A Soldier's Daily Ration
The daily rations issued to each soldier in the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars were as follows:
1½ lbs Bread or Flour, or 1 lb of Ship’s Biscuit
1 lb Beef, or ½ lb Pork
¼ pint Dried Peas
1 oz Cheese or Butter
1 oz Rice
5 pints Small Beer, or 1 pint Wine, or ½ pint Spirits
Those women who were lucky enough to be listed on a company’s ‘strength’ were permitted ½ of a daily ration and children allowed a ¼ but neither where allowed the alcohol. The weight of the meat included that of bone. It was also a common practice for soldiers to pool their rations, known as 'messing' with the benefit that larger and better cuts of meat could be given to a mess to be shared amongst its members.
All manors of supplies and rations were under the control of the Commissariat, who were in fact civilians controlled by the Treasury and officially outside military discipline. There are differing views however as to how effective the service was, but if you consider amount of food stuffs required by the army, in 1813 for example the army went through about 300 bullocks a day! It’s most likely that the staff did the best they could especially when you take in for account the Spanish promises to help with supplies, which they could not always keep and the speed at which the army sometimes had to move. Private Wheeler praised their efforts;
'It is true we were sometimes badly off for biscuit, but taking everything into consideration no army could be supplied better. Indeed it is a mystery to thousands how we were supplied so regular as we were.’
One of the biggest problems facing the Commissariat was organising the transport of supplies, there was no official military transport at that time, and they had to rely on hiring cart owning civilians from the local population. These civilians were not know for their trustworthiness neither were they hard working and quite often did not reach place they were meant to be on time. Therefore the soldiers could not always receive their rations on time, if at all.
As the Commissariat purchased goods from the surrounding areas, this practice was open to abuse from the more dishonest officers of this service. There are quite a few stories of fraudulent practices where by goods were purchased cheap and then a higher receipt submitted and the difference was pocketed by the officer.
Soldiers also added to meagre rations whenever the possibility arose. Either buying local produce or by taken anything they found by the roadside. At Busaco in 1810 the local Portuguese population brought out fruits and wine to the army, which they gave away to the rank and file, but sold them cheaply to the officers. Sometimes when there was no food available at all, the soldiers were forced to eat acorns or leaves plucked off the trees as they marched. A colonel of 95th one day, who had stopped next to a field of wheat, was informed that there was not much chance of getting any rations. So he ordered the riflemen to cut sheaves of wheat to take with them. That evening the men tried to cook or boil it, without much success, in the morning some of the men had badly swollen stomachs, so bad was some, they were unable to march. Demonstrating how desperate, on occasions, the need for food became even when soldiers had no proper way to process it or the knowledge to even cook it.
The main substitute for bread was the ship's biscuit; these were rock hard, often alive with maggots or mouldy. Charles Napier describes in a letter to his mother that,
‘We are on biscuits full of maggots, and though not a bad soldier, hang me if I can relish maggots.’
The biscuits were so hard in fact that it was common for the need to break them with the heel of a shoe or hammer. Wellington even commented on the bad sate of the rations given to the army.
‘The soldiers seldom get enough to eat, and what they do get is delivered to them half mouldy.’
Another tale about the biscuits that's worth quoting is by Rifleman Costello, even though it is quite long it is worth quoting in full. As it show how daft some of the army regulations were.
‘Our Division were given linen bags, made exactly to fit across our knapsacks, with three day’s biscuit (3lbs) for each bag. The bags were to be kept well tied, and strapped on top of each man's knapsack. The Brigadier expected us to be on short commons while on the Pyrenees and, as this was to be our last resource in case of scarcity, no man was to taste a morsel of biscuit unless given orders to that effect. The bags were examined every morning by officers commanding companies. Seeing them strapped snugly on the knapsacks, they considered them to be all right. However, our fellows were never at a loss for subterfuge, and they planned to evade the officer’s vigilance by eating all their biscuits except one whole one which they kept at the top to be seen. In place of the others, they substituted chips. These did very well for some time, but one day, whilst on private parade, Captain Johnston took it into his head to see his company’s biscuit shaken out. The first man on the right of his company was the unfortunate Tom Crawley. “Untie your bag Crawley,” said the Captain. Tom did as he was ordered, and showed the Captain a very good- looking biscuit a-top. “Shake the whole out. I want to see if they are getting mouldy.” “Faith, there is no fear of that,” said Crawley, looking at the Captain hard in the face, then casting a woeful eye on his bag. But the Captain was not to be baulked. Taking the bag by both ends, he emptied out its contents, which was no more and no less than a few dry chips. Poor Tom, as upright as a dart, stood scratching his head. His countenance would have made a saint laugh. “What have you done with your biscuit? Have you eaten it, sir?” Tom, motionless, made no answer. “Do you know it is against orders?” “To be sure I do, sir” says Tom; “but, for God sake, do you take me for a South American jackass, that carries gold and eats straw?” This answer not only set the Captain, but the whole company, in roars of laughter, and on further inspection, he found that they, and indeed the regiment, had adopted the same plan. Through this our bags were taken away, and we were relieved from carrying chips.’
One of the other main sources of food was from plundering the dead. Rifleman Harris whilst on picket duty one evening comments that;
‘As three Frenchmen were lying dead amongst the long grass upon the spot where I was standing. As I threw my rifle to my shoulder, and walked past them on my beat, I observed they had been plundered, and the haversacks having been torn off, some of the contents were scatted about. Among other things, a small quantity of biscuit lay at my feet…The biscuits, however, which lay in my path, I thought a blessed windfall, and, stooping, I gathered them up, scraped off the blood with which they were sprinkled with my bayonet, and eat them ravenously.’
Even when the soldiers had received their rations there was the problem of getting enough firewood to cook them. Being as French army had mostly stripped the countryside on their way through and again on their way back whilst being pursued by the British. Houses abandon by the local inhabitants was also use as firewood; soldiers would take up floors and even take down the roof for the timber beams, so as to cook their food. In the summer, sometime the best they could hope for was stubble or dry grass to burn.
Now to move over to drink, alcohol was most likely the favourite of the common soldier, but tea also played an important part. Captain Kincaid of the 95th reported that at Waterloo the 95th made a fire next to a cottage wall used by Lieut. Colonel Barnard and brewed a camp-kettle of tea,
‘As it stood on the edge of the high road, where all the big-wigs of the army had occasion to pass, I believe almost every one of them, in the early part of the morning, from the Duke downwards, claimed a cupful.’
He also stated that every officer's haversack should contain,
‘A couple of biscuits, a sausage, a little tea and sugar, knife, fork and spoon, a tin cup… and half a dozen cigars.’
Drunkenness was a big problem for the army as it was one of the main forms of recreation for the common soldier, and also the result of some of the worse conduct shown by the soldiers, such as the aftermath at the storming of Badajoz and Cuidad Rodrigo. Where all discipline was lost for a few days while a lot of soldiers indulged in a drunken orgy. Drink was not all doom and gloom as Sergeant Morris of 73rd recalls in his dairy,
‘Poor jack was so fond of drink, that he was always getting into some scrape, and passed a great deal of his time in the guard-room, as a prisoner. His frolics however, when inebriated, were of so perfect good humoured and harmless …When any of the men were to be deprived of their grog, it was generally spilt in the front of the company… to save, at least a portion of it. Turning his eyes in a direction behind the officer, he said “Here's the general coming, Sir”; the officer turned sharply round, to see where, and in the meantime Jack had both hands under the canteen, receiving as much as they would contain, and conveying it to his mouth. The officer could not help laughing at the ingenuity of the trick, and generously returned him the canteen, with a portion of the spirit remaining in it.’