WHAT DID NAPOLEON’S ARMY EAT?
Napoleon used to say that "an army marches on its stomach," and all the Napoleonic armies employed enormous resources to feed the troops. That's what the soldiers ate and how they fed
“An army marches on its stomach.” When Napoleon, at the age of 26, became general of the Armee d’Italie, he found himself at the head of an army which lacked practically everything, from shoes to salaries up to supplies. With his extraordinary energy, he was able to find everything he needed, first finding financial support of 3 million francs by Genoese Jews and then imposing substantial “contributions” to the Italian states. In short, therefore, he managed to feed his army, although he very often clashed with the robberies of consortia and financiers (on his return to Paris, in 1998, his wife Giuseppina slipped into a shady deal with the companies supplying the armies with his lover Hyppolite Charles, who had left the active duty to devote himself to “business”.)
But what were the supplies, and what did the soldiers eat?
As mentioned, many got rich under the Empire, making money on provisioning despite the risk of being shot. Even when Napoleon militarized the process, the robberies continued. On the other hand, the speed with which the French moved meant that the ox-pulled baggage remained behind, so often, the soldiers carried with them the bare essentials.
This bare minimum is difficult to describe, as it could vary a lot. In the barracks, the soldiers ate breakfast with coffee and bread. At lunch and dinner (at 10 am and 5 pm), they alternated white bread, dried legumes, brandy, vinegar (during the wars), 250 grams of meat each (including bones and fat).
Hard to say when and what they ate during the campaigns. Often, soldiers used the bayonet as a roasting-spit, which was forbidden, while their panoply was part of the mess kit, whose shape changed over the years due to its transportability. Indeed, this large pot, with a diameter of 30-35 cm, was carried by the youngest on duty within the team, which was composed of 8-10 people. The soldiers ate around the mess kit with their wooden spoon, with their free hands behind their backs, and being careful not to soil the uniform.
Only the non-commissioned officers or soldiers of the Imperial Guard, at that time, the best soldiers in the world, had the right to use their own pottery mess kit, into which they poured the meal.
Wine, meat, salt, onions, and rice: the Armee’s provisions
For the Armee and the previous revolutionary armies, the necessary raw materials on which the efforts to supply were concentrated:
The Meat: the meat ration was about 250 grams per day per soldier. It had to be bloodless, dry and easy on the eye. Offal was not included from distribution. The meat also had to be fresh, so the slaughter of the cattle had to take place before delivery.
Rice was an ounce each (about 28 grams). In the absence of rice, two ounces of dried vegetables could be distributed.
Salt: every day was given a thirtieth of a pound (15 grams) of salt. It should not be surprising: salt was also essential for the preservation of food, as well as for hygiene (the same value had vinegar and brandy).
The Wine: Wine was very important to keep up the troops’ morale and send them into battle so much so that a pint was delivered per day for each soldier (about half a liter). Not having it could cause huge resentment, and often Napoleon had it distributed even further after the victories (especially when the situation was about to go bad). Also, for the Wine, they tried to procure the one of good quality, natural and without any addition.
Onions: in lean periods, onions were decisive. Easy to carry, they could be eaten raw. They were even given a song, the Chanson de l’Oignon (Song of the Onion):
- I love onion fried with oil,
- I love onion because it’s good,
- I love onion fried with oil,
- I love onion; I love onion.
This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)