In this two-part 200th anniversary special, Feast and Phrase looks at the food and words linked to the Battle of Waterloo. First course: Written accounts of battlefield feeding.
What food did soldiers have during the Waterloo Campaign of 1815? The frequent attribution of the popular saying ‘an army marches on its stomach’ to French leader Napoleon makes it all the more appropriate to ask. A collection of accounts published in the same year as the battle gives some idea of how those in the field ate – and how they didn’t:
‘The whole of the 17th, and indeed until late the next morning, the weather continued dreadful; and we were starving with hunger, no provision having been served out since the march from Brussels. While five officers who composed our mess were looking at each other with the most deplorable faces imaginable, one of the men brought us a fowl he had plundered, and a handful of biscuits, which, though but little, added to some tea we boiled in a camp-kettle, made us rather more comfortable; and we huddled up together, covered ourselves with straw, and were soon as soundly asleep as though reposing on beds of down.’
‘Letter from an Officer to his Friend in Cumberland’, in The Battle of Waterloo, published by John Booth (1815).
De Slag bij Waterloo (The Battle of Waterloo), by Dutch artist Jan Willem Pieneman (1824). Located via Wikimedia Commons. The featured image at the top of this article is Wellington at Waterloo by English painter Robert Alexander Hillingford, also found on Wikimedia Commons. Grand and impressive as both works are, they show a very different reality to that endured by the combatants.
Difficulty getting supplies to British troops and their European allies during clashes before and during 18 June meant that many were fighting on low fuel. The French were similarly afflicted, with their support wagons falling behind as they advanced into Belgium. As evidenced above, fighting was fed by foraging, which made up for direly insufficient rations. The process could drain areas of resources – one report by a French eyewitness almost seems to liken it to a Biblical plague:
‘As soon as the troops had taken even a momentary position in the vicinity of a village, they rushed like water from a broken dam over all the country beneath; corn, cattle, bread, meat, even household furniture, linen and clothes disappeared in an instant. The village became a mass of ruins; empty houses; broken doors, and the inhabitants flying into the woods and fields. The adjacent fields, hitherto covered with the promise of a rich harvest, seemed like the straw in a stable trodden under foot; and the fires of the bivouacks, leaving their blackening traces in meadows and corn fields, seemed to mark so many places which had been struck by thunder.’
From The Journal of the Three Days of the Battle of Waterloo, translated from the French (1816).
A plan of the Waterloo Campaign, located via Wikimedia Commons.
Finding enough food in a conflict situation is one problem; finding enough time to eat it is another. A British officer’s description of the lead up to the Battle of Quatre Bras (two days prior to Waterloo) shows the overriding force of urgency and orders:
‘[…] we had scarcely rested ourselves, and commenced dressing the rations, which had been served out at Enghien, when an Aide-de-Camp from the Duke of Wellington arrived, and ordered us instantly under arms, and to advance with all speed to Les Quatre Bras, where the action was going on with the greatest fury, and where the French were making rapid strides towards the object they had in view […] The order was, of course, instantly obeyed; the meat which was cooking, was thrown away; the kettles, &c. packed up, and we proceeded, as fast as our tired legs would carry us, towards a scene of slaughter, which was a prelude well calculated to usher in the bloody tragedy of the 18th.’
‘Extract of a Letter from an Officer in the Guards’ (21 June 1815), in The Battle of Waterloo, published by John Booth (1815).
Following victory, the trouble with provisions continued. Some British soldiers ‘slept supperless in the fields’; others hunting for sustenance found French huts full of meat which was dealt with so hurriedly that it was rendered inedible:
‘[…] scattered over their floors were numerous fragments of meat partly raw, partly half-cooked, which in the hurry of some movement had been thrown away. The British soldiers were very hungry, but they could not bring themselves to taste these viands […] raw meat of every description in abundance – beef, pork, and mutton; but it had been so beaten about in the hurry of the strife, and was so vilely dressed – the very hides being in many instances left upon the morsels, and these but indifferently bled’.
George Robert Gleig, Story of the Battle of Waterloo (1847).
A Lancer in Napoleon’s Grande Armée, or ‘Great Army’. Illustration by Horace Vernet in Laurent de l’Ardèche’s Histoire de l’Empereur Napoléon (History of the Emperor Napoleon), published in 1843. Located via Wikimedia Commons.
According to the National Army Museum, a British soldier’s basic everyday ration during the Napoleonic Wars was a pound of meat – fresh or salted – and the equivalent weight of bread biscuits. Other items could include oats, cheese, vegetables, rice, and alcohol. The biscuits were generally made of wheat, with added barley in times of poor harvest. Their tough, solid texture earned them the name ‘hard tack’, while normal bread was known as ‘soft tack’.
One such biscuit is featured in the museum’s online showcase of ‘200 Objects from Waterloo’; another eye-catching food-related item is a nutmeg grater made of silver. This was the possession of Sir Galbraith Lowry Cole, an Irish officer who served under Wellington but missed Waterloo as he was honeymooning at the time! Given the high cost of the spice due to Dutch monopolies on trade, to have and to use such a piece of equipment was an unmistakeable indicator of wealth. It also allowed for much more exotic meals than those on standard rations might enjoy. Wellington apparently remarked that Cole gave ‘the best dinners in the army’, while his own were ‘no great things’. Not that officers lived a life of complete luxury – if supplies were strained, they suffered with their men.
An image of British industrialist Bryan Donkin, who revolutionized food storage by being the first person to mass-preserve goods in tin cans. Located via Wikimedia Commons.
One innovation which made an appearance at Waterloo was canned food. As Tom Standage writes in An Edible History of Humanity, this developed from a preservation technique of sealing food in bottles, thought up by Frenchman Nicolas Appert in 1749. In the 1810s, a merchant by the name of Peter Durand received the first patent to do so in England, later selling it to British industrialist Bryan Donkin. He replaced the bottles with cans, and the technology took off. Can openers were not invented until around fifty years later, so soldiers would have to prise their rations free using a trusty bayonet or chisel.
21st century British rations: A 24-hour Multi-Climate Ration (MCR) pack developed by the Ministry of Defence in 2009. Located via Wikimedia Commons.
Canned foods are common sights in modern ration packs, which can feature everything from squid to Szechuan noodles for a taste of home, depending on their country of origin. To note this and recall men in the first source ‘starving with hunger’ and ‘looking at each other with the most deplorable faces imaginable’ makes it all the more clear: whether meat and biscuits or stuffed peppers and halva, food plays an essential part in boosting morale.