The History of Military Rations
Military Rations Notes
In this episode of Eat My Globe, our host, Simon Majumdar, examines the ways that countries and rulers have filled the stomach of their armies over the ages. From the galley ships of Alexander the Great to the modern combat rations of the modern American forces. Without a regular supply of food, battles can and have been won and lost, and empires have risen and fallen.
Find out more about the interesting history of military rations, and tune in now.
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EAT MY GLOBE
THE HISTORY OF MILITARY RATIONS
What do you call French military rations?
I don’t know, Simon. What do you call French Military Rations?
Nom nom de Guerre.
Nom nom de Guerre. Oh. Oh. Okay.
Hi everybody, I’m Simon Majumdar. And welcome to another brand new episode of Eat My Globe. A podcast about things you didn’t know you didn’t know about food.
And to begin this episode, let me start by quoting Frederick the Great, the King of Prussia, who lived from 1712 to 1786. He supposedly said,
“It has been said by a certain general, that the first object in the establishment of an army ought to be making provision for the belly, that being the basis and foundation of all operations.”
And that, dear listeners, is what we are going to be talking about today.
That is, the methods by which countries and their rulers have tried to feed their military forces as they march to face battle. Now, on the face of it, that may seem to be like a slightly niche subject. However, it is a subject that has not only changed the way we live today, in terms of the technological advancements that were prompted by ensuring those “provisions for the belly,” but has also changed history itself as battles and lands have been won or lost by the successes and failures to do so.
It is an amazing story that will take us from some of the very earliest military forces of ancient times, such as Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt and ancient Greece. It will take us through the period of the first professional standing army, that of the Romans. It will take us through the medieval forces of Europe, and through the mighty armies of Asia. It will take us to the depths of the 19th century winter in Russia that brought the might of Napoleon’s army to its knees, and through the American Civil War, one that I think was as much won by how the soldiers on opposing sides were provisioned as by the battles they fought. Finally, it will take us through two World Wars in the 20th century, and right up to the present day where military rations may not still be exactly the finest dining offerings on the planet, but are prepared to offer maximum nutrition to those men and women in service.
Before we carry on, however, I want to acknowledge that given the limitations of time we have in this podcast it would be impossible to cover everything that I would want to in this episode. It would be hard to point out any civilization in history that did not have some form of armed services, however informal, and all of those people would need feeding in some way or another. And, while I will try to cover all of the major civilizations, I hope that you will give me a pass if I miss someone out. Indeed, if you think I do, and you think they should be included, I love to hear from you, so you can let me know through our social media or through our Eat My Globe website.
OK, so with that proviso, let’s crack on to today’s episode of Eat My Globe, and talk about the long and extraordinary history of military rations.
As I mentioned before the break, from the first period that humans began to form into communities they also had to look at how they would protect themselves. This could be as simple as protecting themselves from animals that surrounded their communities or from potential threats from neighboring communities or nomadic people that might threaten their agricultural lands or hunting territories.
As societies grew along with their populations, the occurrences of military conflict between them became inevitable. This also meant that the ability to form more formal military forces also became inevitable as rulers called upon their subjects to serve to protect their own lands or indeed advance on other lands in pursuit of empire.
As empires began to grow and as other lands to conquer were further away from the center of each civilization, the further the forces had to travel. This could be by sea, or more often on long perilous marches. It might also mean that members of forces were away from their homes for extended periods of time and needed supplying with large amounts of food and drink as they travelled.
Initially, these supplies would have been delivered by three main methods. The first would be bringing rations from home. As these journeys were often extended, the foods they brought would have to be non-perishable – foods, such as salted meats, grains in the form of dried bread, etc.
The second method would have been by foraging for supplies on route. This would have included hunting animals and foraging for wild versions of plants and vegetables.
The final method would have been by procuring food from the villages, towns and cities that they passed on their way. If these settlements were in the homeland, or in territories that had already been conquered, then the goods could be bought or paid for. You might also find in this situation the origins of military requisitioning. That is
“If someone in authority, particularly the army, requisitions a vehicle, buildings or food they officially demand to have it during an emergency such as war”
This was not always voluntary and it would be fair to suggest that any payments promised were not always forthcoming.
If they were in lands that were in opposing territories, it might take the more terrifying form of looting and pillaging. Looting, a word that is actually taken from the Hindi and Urdu word, “lūṭ” and the Sanskrit word, “luṇṭati,” which all means, “he plunders,” has been part of the post victory rituals of armies since the beginning of time. In the most part, the soldiers would be looking to increase their wealth by taking coins and utensils made of precious metals. And this was considered part of their contract with their ruler that they would be able to plunder the defeated as part of their payment for fighting. In fact, it is even seen as granted by God. In Deuteronomy 20:14, it reads,
“You may enjoy the plunder from your enemies that the lord your God has given you.”
Often, as our friend Professor Carla Pestana, Chair of the Department of History at UCLA, points out, this looting had friends or foes as its victim. And she particularly mentioned that during the English Civil War, unprovisioned soldiers would loot not caring if their victims were loyalists or Roundheads.
As well as the wealth, soldiers would take whatever food and drink they could find. Which, to me, definitely conjures up images of blood-spattered soldiers swigging wine and beer, while watching some poor unfortunate’s goat sizzling over a spit.
However, these very informal methods of feeding the troops were never going to be enough. And this was true for quite a few reasons.
Firstly, the armies of ancient times rapidly grew to an enormous size. They could range from tens of thousands of people to even hundreds of thousands of people in number. For example, the armies of the Persian Empire at around 500 BCE could potentially call on 500,000 men, while that of the Song Dynasty in China at around 1000 CE could muster up over 800,000 men.
As well as this, armies would often travel very far afield in search of conquest and be away from their homes for such extended times. Alexander the Great famously had his army of some 50,000 men on campaign for so long, and so far away that there were complaints from companions that they were beginning to take on the customs and dress of the Persians he had conquered. He even killed one of his oldest friends, Cleitus, for suggesting such a thing during a post battle drinking session. So, as aspirations grew, so too did the responsibilities of supplying an army on the move, and indeed when they were laying in siege on the prospective targets.
The period of the Mesopotamians – which, in reality, covers many great civilizations including the Sumerians, the Akkadians and the Babylonians – began around 10,000 BCE and lasted until about 651 BCE. During that Mesopotamian period, we begin to see what is considered the first true standing army of about 5,400 men. This was under the reign of their first emperor, Sargon of Akkad. As the army grew – with each conquered territory obliged to send men to join the victors army – the need for proper logistics and administration became apparent and we also see, under Sargon, the beginning of the first military bureaucracy.
The primary food ration for this army, according to letters found during the time of Sargon II, was that of grain. The letters describe what types of grain were to be held for a campaign, and in which locations. It was then split into what grains were held for the men, and what was to be stored as fodder for the pack animals. It also shows how much of the grains are to be provided for specific ranks, with charioteers and the cavalrymen coming out on top, with “information officers” at the end of the list.
Quite how such rations were meted out and accounted for, it is difficult to find out. However, from around 1859 to 1813 BCE, the time of the ancient Egyptian Middle Kingdom, archeologists have found small wooden tokens that were carried by troops in the Lower Nubian area of the country. These were to be handed over in exchange for rations. The small round token is shaped like a flat bread, and an inscription on the token declares the amount of bread that the soldier was to be given every 10 days. I think this was a sign of developing a hugely sophisticated logistics system and it meant that the troops of ancient Egypt received what could be considered a rather generous military ration. These included a daily ration of five minae of roast grain – where a minae is a unit of weight – two minae’s of beef, and four cups of wine.
The soldiers of Alexander the Great, on the other hand, were perhaps not so lucky. Alexander’s father, Phillip of Macedon, had placed major reforms on his military, including ordering his soldiers to carry much of their own burden, rather than place it in carts drawn by oxen. As well as weaponry, this included every man carrying their own cooking utensils and thirty-days’ worth of flour. The result being that their backpacks could weigh as much as 80 pounds. This may seem counter-productive to potentially overburden your troops, but the theory, which proved to be correct, is that without the hinderance of carts and oxen, the troops could move faster than any opponent, giving him the much needed opportunity of surprise.
That being said, I would think that Alexander’s soldiers’ diet was designed for function and not for taste, which is a complaint made by just about every serving person since then, I would imagine.
Their diet primarily consisted of wheat, barley or millet, which was usually ground into flour they were now having to carry. If they had time, this could be made into bread, or if in a hurry, it could be mixed with water to make a porridge. They could also eat vegetables and fruits, and on rare occasions, meat. It equated to around 3 pounds of food per day or about 3,600 worth of calorific value and when added to the need for each soldier to consume about two quarts of water every day, it meant that keeping his troops well fed was a constant source of concern to Alexander, who tried to ensure his army was well provisioned.
Often, such was the fear in which his troops were considered that targets surrendered rather than enter into conflict and he was able to avail himself of their resources. And, he built up a sophisticated supply base for supplying the nutritional needs of the incoming soldiers as well as consulted with experts about obtaining food in a given place and climate.
How seriously he took supplying his men is apparent as he is said to have proclaimed,
“My logisticians are a humorless lot…..they know if my campaigns fail, they are the first ones I will slay.”
However, Alexander himself was far from infallible. The cost to him of a failure to keep supplies flowing to his troops became apparent after a grave miscalculation in 326 BCE.
Alexander took a third of his troops on a route over the Gedrosian desert, with the intent of having a supply ship follow along the coast. His supply ship, however, was unable to catch up due to the weather. He and his disgruntled armies were forced to make its way across the desert without supplies. During the journey, they lost about 75% of their contingent. Even “the Great” could be caught out by the need for military rations.
When we think of the military in ancient Greece, it is inevitably the Spartans who first come to mind. This was, of course, a nation that was entirely dedicated to the art of war. Its men and women valued bravery and military discipline above all else. The Spartans were and remain famous for their austerity, which covered all areas of life. Hence, the term “spartan,” which means
“marked by simplicity, frugality, or avoidance of luxury and comfort.”
Pretty much like my life, I’d like to think. I hear laughter in the background.
A typical Spartan meal might consist of the famous dark or black stew made of blood and pork. This might be served with barley, figs, cheese, and wine.
Young men in Sparta would join an “Agoge” or combat academy at the age of seven, where they would be put through a rigorous training regimen. Part of their training was learning to march long distances carrying enough provisions for at least twenty days. These rations included dark rye bread, salted meats and cheeses. Historian Thomas R. Martin also notes,
“Boys were also purposely underfed so that they would have to develop the skills of stealth by pilfering food. Yet, if they were caught stealing anything, punishment and disgrace followed immediately. One famous Spartan tale taught how seriously boys were supposed to fear such failure: Having successfully stolen a fox, which he was hiding under his clothing, a Spartan youth died because he let the panicked animal rip out his insides rather than be detected in the theft.”
Now, that’s crazy.
Another interesting thing to note, whereas in other armies, one might expect the officer classes to indulge in finer fare than the common soldiers, in the egalitarian Spartan army, however, all rations were the same and were shared out in equal measure whatever the rank.
By the time we come to the end of the ancient or classical period, almost 500 years later, it is of course the Romans who had made the supply of rations to their military forces something of an art form. I’ve already written about the Roman army in some detail in an episode on dining in the Roman Empire in Season 5 of Eat My Globe. So, if you’ve not yet listened to that episode, please do go and give it a listen.
It was unsurprising that the Romans had to develop such sophisticated systems to feed their forces. During its imperial period – which lasted from 27 BCE to 476 CE – Rome maintained a standing army of around 350,000 men. And an army which covered an empire that reached from the far north of England to the edges of Arabia. The men would have been stationed in territories around the empire from which they could be dispatched when needed.
To achieve the need to feed these soldiers presented Rome with a great task. Both in terms of growing the food that was needed for this many men, as well as providing efficient methods to facilitate distribution from Rome and its held territories to these often far-flung places. The fact that they were able to do so successfully is one of the reasons why the empire prospered for such a considerable time.
Roman soldiers split their supplies into two forms. There were those that came under the banner “Impedimenta” or “initial supplies.” These included a provision train or convoy that could comprise thousands of pack animals, and hundreds of carts carrying provisions. These would feed the army wherever they would go.
The second part of the supply would have been those provisions sent from the “home front,” which could mean Rome itself or even one of the major cities in the empire. This was known as the “commeatus” and would have arrived either by road, or by ship travelling on Rome’s extensive sea networks.
Also, as part of their “impedimenta,” just as with some of their military predecessors in the ancient world, the Roman soldiers carried a pack with some provisions. According to the “Codex Theodosianus” – a collection of Roman laws created between 429 and 438 CE by Emperor Theodosius II,
“Study of past practice has revealed that our soldiers, during the time of a campaign, are accustomed to receive hard tack [buccellatum] and bread, ordinary wine and also sour wine, and meat, both pork and mutton, as follows: hard tack for two days out of three, bread on the third day; ordinary wine on one day, sour wine on the other; pork for one day out of three, mutton on the other two days.”
The “buccellatum” was a twice cooked hard tack biscuit, which made it lighter to carry, and likely shaped like a doughnut with a hole for easy transport. The twice baking removed the moisture making it harder to spoil. It may have been ground to become flour to make bread.
The Roman soldier consumed about 6,000 calories a day. They ate two times a day: a “prandium” or breakfast, and a larger “cena” or supper. Meals during the prandium would have been eaten while standing and likely required no cooking. Supper, depending on the situation, would have been slightly more leisurely in that reclining was allowed, and food would have been cooked – meats were likely roasted or boiled and salted – and consumed by the soldiers themselves with the other soldiers in their “contubernium,” that is, the smallest unit of soldiers that carried the equipment.
The primary source of calories for the Roman soldier would have come from grains, primarily, wheat, but on emergency situations or even as a punishment, perhaps barley. Alongside this, they would have consumed vegetables and puls, which is a little bit like polenta. They would also have consumed some meat. In fact, they would have eaten more meat than their civilian counterparts back in Rome.
As I mentioned in my previous episode, archeological excavations in Britain and in Germany show that Roman soldiers consumed both meat supplied for them by the army rations, such as mutton and pork, but also animals that they could catch as they marched, which included beavers, badgers, foxes and wolves.
With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE, we lose a lot of the sophisticated methods of supplying rations to troops in Europe during the period that is known as the Middle Ages because there weren’t that many states that could sustain such a large military infrastructure. However, if we take a more global view on the matter, we can see that other major civilizations during the period were developing their own unique methods of supplying their troops as they prepared for or were in battle.
In the 13th century, the famous cavalry forces of the mighty Mongolian emperor, Genghis Khan, had their own particular way of feeding themselves when they were riding to battle. Inevitably, as a culture that had tied its very existence to that of its horses, they provided a source of transportation and of nourishment. As one commander apparently said,
“If the horse dies, I die; If it lives, I survive.”
We know about their rations, thanks to the writings of famed explorer, Marco Polo, who in his book now known as “The Travels of Marco Polo,” he gave – perhaps exaggerated – accounts of how the Mongolian cavalry men fed themselves.
The first was through the milk of the mares. The mare was the cavalry man’s prime choice for a mount for this reason, and on top of which, the milk could be fermented to make an alcoholic beverage known as Kumiss. I have to say, having tried this drink on a visit to Mongolia, I’m not sure I would have been in any state to fight after drinking it. It. . . it’s not desperately alcoholic, around 3.5 % but I do remember it sitting in the stomach for quite some time afterwards. But hey ho.
The second is one of those great “Eat My Globe” facts that we like to share with you to bore people with at dinner parties every now and again. And that is, when riding long distances, the cavalry man had a technique of nicking a small vein in the neck of their horses. This did not damage the horse, but allowed blood to flow out, which the man could then suck up to nourish him while he rode. As Polo puts it, a man could
“ride quite ten days’ marches without eating any cooked food and without lighting a fire.”
Now, I don’t know if what Marco Polo said is true or not so who knows.
There is one other element of Mongolian rations that has become one of those great culinary myths that we often hear repeated. In fact, admittedly, it is one that I have been guilty of using myself before I did the necessary further research. And, that is the notion that the Mongolians created that well known dish of raw beef we now know as Steak Tartar. Tartar – or Tatar – was a name given to the Mongolians by those they conquered in Europe. The story being that the Mongolian cavalry man would shove lumps of raw meat under the saddles of their horses as they rode. The meat would be pulverized as they charged and, at night, they would eat this tenderized meat.
Now, it’s a great story, and one that does have some connection to truth, in that we do know that the Mongolians did put meat under their saddlebags, but primarily to act as a salve for any sores or wounds that the horses might have suffered from rubbing friction with the leather. However, we don’t have any evidence that they ate the meat, until the writings of a 13th century French chronicler named Jean de Joinville, who used the notion of eating raw meat to show that the Mongols were uncivilized.
Anyway…. Moving on.
The Ming Dynasty, which ruled from 1368 CE to 1644 CE, defeated the Mongols in China. The Ming Dynasty had a well-developed system of supplying its forces via a system of using military farmlands, which was 10% of all cultivated lands. The state charged 10 to 20% of military households in each region with running these farmlands and gave them seeds and tools to grow grain. Bad growing seasons were supplemented by grain delivery from other farmers. It was a massive undertaking and designed to feed, in 1392 alone, 1.2 million soldiers. And, a military advice during the era says,
“If you occupy the enemy’s storehouses and granaries and seize his accumulated resources in order to continuously provision your army, you will be victorious.”
So it seems to me that the notion of foraging supplies was never a major part of their tactics.
Now, with your permission, I’m going to leap forward a bit to the 19th century. That is not to suggest that there were no interesting stories in the centuries I am about to stride over. Indeed, of course, there are.
I would love to tell you about how crusaders in the military conflicts between the world of Islam and Christianity, on more than one occasion, would lose battles because they were so hungry that when they entered a Muslim camp and saw the food being prepared, they would stop fighting and sit down and eat.
And, I would love to stop and tell you about the rations on the Armada of ships sent by Phillip II of Spain to conquer Elizabethan England in 1588, which included 110,000 quintals or 24,250,848.8 pounds of biscuits, 6,000 quintals or about 1,322,744 pounds of bacon, 3,433 quintals or about 756,846.9 pounds of cheese, 11,398 arrobas or about 48,562 gallons of oil, 23,870 arrobas or about 101,700 gallons of vinegar, 14,170 barrels of wine, and 11,870 barrels of water.
As I said, I would love to tell you more about these but, as you know, I like to keep these podcasts to under an hour, at most, and with that limit of time, I do want to jump ahead to talk about two examples of how a success or failure of supplying military rations can be one of the great determining factors in any major campaign.
Hi everybody, this is Simon Majumdar, the creator and host of the Eat My Globe food history podcast. Now, those of you have been listening to the podcast since we began over two years ago – nearly 50 episodes so far – will know that we have never sought out sponsorship for the podcast. It’s very much been a labor of love. However, along the way, a large number of people have approached us suggesting they would like to support the podcast. And so, we have opened up a page on Patreon dot com to allow those of you who listen regularly to do just that. Any support we will get will allow us to purchase research materials, buy ingredients for recipes, and maybe, when we can get out and about to bring you some very special in-the-field reporting. But, and this is really important. This is not just a one-way street. For varying levels of membership of our Patreon club, there will be access to fantastic Eat My Globe swag, including that incredible chopping board so many of you have written to me about, recipes based on historical periods about which we chat each week, video shout outs, signed pictures, and even along the way, some very special episodes just for members. So, if you’ve enjoyed the episodes of Eat My Globe you’ve listened to so far, and would like us to make many more into the future, do head over to www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe and consider taking out a membership. Any support will be much appreciated. Remember, that’s www dot Patreon dot com slash Eat My Globe. So, thank you very much, and keep listening.
So, let’s begin with one of history’s greatest generals, Napoleon, or to give him his full name, Napoleon Bonaparte. He was born in 1769 and died in 1821. During his life, he oversaw a period of post-revolutionary French expansion. He rose from being the “La Petit Caporal” from the island of Corsica to becoming Napoleon I, Emperor of a territory that covered much of Europe and was populated by, at its peak, over 44 million people. Now, much of Napoleon’s success was down to his abilities as a military strategist, and it is said that many of his ways of operating changed views on warfare to the present day.
Napoleon is often famously quoted as saying that,
“an army marches on its stomach.”
However, there is no real evidence to show that he ever uttered these words. And, in fact, Napoleon is actually much criticized for his lack of coherence on how he supplied his troops. It was a lack of understanding that not only meant that his troops were constantly hungry, but also in his most renowned failures almost wiped out his entire army particularly in the ignominious retreat from Russia in 1812.
His soldiers were notionally rationed in ways that had been seen throughout history.
The rations would include,
“24 ounces of bread, a half-pound of meat, an ounce of rice or two ounces of dried beans or peas or lentils, a quart of wine, a gill (roughly a quarter pint) of brandy and a half gill of vinegar.”
He also ordered that the food would be,
“Soup, boiled beef, a roasted joint and some vegetables; no dessert.”
No dessert? No wonder he lost the Battle of Waterloo. Ugh. I don’t need desert?
Anyway, otherwise. . . here’s the thing. If you don’t have your dessert, will the soldiers dessert?
Oh dear. Okay. Anyway.
Napoleon had a rather backward-looking plan that his forces would feed themselves off the lands as they marched.
The notion was successful in some of his earlier campaigns. However, in two of his biggest campaigns – in Egypt and Russia – this lack of provision proved disastrous. The 1812 campaign in Russia has particularly gone down in military infamy.
Napoleon sent 500,000 troops, his Grand Armee, into Russia with an expectation that his soldiers would live off the land as they had before. The Russians, however, knew their land well and understood that this French plan was doomed to failure. Instead of facing Napoleon’s troops in battle, they retreated and drew the French further into the territory.
During a ferociously hot summer, the Russians indulged in a scorched earth policy. That is, destroying their own villages, towns and cities to prevent them from getting food and otherwise being of use to the enemy. What provisions could be found from the land were devoured by the vanguard of the French troops, leaving the rest to search in vain for food. Added to a lack of available clean drinking water, the French began to suffer from diseases and as many died from dysentery as from skirmishes.
When Napoleon did make the decision to retreat from Russia, the winter had begun to close in and the temperatures could be almost 20 degrees below zero. And food was even harder to find. The French troops began to commit some fairly unspeakable acts as they fought for something to eat. Stealing from comrades who had found a piece of bread. Reports of cannibalism. Slaughtering horses and eating their flesh in a raw state, so they could be eaten quickly before it got stolen or taken away from them.
As I said, Napoleon had begun the campaign against the Russians with 500,000 men. It is believed that at the end of his famous retreat, he was left with no more than 20,000 men of his Grand Armee. Which goes to show that even the most illustrious of generals can come crashing down when they fail to take rations and supply seriously.
Now, before we leave Napoleon, let’s spend a few moments to allow me to confirm one often told culinary story and to refute another. In 1795, the French Directory began a competition to create a way of preserving food for transportation to the troops. The winner took 14 long years to perfect his method and to receive his award of 12,000 francs by which time Napoleon Bonaparte was running the country. This winner was a French chef and distiller by the name of Nicolas Appert. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve talked about him on our episode on the history of Spam® in season 1. Appert’s method involved storing fruits and vegetables in glass containers, which were sealed with cork and wire and then boiled for varying lengths of time. He spent his winnings on opening a factory to continue his work at a larger volume. I would like to think that because Napoleon was already emperor at the time, he personally gave Nicolas Appert the prize for inventing canning. After all, canning is something without which no future military ration would ever be.
And, before we move on, let me just take one more second to refute a culinary story of the period, which is a terrific one, but completely without support. Nope, Napoleon did not ask French bakers to create the baguette, that famous long loaf, so the French soldiers could shove it down their trousers while they marched. So there.
OK. Let’s move on to the middle of the 19th century and to the American Civil War, which was fought between the soldiers of the United States of America and those of the Confederacy between 1861 and 1865. Now, of course, there are many reasons why the Union was ultimately successful in this war. However, the impact of the disparity of food rations is not one that any serious historian can easily dismiss. This was, after all, a war where elements such as diseases, infections of wounds causing gangrene and unsanitary conditions killed more than half of the 620,000 who died from the battles of the war itself.
It is not to suggest that the rations between the two forces were initially better, although they were to become so. It was the supply system that was put in place by the Union to get food to the forces, and the technology that was developed to preserve food from spoiling that made the main difference. That and the supply of one ingredient in particular.
Both the Union and the Confederate governments set up very similar systems of supplying their troops with food. This is unsurprising as they had, until the outbreak of the war, been part of one nation in which the officers received similar training, at West Point. The Confederacy actually adopted the US government rations at the beginning of the war. Although by 1862, as food became more scarce, they had to reduce variety and amounts.
They both had commissary departments to oversee food supply, they allowed for foraging wherever forces could, and they allowed for foodstuffs to be bought from “area sutlers” or authorized food retailers.
A soldier could expect to receive rations of pork or bacon, fresh or salted beef, coffee, peas, flour or bread, tea, sugar, rice, dried fruits and hardtack.
One of the main problems both sides faced was that the men would have to cook for themselves. Something that very few men were, at the time, equipped to do because that work was being done for them by the women of the house, or if they were wealthier, by their slaves. On the Union side, in the early stages of the war, they had a department known as the United States Sanitary Commission. Their job was to find the best available food and send it to the soldiers in the field with the prime intention of bringing the best nutrition to the troops.
This was a hard perhaps, impossible, task given the size of the Union Army. After the loss at the first battle of Bull Run in July 1861, a New York hotel owner known as James M. Sanderson approached the War Department with a suggestion. He had actually taken a small tour of soldier’s encampments in an attempt to teach some of the soldiers some simple cooking techniques. He saw the benefits that decent cooking had on both the morale and health of the troops, and suggested the Union create a rank of specially trained cooks called, “Cook Majors,” at a salary of $50 a month.
He also wrote a cookbook specifically aimed at distribution to the military known as “Camp Fires and Camp Cooking; Culinary Hints for The Soldier,” which gave some key advice, such as,
“beans, badly boiled, kill more than bullets; and fat is more fatal than powder.”
I think my wife agrees about the beans. [Laughter]
Among all of the recipes Sanderson offered up, including ones for “Brazilian Beef” and “Bubble & Squeak” – or leftover beef and cabbage – perhaps the most important is one that guides soldiers, quote, “To Prepare Coffee.” We have already released a whole episode on “The History of Coffee” on Eat My Globe, which you may want to go and listen to at some point. In that, I suggest, as Sanderson does here, that coffee was arguably the most important ration requirement of the whole of the Civil War. As he puts it,
“Of all the articles of diet afforded the soldier none is more important or popular than his coffee.”
Now, this was not just because of the morale boost of a good cup of coffee, but there was a genuine belief that coffee was an essential requirement to maintain soldiers at a state of alert. And in 1832, President Andrew Jackson had considered it so important that he added it to the military rations.
General Benjamin Butler declared in a shared strategy with other Union generals,
“If your men get their coffee early in the morning, you can hold.”
And in 1864, the US Government bought 40 million pounds of coffee beans, which allowed them to supply their soldiers with a monthly ration of 3 pounds each. The Confederacy, however, had no such benefit. As their ports were blockaded, they were unable to get hold of real coffee and had to issue coffee substitutes, such as those made of rye.
It is, as I said in my coffee episode, not too outlandish to suggest that coffee was one of the key reasons the Union won the American Civil War. A fact that is particularly ironic, given that nearly all of the coffee imported by the US government came from the plantations of Brazil where it had been picked by slaves.
I mentioned earlier that as well as the type of rations that were supplied during the American Civil War, the other major aspect was the development of new technologies that helped distribute rations and helped preserve them on their way to the front lines. Perhaps the most important of these developments was the use of the railroads, a transport system that had begun to build its network in the United States since the 1850s.
Every major Civil War battle east of the Mississippi occurred within 20 miles of a rail line. They were so important that rail junctions became targets in their own right and the United States Government had about 20,000 miles of railroad at its disposal. A considerable amount more than the Confederacy, who had about 9,000 miles and whose railroads were also in a poor state of repair.
That meant that the Union had a distinct advantage in supplying their forces with reinforcements, medical supplies, equipment and, of course, food. Food that could be provided on a more regular basis, so that the forces were not laden down with supplies, and food that could be fresh and less subject to spoilage.
As I said about coffee, it is not too outlandish to suggest that the successful use of the railroads was another key contributing factor in the Northern victory in the American Civil War.
And, that finally brings us up to the 20th and the 21st century. It’s a period where we see further developments of the grades of rations provided to forces involved in conflicts.
The United States Army particularly realized that the impact on morale on their forces of decent rations was clear, and that the impact on the enemy soldiers of knowing that American forces were being fed so much better was just as important. As the world’s most affluent nation, they were in a position to provide the best. The rations supplied to the US Army during World War II, for example, was overseen by the Army Medical Corp with the express purpose of making sure that they were superior to anything that was being supplied by the German and Japanese forces.
The grades were all labeled alphabetically. From A Rations that were served when encamped in garrisons and cooked in field kitchens, to C Rations or “C-Rats,” which became the staple of most combat troops. These were designed to be an improvement on the “Reserve Rations” that had been offered to American troops during WWI and were introduced in 1938.
The “C-Rats” were designed at the Quartermaster Subsistence Research and Development Laboratory in Chicago, whose aim was to create meals that were both nutritious, delicious and consisted of food that could be kept for an extended period. The resulting “C-Rats” were comprised of tin plate 12-ounce cans that were opened with small keys, and consisted of stews and dishes like canned meat, spaghetti and meatballs, noodles, and pork and beans. Alongside these were cigarettes or tobacco, cookies, chocolate and candies.
These “C-Rats” provided each soldier with around 3,700 calories per day.
Alongside these rations were a lighter ration pack known as K Rations. These were created particularly with paratroopers in mind. The C Rations would be too heavy to carry. According to Franz A. Koehler, who wrote the book, “Special Rations for the Armed Forces,” in 1958 for the Office of the Quartermaster General, the K Ration was
“an individual, easy-to-carry ration that could be used in assault and combat operations. It was noted for compactness and superior packaging and was acknowledged as the ration that provided the greatest variety of nutritionally balanced components within the smallest space.”
These consisted of a one breakfast, lunch and supper package combo. These packages all included gum and pemmican biscuits, where “pemmican” was the term for pounded and shredded meat mixed with dried berries. In addition, the breakfast package included malted milk in a tablet, tinned meat, coffee and sugar. The lunch package included a tablet of dextrose, tinned meat and cubes of bouillon. The dinner package included sausage, lemon powder, sugar and a chocolate bar.
These styles of rations carried on in various forms until the early 1980s when they were replaced by the famous, or is that infamous, MRE. Now, MRE stands for “Meal, Ready to Eat,” although among some, they are referred to as “Meals Rejected by Everyone,” “Meals Refusing to Exit,” [Laughter] “Meals Refused by the Enemy,” or even “Materials Resembling Edibles.” [Laughter] The initial response to them was less than enthusiastic and about half of the meals sent out on a test project in 1983 remained uneaten.
The Department of Defense has over the years tried to improve the quality and variety of MREs produced, and offerings have since included ratatouille, chicken and pesto pasta and even Irish cream coffee. Some of those that have since been rejected included chicken a la king, and ham omelet and corned beef hash. And, according to one service member, the veggie burger with BBQ sauce
“doesn’t taste like vegetables or burgers of any variety. It tastes more like woe. And maybe really old chickpeas that got run over by an Abrams.”
Which all goes to show that despite all technological developments that have taken place over thousands of years, the reaction of troops to the food that they are offered has hardly altered. And, while the style in which those rations are offered has definitely become more sanitary, the way it is delivered has remained pretty much the same all the way through history: feeding the forces in camp and giving them sufficient nutrition as they march. Thankfully, one hopes, less pillaging and looting along the way.
Now, usually at the end of Eat My Globe, I say I am going off and to cook. However, on this occasion, where we have been talking about military rations, perhaps it would be the right thing to do to take this opportunity to thank those in our forces, who serve on our behalf every day and for whom such rations have been developed over the centuries.
So, to all of those military folks out there, Eat My Globe salutes you.
See you next time folks.
Do make sure to check out the website associated with this podcast at www dot Eat My Globe dot com where we will be posting the transcripts from each episode, along with all the references and resources we used putting the episodes together, in case you want to delve deeper into each subject. There is also a contact button, so please do let us know if there are any subjects that you would like us to cover.
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Thank you and goodbye from me, Simon Majumdar, we’ll speak to you soon on the next episode of EAT MY GLOBE: Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Food.
The EAT MY GLOBE Podcast is a production of “It’s Not Much But It’s Ours” and “Producer Girl Productions”
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and is created with the kind co-operation of the UCLA Department of History. We would especially like to thank Professor Carla Pestana, the Department Chair of the Department of History and Doctor Tawny Paul, Public History Initiative Director, for their notes on this episode. Also, a huge thank you to Sybil Villanueva for her help with the research and the preparations of the transcripts for this episode, which can be found on the website.
Published Date: June 28, 2021
For the annotated transcript with references and resources, please click HERE.