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Catherine Exley's Diary: The Life and Times of an Army Wife in the Peninsular War

Catherine Exley's Diary: The Life and Times of an Army Wife in the Peninsular War - Rebecca Probert Catherine Exley’s memoir of the years she spent following the 34th Regiment through Portugal and Spain is gold: the only first-hand account (so far) of the Peninsular War by the wife of a common British soldier. It has great (and terrible) detail of daily life as a practially penniless camp follower. She wrote it as an older lady remembering, so names, dates, etc. are squishy, but the descriptions of endless marches, hard weather, hard times, and privation are gripping.

She had no blood family when, at 26, she married Private Joshua Exley: “Oh! How I wished for a loving mother to counsel me.” At 30, she accompanied him and the 34th to Portugal, and with the campaign for four years. She bears and loses three children as infants while on the march; her clothes, ‘covered with filth and vermin', often went unchanged for weeks at a time; and she herself more than once almost dies from illness and starvation. Just the amount of walking she does, often with babes in arms, was exhausting to follow.

[July? 1812] We had three leagues further to advance, but I was so weary that I feared to undertake the journey. However, a sargeant kindly offered to carry my child for me on his knapsack, and I followed. The rain poured down the whole way, and the road was so bad that we walked above the knees in mire and wet. The sand got amongst my clothes, which, rubbing against my body, caused acute pain in walking. In this state, we encamped for the night.
The rain still came down in torrents, so that it was with the greatest difficulty any fire could be kept burning, the fuel was so wet. After many fruitless attempts, a cradle was sacrificed by one of the women, and with it a little fire was made. Some bran was found in a neighboring mill, with which a sort of porridge was made; but I could not eat any of it. Some boughs were cut down from the trees, and on these I reposed my weary limbs. Having neither tents nor beds, everyone was provided with a blanket only; the one which covered me was soaked with water.

We were to march at four [a.m.]. I rose so stiff and cold that I could scarcely put a foot to the ground. We halted after a march of two leagues, and soon after were surprised by the near approach of the enemy. When the alarm was given I was putting on a pair of regimental shoes belonging to my husband, having previously thrown aside a pair of worn-out boots, which had never been taken off since the first day of wearing, about three months before. I snatched up my boy, and, leaving everything else behind me, we crossed a river (which was very deep) three abreast. One woman who remained behind to pack up her property lost her life for refusing to surrender it to the enemy. [page 31]

Also very hard was her account of searching through a field of blackend corpses, seeking the body of her husband. She returns home thinking him dead. Luckily, a letter waiting there tells her he’s a POW, and later they are reunited and live long after.

There are so few diaries and memoirs by the many, many women who were wives, sutlers and canteen-owners, and other camp-followers that finding another (this text was just released in 2014) is huge for history lovers and novelists alike.

Along with the 35 pages of her diary are chapters by historians on the campaign, women’s roles in wartime, and other topics, including period images of the clothing and lifestyles of people like her. The two chapters on women in war are especially interesting; one, by Charles Esdaile is a very shortened version of his book, Women in the Peninsular War.