Food and Foraging



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    The life of officers and soldiers were very different when it came to food. Officers were generally able to purchase some extra food to make their lifes comfortable, but both could suffer equally in time of hardship. Harry Smith and his wife once had to resort to roasting acorns and went through some fairly lean times while on hard marches where the commissary could not catch up.

    The difference between the French army and the British is that the French were expected to forage for themselves (and thus keep the costs of a large army down). The British were discouraged from foraging on pain of harsh penalty including the 'cat'.

    The general rations for soldiers was monotonous fare, each day was 3/4 of a pound of beef bone and 1 1/2 pounds of bread or biscuit. It was generally cooked in two meals a day, thickened into a stew. Sometimes they did not even have this. They would be issued up to three days food in advance, but the commissary carts were notoriously slow, or elsewhere.

    But here is a typical evening for the officers mess from Sir John Kincaid, Pg 23 Adventures in the Rifle Brigade.

      "The officers of each company form a mess of themselves. One remains in camp to attend to duties of the regiment. A second attends to the mess; he goes to the regimental butcher, and bespeaks a portion of the only purchasable commodities, hearts, livers, and kidneys, and also to see whether he cannot do the commissary out of a few extra biscuit, or a canteen of brandy; and the remainder of the gentlemen are at large for the day. But while they go hunting among the neighbouring regiments for news, and the neighbouring houses for curiosity, they have always an eye to their mess, and miss no opportunity of adding to the general stock."

    Life for general soldiers could be a lot harsher, This from Edward Costello:

      I cannot here forbear making a few remarks with reference to the men who composed our battalion in the Peninsula. The reader will be apt to imagine that those men who were in the habit of foraging after a day's march were but indifferent soldiers. Allow me, with some pretensions to the name of a veteran, to correct this error, and inform the reader that these were the very men whose bravery and dating in the field far exceeded the merits of their more quiet comrades in quarters.
      Our men, during the war, might be said to have been composed of three classes. One was zealous and brave to absolute devotion, but who, apart from their 'fighting duties', considered some little indulgence as a right; the other class barely did their duty when under the eye of their superior; while the third, and I am happy to say, by far the smallest in number, were skulkers and poltroons - their excuse was weariness from want of rations; they would crawl to the rear, and were seldom seen until after a battle had been fought, when they might be observed in the ranks until the Commissary again placed them on short allowance, when off they started; in this manner they swelled the muster-rolls.
      But the first of these were the men who placed the Duke on his present pinnacle as one of the great captains of the age. During the whole of our advance from the frontiers of Portugal, until we entered the Pyrenees, not more (on the average) than one biscuit per day was served out to each man - and it consequently could not be expected that a soldier, weighed down by a heavy knapsack, and from sixty to eighty rounds of ammunition (stick as we Riflemen carried at the time), could march from twenty to thirty miles a day on so short an allowance.
      It was not unfrequent, therefore, after a day's march to observe groups of our regiment, and, indeed, of the division, rooting up the fields with their swords and bayonets, in search of potatoes, &c., and these were the men who were able to undergo the fatigue of the next day.
      The French, also, in their hurried retreat stocked themselves with several days provisions in advance; these were hung very temptingly from their knapsacks,1 and as it were, in defiance of our hungry jaws; as a consequence, this gave rise to the well-known remark, or alternatives of the Light Division: Damme, boys, if the Commissary don't show his front we must either find a potato field or have a killing day!'
      Indeed, but for these rescources, so dependent on our individual energies, his Grace, from our being always in front, might have occasionally found half his Light Division 'stiff', and the other half tucked under the blankets as 'Belem Rangers'.

    Later Costello describes the army in the Pyrenees in 1813/14. The general order was to issue the men with about a pound of biscuit per day. For the most part they had to forage or rely on their cunning to survive the harsh conditions:

      Our division was served out with linen bags, made exactly to fit across our knapsacks, and, at the same time, three days' biscuit (3 lb.) in each bag. This biscuit was to be kept strapped on the top of each man's knapsack, well tied, with brigade orders for no man to taste a morsel of it, unless given out in written orders to that effect, as our brigadier [KemptJ expected we should be on short commons while on the Pyrenees, and this was to be, in case of scarcity, our last resource. These bags were examined regularly every morning by officers commanding cornpanies, but, while seen strapped snugly on the knapsacks, were considered by them all right. However, our fellows, who were never at a loss for a subterfuge, devised the following plan to evade the officers' vigilance: they ate their biscuits except one whole one, which they kcpt at top to be seen, and in their place substituted chips. This passed on very well for some time, as the sight of the top biscuits satisfied the officers, until one day Captain Johnston of our regiment took it into hi8 head to see his company's biscuit shaken out, and whilst on private parade ordered them to untie their bags to see their biscuit. The first man on the right of our company was the unfortunate Tom Crawley.
      'Untie your bag, Crawley,' says the Captain. Tom instantly did as he was ordered, and showed the Captain a very good-looking biscuit a-top.
      'Shake the whole out,' said the Captain, 'until I see if they are getting mouldy.'
      'oh, faith, there is no fear of that,' said the astonished Crawley, looking the Captain hard in the face, at the same time casting a woeful eye on his bag. However, the Captain was not to be baulked, and taking the bag by both ends, emptied out its contents, which turned out to be nothing more nor less than a few dry chips. Poor Tom, as upright as a dart, stood scratching his head, with a countenance that would make a saint laugh.
      'What have you done with your biscuit? have you eaten it, Sir?' said the Captain. Tom, motionless, made no answer. 'Do you know it is against orders?'
      'To be sure I do,' says Tom; 'but, for God's sake, Sir, do you take me for a South American jackass, that carries gold and eats straw?'1 This answer not only set the Captain, but the whole company, in roars of laughter. On further inspection, the Captain found his whole company, indeed the regiment, had adopted the same plan. Through this our bags were taken away and we relieved from carrying chips.
    Sir John Kincaid in Adventures in the Rifle Brigade writes about the night following the battle of Salamanca:
      But it is lamentable to think, that, among the multifarious blessings we enjoy in this life, we should never be able to get a dish co glory and a dish of beef-steak on the same day; in consequence of which, the heart, which ought properly to be soaring in the clouds , or at all events, in a castle half-way up, is more generally to be found grovelling about a hen-roost, in the vain hope, that, if it cannot get hold of a hen herself, it may at least hit upon an egg.


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