Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006
No one knew who the woman was, but she lay on the field of Waterloo and even in death remained beautiful. Volunteer Charles Smith of the 95th Rifles found her body, as he helped to bury the dead after the battle. All he could tell was that she was French and must have gone into the thick of the action to have reached the spot where she died. Everything else about her remained a mystery.
She was not the only woman to fall at Waterloo on June 18, 1815, for British troops found two dead Frenchwomen during a lull in the fighting. 'I saw one of them, wrote Captain Henry Ross-Lewin of the 32nd Regiment of Foot. She was dressed in a nankeen jacket and trousers, and had been killed by a ball which had passed through her head.
The female participants at Waterloo form one of the great, untold stories of the epic battle. Nobody knows how many Frenchwomen followed their husbands and lovers to, and beyond death, but their presence on the battlefield was by no means unusual. Marshal André Masséna's mistress had been constantly at his side when he invaded Portugal in 1810-inadequately but delightfully disguised in a dragoon's uniform as one of his aides-de-camp. Unfortunately for the French army, her presence had distracted Masséna, antagonized his subordinates and delayed his army's march. What a mistake I made in taking a woman to war with me! he had admitted afterward. But Masséna's mistress was only one of many women who accompanied their menfolk to war during the Napoleonic Era, and had not proved to be such a burden at all.
Each French regiment had women authorized to accompany it on campaign. Designated cantinièresor vivandières, they wore clothes of at least partly military design. Their official function within the regiment was to sell tobacco and refreshments such as cognac from their carts and care for the wounded. In the latter role, some inevitably ventured into harm's way and became casualties. Marie Tête-du-bois, the cantinière of the 1st Grenadiers of the Guard, was cut in two by a cannonball at Waterloo.
The British did not have cantinières as such, but they did have camp followers who often found their way onto the battlefield. Many soldiers were married, but only six or sometimes four in each company were permitted to take their wives with them on active service. Once the regiments landed in the theater of war, they soon accumulated a bevy of unofficial camp followers.
Many British officers' wives were attending the Duchess of Richmond's ball in Brussels when word of Napoleon's invasion of Belgium broke up the dance in the early hours of June 16. It was a dreadful evening, remembered Lady Georgiana Lennox, taking leave of friends and acquaintances, never to be seen again.
Miss Charlotte Ann Waldie, an English resident of Brussels, described the heart-rending scenes in the city on that morning: Numbers were taking leave of their wives and children, perhaps for the last time, and many a veteran's rough cheek was wet with the tears of sorrow. One poor fellow, immediately under our windows, turned back again and again, to bid his wife farewell, and take his baby once more in his arms; and I saw him hastily brush away a tear with the sleeve of his coat, as he gave her back the child for the last time, wrung her hand, and ran off to join his company, which was drawn up on the other side of the Place Royale. Many of the soldiers' wives rushed out with their husbands to the field, and I saw one young English lady mounted on horseback, slowly riding out of town along with an officer, who, no doubt, was her husband.
The ladies who stayed in Brussels, or further north in the port of Antwerp, suffered appalling mental tortures as they awaited news of the fate of their loved ones. An officer's wife learned in Antwerp that her husband had been slain. She ran hysterically around the market place, screaming, My husband is not dead, he is just coming; his head is not shot off. The women left behind had the additional worry of not being able to see for themselves how their army was faring in the battle. They could not expect gentle treatment if the undisciplined French broke through to Brussels.
Some of the women who followed the army of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington to Waterloo became victims of the fighting. A shell inflicted two wounds on the wife of an injured sergeant of the 28th Foot as she carried him from the field. Other British women were found dead after the battle; a cannonball killed one female, who lay with her child at her side.
After the battle, scores of women searched among the ghastly clusters of corpses for their men, either to bandage their wounds of to bid farewell to their lifeless bodies. Even after all the dead were buried, many bereaved British women wandered over the battlefield in a distress that sometimes bordered on madness.
Most of the women with Wellington's army at Waterloo are unknown to posterity, but some do figure in eyewitness accounts. The wife of Quartermaster Alexander Ross of the 14th Foot remained at his side for some time after the firing began. Her friends feared that she might be hit and urged her to quit the field, but she was reluctant to go, in case she could help the casualties. They then told her that a battlefield was not a suitable place for an officer's wife, so she retired to the belfry of a church, where she enjoyed a fine view of the action.
The battle had been underway for some time when Captain William Verner of the 7th Hussars heard a rough voice deman: What's the matter with you, are you afraid? It was a sergeant major addressing his wife, who was sitting on a small pony. Captain James Fraser asked the man if he expected his wife to go into action and sent then her to the rear. Another women at Waterloo was 26-year-old Jenny Jones. Her tombstone at Tau y Ilyn in Wales records that she was there with her husband of the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers and remained on the field for three days.
Some of the female survivors lived to ripe old ages, including Elske van Aggelin, a sutleress with the Dutch army who celebrated her 95th birthday in perfect health in 1889. One of the last surviving witnesses of Waterloo was Mrs. Barbara Moon, who died in October 1903, 88 years after the battle. Born during the Peninsular War, she was a four-year-old child by the time of Waterloo and rode in a wagon over the battlefield in the evening of June 18. Her father, a color sergeant in the 95th Rifles, died of his wounds of few months later.
Surviving the battle took fortitude in adversity, but storied of women giving birth during the Waterloo campaign enter the realm of the incredible. Ensign Thomas Deacon of the 73rd Foot was wounded at the Battle of Quatre Bras on June 16 and his pregnant wife, Martha, searched in vain for him throughout the night. Then she heard that he had been taken to Brussels and set out for the Belgian capital on foot, accompanied by her three children. Torrential rain soon drenched them as they trudged warily along the 20 miles of road. Martha had only a black silk dress and a light shawl, but reached the city with her children, found her husband safe there,, and gave birth to a baby girl on June 19. The joyful parents christened her Waterloo Deacon, after the previous day's victory.
Another couple had the same idea. When Private Peter McMullen of the 27th Foot fell severely wounded at Waterloo, his wife tried to carry him from the field, only to suffer a fractured leg from a musket-ball. Both ended up in a hospital in Antwerp, before they returned to England where the woman gave birth to a girl. His Royal Highness Frederick Augustus, Duke of York and Albany, commander in chief of the British Army, stood godfather to the infant, who was christened Frederica McMullen Waterloo.
Local peasant women, not merely camp followers, were in the vicinity of the battle, Two civilians even became caught up in the ferocious fighting at Hougoumont Farm. Guillaume van Cutsem, the gardener there, and his 5-year-old daughter stayed at Hougoumont during the eary stages of the battle. Eventually, French howitzers set the château on fire and a British Guards sergeant led the little girl out of the dangerous farm. She reached safety in a nearby forest and in 1876 visited England for the first time in her life. According to the London Times, she had a very vivid recollection of the kindness of our soldiers, who treated her as a pet, and kept throwing her bits of biscuit out of their haversacks wherewith to amuse her.
Sadly, some of the women did not live up to the magnificent standard set by their fine sisters. After the battle, many of the local peasants seized the opportunity to loot from the dead and wounded. Women were among the worst looters-one female even cut the off the fingers of an injured but living Prussian officer to steal the precious rings he wore.
Lieutenant George Simmons of the 95th Rifles made a miraculous recovery from a wound he suffered at Waterloo, largely thanks to the devoted care he received in Brussels. My dear little nurse has never been ten minutes from me since I came to the house, he wrote. For ten nights together she never went to bed, but laid her head on my pillow.
One young woman, Lady Magdalene de Lancey, has come to symbolize all the women who waited for their men went to return from Waterloo. The beautiful Magdalene had married Colonel Sir William Howe de Lancey, Wellington's deputy quartermaster-general, on April 4, 1815. Magdalene went to Antwerp for safety when hostilities began and there she received a succession of conflicting rumors that William was either dead or alive. At last, she learned that he was alive, but badly wounded. She managed to reach his side in a cottage and was with him when he died on June 26. They had been married for less than three months. Magdalene de Lancey later wrote an outstanding account of her experiences, which she called A Week at Waterloo in 1815. When English novelist Charles Dickens read her narrative, he commented, If I live for fifty years, I shall dream of it every now and then, from this hour to the day of my death, with the most frightful reality.