War is hell, but, a soldier might add, so is war food too. If armies march on their stomachs, as Napoleon said, it’s a wonder they left home at all.
As Borderers remember the Battle of Flodden 500 years ago, this week TheSouthern investigates the fodder of the Scottish soldier at war.
The first war correspondent in Britain, the French traveller and historian Jean Froissart (c. 1337 – c. 1405), rode with Border reivers in the reign of Robert II, the first of the Stewart line to rule Scotland, accompanying 2,000 French knights who arrived to strengthen the Auld Alliance.
Marvelling at the frugality, and ferocity, of local soldiers, he wrote: “The Scots are a bold, hardy people, very experienced in war ... Because they have to pass over the wild hills of Northumberland, they bring no baggage and so carry no supplies of bread and wine.
“So frugal are they that their practice in war is to subsist for a long time on underdone meat, without bread, and to drink river-water, without wine.”
Water without wine was obviously an abomination to the Frenchman, but in observing Border reivers at war, he did record Scotland’s first recipe for oatcakes.
“Under the flap of his saddle,” he chronicled, “each man carries a broad plate of metal; behind the saddle a little bag of oatmeal. They plate this placed over the fire, mix with water their oatmeal, and when the plate is heated, they put a little of the paste upon it, and make a thin cake, like a cracknel or biscuit, which they eat to warm their stomachs.”
For hundreds of years oatcakes were a Scots’ fighting fare, and this year the Flodden 1513 Ecomuseum launched Flodden oatcakes in tribute. Famously, now exhibited at Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott collected a piece of oatcake reportedly found in the pocket of a dead Highlander on the field of Culloden.
Still, oatcakes sound tastier than hardtack, the stiff, flavourless cracker fed to soldiers in the American Civil War. The staple biscuit, which they nicknamed ‘worm castles’ and ‘teeth dullers’, could cost you a tooth if you bit it into it, and were meant to be softened by dipping it in coffee, or salt pork stew. Amazingly (or perhaps not) these 150 year old hardtack biscuits still survive in museums, complete with embedded bugs.
Cooking could be pretty tricky when you’ve got no pots or pans, so American soldiers on the move had to get crafty. They would turn their flour or cornmeal rations into dough, coil it into a long rope, then wrap it around the ramrod of a musket – the rod used to ‘ram’ the charge down old firearms. Cooked over an open fire, the resulting ‘ramrod’ roll came out blackened but edible. Just barely.
As Scarlett O’ Hara opined after sampling a piece on a dare from a Confederate soldier in Gone With The Wind: “How can they go on fighting if they have this stuff to eat?”
In the Tommies’ trenches of the First World War, fare was becoming more edible.
At the start of the war, British soldiers at the front were allowed 10oz of meat and 8oz of vegetables per day, but by 1916, the meat ration was down to 6oz a day, and later, meat was only provided once every nine days.
Things were getting worse, and Tommies were beginning to fend for themselves. There are reports of vegetable patches being established in reserve trenches, and of men going hunting and fishing while not on the front-line , both to pass the time and to supplement their meagre rations. The winter of 1916 saw a major shortage of flour. It was replaced by dried, ground-up turnips which produced unappetising, diarrhoea-inducing bread. At this time, the staple food of the British soldier was pea-soup with horse-meat chunks. The hard-working kitchen teams were having to source local vegetables as best they could, and when that was not an option, weeds, nettles, and leaves would be used to whip up soups and stews.
Each battalion was assigned two industrial-sized vats for food preparation. The problem was that every type of meal was readied within these containers, and so, over time, everything started to taste the same. As a result, pea-and-horse flavoured tea was something the soldiers had to get used to.
By the time food reached the front, bread and biscuits had often turned stale and other produce had gone off. In order to combat this, soldiers crumbled the hard food that arrived and added potatoes, sultanas, and onions to soften the mixture up. This concoction would then be boiled in a sandbag and eaten as a sandy, stale soup. So while now Scots soldiers don’t have it lucky, it’s certainly luckier.