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Reader's Companion to Military History

Feeding Armed Forces

Soldiers, sailors, and airmen must be fed before they can fight; in a day-to-day sense, food is more essential to armed forces than ammunition. The provision of food is a major matter of concern to logisticians, although armies in the past have also supplied their own food on the march by living off the country in one manner or another (see Logistics).

Food is not simply a matter of survival—it is also a part of culture, and different forces have eaten different foods prepared in different manners consistent with the agriculture, economies, and values of the regions that gave them birth. In western Europe, wheat bread was long the staple food of armies. Roman soldiers consumed between 1½ and 2 pounds of bread or biscuit daily. As punishment, commissaries issued to soldiers barley instead of wheat, since barley was considered to be animal food. The diet of the Roman soldier also included meat, poultry, cheese, vegetables, and olive oil. Pork was a special favorite. In the seventeenth century, regulations set the daily food allowance for a European infantryman at 1½ to 2 pounds of bread (made of wheat and rye), ½ pound of meat, and 1 pint of wine or 1 pot of beer or cider—whichever was the local drink. By the end of the eighteenth century, blocks of dried, pressed vegetables were added to the normal fare.

One of the key advances in the evolution of modern military administration was the greater care that states took in feeding their troops. This was symbolized by the creation of permanent magazines for the storage of grain and other foodstuffs in the seventeenth century. Beginning in the seventeenth century, field armies brought along their own field ovens to produce the bread they needed, since the local facilities found en route were most often inadequate. From these ovens, well-regulated trains of wagons brought the bread to the troops. The actual work of stockpiling essentials and preparing and transporting rations, however, was often left to private contractors. For most armies, uniformed personnel did not take over the daily provision of food until the nineteenth century.

Soldiers drew bread rations; sailors managed on hardtack, which could be stowed for long periods on shipboard. Bread became inedible after eight days in dry cool weather, and sooner when it was damp or particularly hot; but hard biscuit, since it contained no moisture, was nearly eternal. However, biscuit was less palatable than bread, and it was more expensive because it required more fuel to cook it into its bricklike state. For Mediterranean galleys and Atlantic men-of-war alike, biscuit served as the essential fuel for humans. In addition to hardtack, sailors ate salted meats, which could also survive long voyages, although weevils and maggots often infested foodstuffs. In the late eighteenth century, citrus fruit or juice was added to the sailor's diet to ward off scurvy. Navies accepted the full responsibility of feeding their men long before army administrators did so, since on shipboard sailors could not forage.

In Europe, religious dietary restrictions did not complicate the feeding of armed forces, but in other parts of the world, the type and preparation of food were wrapped up in religious practice and taboos. Nowhere was this more the case than in India. Dietary restrictions concerning the animal fat used to seal cartridges in India are said to have contributed to the outbreak of the mutiny in 1857, since Muslims regarded it as sinful to bite cartridges smeared with pork fat, and Hindus those with beef fat. Not only were there dietary taboos, but also sepoys generally cooked for themselves, since there were caste restrictions on who could cook for whom, and contact with eating or drinking vessels by those considered impure or improper rendered the utensils polluted.

Industrial progress brought great changes in feeding armed forces, as prepackaged rations such as canned foods made their first appearance during the nineteenth century. Napoleon even offered a prize for developing canned meat for his troops. Refrigeration later played a great role in preserving food for sailors, although its use is more limited for land campaigns.

U.S. armed forces have traditionally expected high food standards. Even during the American Civil War, soldiers received coffee and sugar as rations, items that in Europe were regarded as luxuries. On the other hand, European soldiers and sailors drew alcoholic beverages that were not given to the American troops. The tendency for elaborate rations continues in the current Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs; still, soldiers in the field can become less than fond of these. In contrast, troops from other cultures have often been able to subsist on the most meager diets and have taken pride in it. Spartan food was purposely simple and unappetizing; Zulu marched rapidly with each man carrying only his weapons and a sack of corn; and the Viet Cong could get along for some time on little more than rice balls.

Although it might be tempting to imitate simplicity in rations, it would be a mistake to fail to meet a soldier's or sailor's expectations of food, for it is one of the foundations of morale. Historically, troops fed poorly, either in absolute terms or measured by their own standards, have turned to marauding or have mutinied (see Looting/Plunder/Booty and Mutiny). Certainly this was an endemic problem in early modern Europe, and one of the grievances of French troops during the 1917 mutinies was the quality, if not the quantity, of food.

It can also be argued that the way in which soldiers eat can influence morale. Eating together in small mess groups has often been a conscious or unconscious method of fostering small group cohesion. The Roman contubernium, the Spanish camarada, and the French ordinaire were mess groups that served as fundamental units in military life. Differences in style of food and eating often separate officers from enlisted men. In early modern European armies, officers often tried to maintain a style of cuisine close to elite civilian standards. Louis XIV even tried to limit the number of courses at officers' tables, because culinary competition among officers proved expensive and inefficient. Some contrasts in standards of eating still exist; whereas modern U.S. army officers eat the same rations in much the same conditions as their soldiers, naval officers enjoy meals in wardrooms staffed with waiters.

John A. Lynn, Feeding Mars (1993); Martin van Creveld, Supplying War (1977).



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