Daily Life of Soldiers and Officers


Soldiers' Wives

The billeted soldier's departure, circa 1790

Caption: The billeted soldier's departure, circa 1790

At the end of the seventeenth century a maximum of three wives per company could accompany soldiers overseas, a figure that was raised to six in the eighteenth century. They travelled at army expense and were entitled to their rations, because they were deemed useful for washing, cooking and sewing. Some learned on their own to be nurses.

Many more women lived in the vicinity of each regiment in garrison in the British Isles, but their status was not secure. Just before the regiments would leave for another country, the soldiers' wives would gather and hold a lottery to see who would go. One ballot for each woman present would be tossed into a hat. Most of the ballots said "not to go," while the prescribed number, three or six per company, depending on the era, said "to go." A woman who drew a "to go" ballot was authorized to embark with her children and accompany her husband to his new post.

The others remained on the dock with their children, with no resources. As it was virtually certain that families separated in this manner would never see each other again, many wives left behind simply awaited the next regiment to find a new husband. But this solution caused sad tales, such as that of one Rachel Heap, who, believing her husband dead, remarried in Halifax in 1802 and gave birth to three children when suddenly her "dead" husband resurfaced. Other women, heartbroken, attempted to return to their families; they were not always welcome, however, often being considered dishonourable for having kept company with soldiers. Some fell into alcoholism and prostitution. There were even cases of suicide, both by the women and by the soldiers who could not live without ever again seeing their loved ones.

Those who were able to follow the soldiers in their travels needed to be strong of character, because they had to work hard to survive under conditions that can barely be imagined today. Yet many of these women preferred such a life to the even more horrible conditions of the disadvantaged in civilian society. Living with a regiment could be difficult, but there was a certain gaiety and social life, a kind of extended family life that was often warmer than anything they had known before - not to mention love, of course.