Armies marching on their stomachs

I’ve been reading a memoir from the Revolutionary War (Private Yankee Doodle: Being a Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier by J.P. Martin) and a lot of it is about how little the soldiers have to eat. The food is described as generally bad when it is issued, and sounds like it wouldn’t have great nutritional value (lots of salt beef, handfuls of rice, a little bread… not much in the way of the things Mom would want you to eat while on campaign).

It’s my understanding that the regulars of the U.S. Army came off poorly against the British in most of their encounters (for many different reasons, to be sure). Would it be fair to say that a better-fed American force would have performed better? It seems like the obvious answer is “yes” but I’m not very familiar with the general state of the British force’s supply situation (especially with regard to their ‘victuals’ as Martin likes to call such things).

I’ve read memoirs from troops in other times and places. They all seem to eventually mention a lack of food reaching the front lines at some point; it’s worse as you go farther back in time, of course, but I’ve noted it even in recountings from Iraq and Afghanistan. Any current or former-service Dopers have experience with this particular supply failure? How did you alleviate it? (Martin and his mates often resort to “foraging” in the pantries of houses as they pass through villages - this is the traditional method in most times/places, from what I’ve read.)

Define “Food”. In the Gulf War, Episode I days, forward deployed units, at least in the 2nd Marine Division, subsisted mostly off of MREs, the shelf-stable, high calorie prepackaged meals. I was at the Division HQ, and we had “hot wets” maybe 20 or 25 of the 250 or so meals we had while out in the sand, mostly lunch, sometimes breakfast (reconstituted powdered eggs) when we were static awaiting the ground offensive to kick off. The guys more forward deployed than that (at the battalion level) got even less than that.

Read chapter 4 of this paper It will show you just how bad it could get for the redcoats. In the penninsular campaign of the early 1800’s, the common brits were fed less than Roman soldiers, Venetian galley slaves, and other ancient fighting men. Officers ate pretty well, usually.

How did other Americans eat in the 1780’s? To what degree did the soldiers supplement their official rations?

(I had a buddy who was in Desert Storm. Nice guy, lots of fun. His battalion was issued a container of food with the instruction to eat it, and not to bother the supply chain with food requests until it was gone. The whole thing was full of hash, acres of it. He still cannot laugh about it.)

Civilians seemed to be well provided for (especially to Martin’s eyes), mostly from their own gardens/livestock in the areas the army was tramping through. Martin complained about the Congress voting a day of thanksgiving be observed throughout the country (in recognition for something the army had accomplished, if I’m remembering right). While feasts were held to observe the holiday, the troops only received a handful of rice and teaspoon of vinegar.

As for their supplements, the soldiers helped themselves to produce direct from fields (usually at night), chickens from dooryards, and in a notable incident in New York, the contents of a wineseller’s basement. None of which is unusual for soldiers on campaign, though most often it’s done while in the enemy’s territory. I get the impression that in most areas it wasn’t minded too much, since the people were supportive of the Revolution. In one case, with a “foraged” bird, Martin walked into someone’s kitchen, threw it on their fire, cooked it a bit, then walked back out with his dinner and nary a word said by anyone.

I remember reading that British officers in Spain (during the Napoleonic Wars, again) were ordered to pay in coin for anything their troops acquired by foraging among the populace. Martin hasn’t made mention of similar compensation being made by American officers, but then again, he probably wasn’t in much position to know about it one way or another.

Thanks for the link, Hypno-Toad. That paper’s on a subject I’m particularly interested in.

Not necessarily, no. The problem was one of training as much as anything else. Professional British soldiers were just better prepared for your standard field battle than most of their American equivalents. Starving doesn’t help, but it isn’t the only or even necessarily the dominant factor in battlefield success. However it certainly can play a part under some circumstances. A very long, rambly, digressiony example which will eventually work its way back to food…

When the world was young and I was a fresh-faced youngster, I was writing a college paper for an European Imperialism class on Mehmed Ali of Egypt and his interactions with the European powers in the 19th century. In the course of the readings I was doing I came across a description of Napoleon’s siege of Acre ( where his campaign bogged down ). The British historian describing it made a comment roughly along the lines of “…the stubborn valor of the common Turkish soldier, at his best at position warfare.” Huh, I thought - I wonder what that means? I was well aware of 18th-19th century British racialist notions of, for example, “martial classes” in India. So I thought it was perhaps it was some similiar vestige of old racial superstition embuing Turks with some phantom character when fighting on the defensive. Or just as likely it was a fancy way of saying an inferior fighting force performed better on the defensive, pretty much a universal truism.

But many years later I found out that said writer was absolutely, 100% correct. In the 18th and very early 19th century, Turkish troops were in fact the best when fighting defensively. Not just better on defense than offense relative to themselves, but better at it than contemporary European armies. This despite the fact that Ottoman armies are pretty much considered to have overall been in steady decline vs. European quality since ~1700 ( and especially after ~1750 ). The answer to this seemingly contradictory Ottoman effectiveness while on the defensive comes down to the structure, philosophy and culture of the Ottoman military at the time.

Experience has often demonstrated that 10,000 well-disciplined troops sufficed to vanquish 100,000 Muslims; but an army of 100,000 did not suffice to force 10,000 besieged Muslims.

  • Mustapha Efendi Vasif, an 18th century Ottoman chronicler discussing the 1768-1774 war.

It is is beyond all human comprehension to grasp just how strongly these places are built, and just how obstinately the Turks defend them. As soon as one fortification is demolished they merely dig themselves another one. It is easier to deal with any conventional fortress and with any other army than with the Turks when they are defending a stronghold.

  • Austrian Field Marshal Baron Ernst Gideon von Laudon at the end of his life and after a highly successful and over 50 year military career, which culminated in his capture of Belgrade in 1789.

By 1700 the old timariot system of feudal levies had largely broken down. It had been replaced in part by an expansion of the kapu kulu ( the standing army including the famed, but increasingly less dominating, janissaries ), but more prominently by a new short term levy-en-masse from the lands of a new class of regional warlord that had grown to dominate the ever more decentralized lands of the Ottoman state. These hastily levied troops came in a couple of categories. On the one hand you had semi-professional mercenaries like the Bosnians or the very ubiquitous Albanians who formed part of the armed retinue of every Ottoman warlord from Bulgaria to the gulf. On the other you had a much larger mass of untrained or barely trained peasant militia. The commonality between them was an utter lack of military discipline. The usually very green militia were at best semi-useful cannon fodder who had a tendency to bolt at the first opportunity - 18th century Ottoman armies bled deserters in huge numbers. Better quality semi-regular troops like the aformentioned Albanians and Bosnians were reknowned for their savagery, and at times their savage bravery, but never for their discipline or steadiness.

The Ottoman regulars really weren’t much better. They had become a praetorianized elite who frequently dominated the government rather than the other way around. Not only did they occasionally intervene to overthrow sultans, every new sultan came to power with a massive gift in cash to the jannissary corps. Individual valor was highly prized, such that soldiers received cash rewrds on the spot from commanders for collecting heads and similar personal feats of arms. On the other hand drill and military discipline was not - an Ottoman observer watching the field practice of Frederik the Great’s army remarked with genuine horror that the common Prussian soldiers were treated "…worse than slaves." It was considered a great innovation when formalized drill sessions at a frequency of twice a week was instituted in the 19th century. Discipline was basically binary - either there was none or on the rare occasion the offense was severe enough to get noticed, there was execution. Add to this that the regulars regarded the non-professional troops with total contempt and you had the making of a field army utterly lacking in disciplined cohesion.

As a result Ottoman field armies tended to perform poorly against the increasingly tightly disiplined and drilled European forces. The extremely brave Turkish regulars seeking glory and prizes would sometimes launch disorganized attacks without orders, the green militia levies would not infrequently collapse on solid contact, the mercenary irregulars might concentrate on looting the enemy camp. Even in victory the Ottoman armies were hard to control, often partially dissolving as they hurled themselves pellmell after their vanquished foes. One of the reasons for the success of the Ottoman campaign against the Austrians in 1738-39 was the ability of a victorious Ottoman commander showed in holding his unruly army together after an initial victory and making an orderly, disciplined advance - it was remarked upon as unusual.

However there was a flipside to the above. Ottoman regulars in particular, as highly respected members of society with never a shortage of recruits, enjoyed an extremely high esprit de corps. The emphasis on individual achievement meant valour was prized above all - Turkish soldiers were usually brave to a fault .Perhaps most important of all their very praetoranization, as well as long-standing Ottoman military philosophy that had always heavily emphasized logistics, meant they were extremely well equipped and supplied. Much better than contemporary European armies - if you had to be a common soldier in 18th century Europe the lax, well-supplied Ottoman army was by far the most comfortable. By contrast their primary opponent in the 18th century, the Russian army, was well-drilled, brutally disciplined, recruited by forced conscription from the lowest segments of the peasantry and serfs ( essentially a death sentence until the late 19th century - the term of service was life ) and by quite deliberate fiscal policy starved and shoddily equipped. Early 19th century Ottoman troops on the march referred to their after meal leavings as ‘…fit only for dogs and Russians.’ Hard as taking Ottoman strongpoints were in terms of casualties, their fall meant huge stores of captured food, arms and ammunition for the perennially miserable Russian army.

Now at times oversupply could be a problem. At Zenta in 1697 the very size of the Ottoman supply train badly hampered the Ottoman ability to rapidly respond to Eugene of Savoy’s superbly timed ambush and probably cost them the battle.

But in defensive situations all the Ottoman weaknesses were nullified or greatly reduced and their strengths multiplied. Well-fed, lavishly supplied, fanatically brave with excellent morale - meanwhile the lack of battlefield discipline and cohesion mostly eliminated by the static nature of the combat. Consequently European armies feared to assault major Ottoman fortresses and the Ottoman state quite sensibly concentrated heavily on maintaining lines of formidable fortifications, especially on the Danube. One of the reasons for the long series of long, grinding wars in the 18th and 19th centuries was that the Ottoman defensive posture automatically equaled very slow, extremely costly campaigns. Repeatedly when reading about these wars you come across descriptions of armies balking before Ottoman strongholds because they were regarded as too costly to take, failing to take them by assault or taking them but at an extremely bloody cost. The Ottoman system, as increasingly bankrupt ( including financially ) and decrepit as it was, was very good at exacting a high cost from its foes and preserving the state for many long decades after it had become obsolescent.

So there you go. A long, boring discourse on one situation where better fed troops can matter :).

Damn, that was a great post, Tamerlane

Thanks :).

But I forgot to add one final line. Which was to note that it is worth remembering that in the end those starving, brutalized, miserable Russians still won the great majority of the time. Defensive accumen is rarely enough on its own to win wars.

Weren’t even petty looters hung by the direct order of Wellington?

I seem to recall* that it was an attempt to maintain the support of the local populace, good PR for the British forces to be rather less rapey than Napoleon’s army.
*I recall being told somewhere, I have no clue where there, and freely admit I may be totally wrong.

commissariat arrangements up to the late 19th c. were notoriously poor, contractors supplying food often cheated on quantity and/or quality, and to do so was regarded as perfectly natural and one of the benefits of the job.
One of the reasons soldiers were culturally unpopular was their need, or in some cases just habit, of commandeering food from the populace either for no payment or little payment (and in many cases peasants would rather keep the food than the money in times of dearth).

I once read (no cite) that George Washington paid great attention to supplying his army with food. in fact, he had filed kitchesn, and his quartermaster-general (Christopher Geist) invented a sheet metal oven, which was collapsable, in order to bake fresh bread for the army.
Rea;lizing how hard it is to feed large numbers of men, i wonder how large ancient armies could have been. Could Roman emperors put millions of men in the field? i doubt it.

I won’t ever forget the reminiscences of a WW2 Marine who fought the Pacific campaign. At one point his outfit were pinned down, no supply lines, and nothing to eat but “captured Jap rice sprinkled with meat - worms and ants.” (Hey, it’s protein.) This particular Marine was a cartoonist and would draw food for the guys while they ate their rice - malted milks, chicken dinners, they loved it.

Back with my wife in Tennessee,
When one day she called to me,
“Virgil, quick, come see, there goes Robert E. Lee!”
Now I don’t mind choppin’ wood,
And I don’t care if the money’s no good.
Ya take what ya need and ya leave the rest,
But they should never have taken the very best.

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down – Robbie Robertson

Well, I imagine that the incentive to capture the town so you can commence the lootin’ must be quite a motivating factor when you’re that hungry.

One of my uncles was, uncommonly for him, describing his WWII experiences on the Western Front in Patton’s Army. He said that they were not infrequently short on rations due to advancing more quickly than their own supply train. He said they’d eat captured German rations when they could.
His own words, as nearly as I can remember were "German rations were almost all good. There was meat in brown gravy that we loved and we’d stuff ourselves with it when we found it. There was this other stuff, though, some kind of canned meat…we couldn’t tell what it was…it was kind of grayish pink…didn’t taste very good…later in the war we sometimes joked that it was ‘canned Jew.’ "
I’m guessing the mystery meat was a German version of Spam. Possibly canned braunschweiger.

Last night I read a passage where Martin recalled a mutiny that started in his Connecticut Line brigade and almost spread to neighboring Pennsylvania troops. This happened in May 1780; the editor noted that General Washington was shaken quite badly when he heard about it.
Tamerlane, I am more than happy to read rambling digressiony examples of that quality.

Another WWII story. My uncle is a veteran of the WWII Italian campaign. Once, his outfit captured a pile of italian army rations-it was pretty good (canned tomato sauce and dried pasta)-which the company cooks prepared and fed the men with. but there was some kind of canned meat that was horrible-the cans were stamped “AM”-which the men joked was “Anus Mussolini”!:smack:

There’s a saying in military history circles “Amateurs think tactics; professionals think logistics.”

You remember correctly. The Provost Marshals had orders to arrest looters, rapists, and other military malefactors. Some crimes “only” rated flogging; offenses against the Spanish and/or Portuguese populace would get you the rope.

It’s totally true of Iraq, round 2. There’s always plenty to eat but the quality of it suffered greatly the further out you were from, say, the nearest airport. I remember one post, an airport, getting great food but they lived in tents and CONNEXes. Literally across the street, they got the basic stuff without the bakery items, often times reheated. They got to live in buildings, though. I, on the other hand, got the best of both :D.