pregnant, walking through the army’s camp full the survivors with her three children, looking for her husband. She was Martha Deacon, the wife of an officer. Most likely, although it isn’t known, to follow her husband to the battle, she had ridden on the back of a supply wagon with her children. She knew her husband had been injured at the end of the battle, and she couldn’t find him.
Thomas Deacon was an Ensign in the 73rd, a Highland battalion. He’d been walking into the battle beside a soldier called Sergeant Morris, who recorded what happened. The man on the other side of Sergeant Morris was shot in the forehead. Thomas Deacon asked who had fallen, and when the Sergeant turned and answered him he saw his officer had been shot. “You are wounded, sir.”
“God bless me, so I am.” In fact one of his arms had been broken by a musket ball. His first thought then was not for himself, but for his wife. He would be unable to fight, and yet he could walk, so he went back to the rear of the army, searching out the guard responsible for the ammunition supply wagon, to look for Martha and their children. He kept looking until nightfall, until blood loss meant he was unable to stand, and was then loaded onto a cart for the wounded to be carried back to Brussels.
When Martha was looking for him in the morning, he’d gone, and was 22 miles away from her. When she found out he’d gone, wearing a black silk dress and a thin shawl, she set out with their children to walk those 22 miles back to Brussels, a direction the army was not travelling in. She had to walk it alone. And to make it worse, the 16th had been a very hot day, but on the 17th the heat broke in a vicious thunderstorm. The rain fell in torrents, and Wellington described it as like a tropical storm. Other accounts say the mud was so bad, horses became stuck in it up to their underbelly. Martha walked through that with her children, and later that day, they would have been followed by Wellington’s army withdrawing back to Waterloo, and then the French pursuing.
The other personal story which I read an account of is much sadder, and yet shows just how deep a relationship the soldiers had with the wives who walked with their regiments.
This story was recorded by Edward Costello, a Rifleman, he was a member of the 95th. They were withdrawing along a pathway to the Nivellas road when a soldier heard a noise. The regiment were ‘partially protected by a hedge from the enemy’s fire, when one of my companions heard the cries of a child on the other side; on looking over he espied a fine boy, about two or three years of age, by the side of its dead mother, who was still bleeding copiously from a wound in the head, occasioned most likely, by a random shot from the enemy. We carried the motherless, and perhaps orphan child by turns to Genappe (the village with the narrow bridge which I spoke of when I talked about the British retreat on the 17th June), where we found a number of women of our division, one of whom recognised the little fellow, I think she said as belonging to a soldier of the First Royals…’
Sorry for the sad ending, but when stories are true, I don’t think we should shy away from the reality, but remember it, and remember the people who gave their lives.
If you would like to read my fictional story set around the lead up to the Battle of Waterloo, then just click on the cover of The Lost Love of a Soldier in the side bar.
If you would like to see the pictures and videos of Waterloo 200 which I shared on my Facebook page, click Like on the Jane Lark Facebook link in the right-hand column. I’ve also shared the videos on my You Tube channel.