My own understanding of the term camp followers was that it was synonymous with prostitutes who followed armies around plying their trade. However, according to Wikipedia:
Camp-follower is a term used to identify civilians and their children who follow armies. There are two common types of camp followers; first, the wives and children of soldiers, who follow their spouse or parent’s army from place to place; the second type of camp followers have historically been informal army service providers, servicing soldiers needs whilst encamped, in particular selling goods or services that the military does not supply, these have included cooking, laundering, liquor, nursing, sexual services and sutlery.
ODO’s BrE and AmE entries are both identical and similar to the above:
a civilian who works in or is attached to a military camp.
Webster, on the other hand, appears to concur with me:
a civilian (as a prostitute) who follows a military unit to attend or exploit military personnel
Wiktionary offers a fence-sitting definition albeit one leaning towards my side a wee bit:
A civilian who works for a military organization, often a prostitute.
None of the dictionary entries explicitly include the families of soldiers in their definitions.
So, are camp followers all the civilians employed in the service industry who follow armies around? Or has the term dwindled to only imply those who provide sexual services? I’d also appreciate any information on the evolution of the term, if applicable.
The OED defines it as ‘a man or woman who follows or hangs on to a camp or army, without being in military service.’ Camp followers are thus not necessarily prostitutes, but this citation form 1876 suggests they might be: Those unfortunates who are known under the euphemistic appellation of ‘camp followers’.
However, as FumbleFingers has shown, the term can be used in non-military contexts in which there is clearly no improper suggestion.