Cantinières in Combat

No regulations required it, but from 1792 onwards, vivandières and cantinières routinely went into combat with their units. Many gave away food and drink to the troops to help keep them in the fight. The cover illustration of Intrepid Women shows one such instance from 1811, painted by the French commanding general who witnessed the incident. At the Battle of Chiclana, cantinière Catherine Baland of the 95th Infantry Regiment charged into the thick of the fight to encourage the troops with free brandy. General Louis Lejeune painted the scene in 1824. The painting now hangs in the museum of the Chateau de Versailles.

From the period of Napoleon I onward, it was an unwritten expectation that a cantinière would nurse the wounded on the battlefield. This often resulted in cantinières being killed or wounded themselves. Finally, quite a few cantinières actively fought the enemy.

Some, like Madeleine Kintelberger of the 7th Hussar Regiment, fought only to protect their children, who also had to go into battle with their parents. She had her right arm severed by a cannon ball, received eight saber cuts to the head and neck, was pierced twice with lances, and finally captured only after the Russian Cossacks she was fighting shot her in each leg, forcing her to finally drop to the ground. At the time, she was eight months pregnant with twins.

Other cantinières fought whenever they could, carrying a musket and joining the firing line in battle. This continued through the wars in Algeria, the Crimean War (1854-1856), the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and the various French campaigns in Southeast Asia, Mexico, and Africa into the 1880s, even though most histories of these wars ignore this reality completely.

The French government also tried to hush up this "unfeminine" behavior, and either failed to decorate these cantinières for heroism, or covered up their combat exploits by decorating them for devotion to nursing the wounded. Nevertheless, cantinières continued to fight until army regulations in 1890 banned them from accompanying their regiments on campaign, and the image in popular culture of the cantinière or vivandière with musket in hand fighting alonside the troops long remained widespread.