Napoleon’s Forgotten Tin Cans

Whilst getting ready for this paper I was quietly watching the television, late at night, when a story came to help me. The show was a documentary about Waterloo. The story was, roughly, about a private and his food on the morning of the battle, or rather, about the lack of food. So as the Foot Guards were occupying the Hougoumont farm that would become one of the decisive points of the fight, the rank and file were soaked after a terrible night. And hungry. Not very promising for the clash to come.

Private Clay of the 3rd Foot Guards recalls in a letter how a butcher was found amongst them after a thorough search, and how he was given the task of getting a pig and butcher it. Thus, every man was given a meagre meal consisting in a small piece of bread of about one ounce, in addition to a piece of pig, varying in size and quality (probably depending on how close an acquaintance you were of the aforesaid butcher and/or the Sergeant Major). Private Clay was quite happy with his share, that being a big piece of the head. However, upon cooking it, he found it unsavoury and too rare for taste, not having salt at hand and all that. So after a little munching, he gave up and saved it for later. Later on the day, the not really well nurtured troops defending Hougoumont dragged endless numbers of French units to the fray, thus contributing to the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.

Napoleon himself was very aware of the importance of food in the Army. It was him who famously said that “an army marches on its stomach”. It went bad in Russia, and in the eve of Waterloo his soldiers were as bad fed and as soaked by the rain as the British were. So his Army was, maybe, not that willing to march. Anyway, food has been a source of trouble for the military since the beginning of time. You need lots of food to feed an army in the field, and you need it in a specific time and place- usually when moving every now and then. No food, no strength. So how do you feed the Army, then?

The documentary was hosted by actor Sean Bean, well-known as the heroic Richard Sharpe in the popular television series. If you are familiar to the series, you would easily remember his despair when Sergeant Major Harper is not around to get the tea going. Or maybe you’d recall that in many an episode meals were provided by Harper’s own Spanish mistress, then wife. As imperfect as a television series could be as a history source, the depiction is accurate enough. For a long time, the rules only amounted as to the quantity of raw food the soldiers were entitled to. It was up to them to get it cooked. And that, obviously, was in the lucky days, when rations were abundant and available. If you were on patrol duty, in hostile territory, or simply the campaign was not entirely going favourably…well, food could be a big issue. Then, usually, the only thing soldiers could do was living of the land…if there was anything to grab, which was not always the case. Think about Napoleon’s Armeé in Russia: the Russians took everything with them in their retreat; then came the snow, and the freezing cold. Nothing to eat on the way back to France.

There are multiple sources that give us quite a good idea of what you could expect to eat while serving in the military. Bread was always a staple, with some kind of meat to go with it. Dutch soldiers around 1650 were favoured with cheese and got cod or meat in alternate days. The all-powerful Spanish Tercios soldiers were entitled to a pound of bread, another of meat (or fish, surely if cheaper or available), as well as a pint of wine a day. They had to pay for it and cook it, occasionally resorting to robbery, threatening the merchants or simply requisitioning the villagers’ food- which was quite cheaper and of course made a strong case for resentment amidst the Dutch civilians. Salted pork was always a great favourite. The British soldiers at Waterloo were supposed to get roughly 25 ounces of bread, 15 of salted meat and about 30 of vegetables. We may ask Private Clay, but I’m afraid that was more the exception than the rule. Old Byzantine soldiers were expected to grind their own flour, and their tent-equipment included a hand-mill and cooking utensils. They usually double-baked the dough, having then hard tack, easier and faster to do, and longer-lasting. Preservation was difficult for the Romans and the Byzantines, and was no better for the Tercios, the Dutch, or the Napoleonic era troops. In the end, food poisoning, food bad preservation and sheer hunger driving to eat whatever was at hand, were in some campaigns deadlier than swords or bullets.

As for the usual question about being able to fight with what, to a modern eye, may well seem as not enough food, or not varied enough (not to mention not tasty enough), there is a funny insight in one of Asterix comic-books. As Asterix and Obelix are asked to take care of a youngster who has enrolled with the Legions. As themselves are in the training phase, they are served their first meal. Gruesome gruel could be a fair view of it. Then our Gallic heroes reckon the Roman Legions must be truly strong, because, they say, the strength of an army is given by the quality (or better that lack of it) of its food. I mean, when Napoleon’s artillery is pounding the ground you are on, it matters quite little if you had a proper breakfast that morning- one guess is either hold fast or run fast, regardless of the menu.

Now, in the search for better preserved food, armies have a lot to say, one can assume. And so, during the French Revolutionary Wars, the French, who were fighting in multiple fronts and against many a foe, and were resorting to levés en masse to get the numbers working, decided that something had to be done. In 1795, the military issued a decree establishing a gold prize of 12000 francs for a new method to preserve food for the army. An up to then confectioner and chef named Nicolás Appert thought he could do it. (Or so the story goes). But as everything in here seems to be related in some form to Napoleon and his “marching on its stomach” armies, it happened to be but in 1810, in the very middle of the Napoleonic Wars, that Appert came forward with the ingenious solution. After long experimentation, he simply (or not so) put the foodstuffs in glass jars, sealed the jars with cork and wax, then placed the jars in boiling water. And that was it, 12000 well-earned francs from Nicolás who went on with the show writing a book on his methods and opening the first factory of its kind in the Paris outskirts. Unfortunately, it seems mass production couldn’t reach its peak before the invasion of Russia (transport would have been a nightmare, also) so the remnants of the Grande Armée ended up eating their horses and, allegedly, sometimes each other.

Well, as the military requested from Appert-to give him the money-that his method should be open to the public, the benefits of his invention were soon expanded throughout Europe, and even America, by means of adaptation (Peter Durand in Britain, also introducing the tin can) or patent purchasing. Yet, maybe not surprisingly, the military were not taking great advantage of something they had contributed to develop. And in France’s (and Britain’s) next great war, this was going to be, again, a source of misfortunes and the tomb of many.

We all know Florence Nightingale. (She even has her own statue there in London, in the very Crimea Memorial. Wow). Yet rumour has it her works were much ineffectual regardless of the impact she got in the long run. There, in the Crimea, there was a man trying to achieve the same goal, say, saving lives, but in this case with food. Improved food as it was. His name was Alexis Soyer and, you know what? He, too, was a French chef. He went to the Crimea hand in hand with Nightingale, volunteering to advise the army on cooking. When Miss Nightingale left, herself very ill, he took over the kitchens at the Balaclava Hospital, armed with a team of French and Italian chefs. He took to the British army the field canteens the French had introduced during the Napoleonic Wars, and introduce his own device: the Soyer Stove, which was still in service during the second half of the 20th century. He also instructed soldier-cooks, developed simple recipes, even created a long-lasting bread much more palatable than the surviving hard tack. In his superb Crimea (p.355) Orlando Figes gives us this Soyer’s soup recipe, serving fifty:

  1. “Put in the boiler 30 quarts, 7 ½ gallons, or 5 ½ camp-kettles of water.
  2. Add to it 50 lbs of meat, either beef or mutton
  3. The rations of preserved or fresh vegetables
  4. Ten small tablespoonfuls of salt
  5. simmer for three hours, and serve”.

Sick soldiers got well faster, regular soldiers got sick less frequently and Soyer went back to London. It was the second time he achieved success in such a difficult enterprise. The first time had been providing the “famine soup” which saved many lives during the Great Irish Famine of 1847. Then he published a “Soyer’s charitable cookery” book and gave proceeds of it to various charities. Now I’m wondering… where must be his statue? (Appert has one in his hometown, Châlons-en-Champagne)

So, both Appert and Soyer introduced great improvements, even though not completely successful at the time. Army food improved little by little, with little, or no attention whatsoever paid to balance, or specific nutrients. Quite a strange thing if one remembers Napoleon. “An army moves on its stomach”. Yes, my Emperor. Yet they seem to keep on moving quite well, even with poor food. The Russian affaire was another matter, sire, but, you yourself said once: “never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake”. Nicely put.


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