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We, the women of the company, have many a sad tale to tell and many a broken heart to show for it. I suppose we should consider ourselves fortunate that we are even able to accompany our menfolk, what with the limitation of 6 women to every 100 men. Those wives whose husbands have neglected to receive permission from the commanding officer to accompany him can be barred from rations, barracks, accommodation and more, leaving their families destitute.
We were unaware that our duties would not only involve caring for our own families but also the exhausting roles of cook, washerwomen or hospital matron for the entire regiment. Our rations are minimal; half of those of the soldiers and our children earn even less. To watch the wee ones go hungry and cold is tortuous. We have been told that it is inadvisable to bring more children into the world of war. Childbirth is difficult at any time, but in the mud and cold of an army camp, we endure even more often the heartbreak of losing an infant or child.
We know not from day to day whether we will see our husbands at nightfall. To wander through a field of bloody bodies, searching for a slain loved one is a frequent occurrence. If he is not there, we worry that the weather conditions, short rations, scurvy or dysentery may take him. If he is found with the dead, we are ejected from the unit unless another soldier takes pity and weds us quickly, with nary a minute to grieve.
Loneliness and isolation is commonplace. Divisions of rank are absolute. Therefore an officer’s lady is not permitted by social rule to take tea with a wife of a common soldier, despite the fact that there are so few women present.
Those women of questionable virtue fare far worse. Promises of love and commitment are often made by soldiers but seldom acted upon, leaving their mistresses shunned and wallowing in scandal. Stories of these pitiful women succumbing to the evils of drink or ending their own lives with poison abound.
We try to be strong for our brave men but the melancholy brought about by constant fatigue and death makes us fear we may all succumb to the heartbreak that is war.
Written by Anne Carruthers February 2012
Sources: The War of 1812 website: A Soldier’s Family in the British Army during the War of 1812 by Robert Henderson In the Midst of Alarms; The Untold Story of Women and the War of 1812, Dianne Graves, 2007, Robin Brass Studio Inc., Montreal, Que.