Thursday, June 29, 2017

What did an Average Eighteenth-Century Soldier Eat?

Reenactors portraying a number of British Regiments work on at camp kitchen  (Photo credit: Tommy Tringale)
Dear Reader,

Today, we are going to briefly touch an issue which has received much attention in recent years from progressive eighteenth-century reenactors: the issues of food and rationing. What soldiers' ate was a vital part of life in the army, and deserves a post in this series.

First of all, I highly encourage you to look at the work of John U. Rees, Todd Post, Gregory Theberge, and Christopher Duffy, if you are interested in more in-depth coverage of soldiers' rations during the mid-eighteenth century. These authors have brought together a wealth of information regarding period soldiers' food, and their work deserves to be read. What was common, or shared between many eighteenth-century armies, in terms of feeding the men?

Most mid-eighteenth century armies arrived upon a common scheme for delivering food to their soldiers. Soldiers were divided into sub-groupings, which each group referred to as a "mess," or Kameradschaft in German-language armies. These men were responsible for cooking together. The mess ranged from between 5-7 soldiers, depending on the army, conflict, and year. An NCO of some rank was responsible for each mess, with a corporal being the most common in the larger Germanic armies. So, on average,  what might soldiers eat?

Brunswickers at Fort Ticonderoga (Photo Credit: Ron Videau)

For a good daily ration, something like 1 and a half pounds of bread/flour 3/4 of a pound of meat, 3-4 oz of rice, and 5oz of peas was quite common. This likely ran in the neighborhood of 2200-3000 calories per day.[1] However, this ranged widely enough and was varied enough that any type of true, "average" may be impossible.

Exactly what the soldiers were issued to cook depended greatly on the army and campaign in question. All armies of the era desperately tried to give their soldiers carbohydrates and protein every day. Usually, this took the form of a daily bread or flour issue, and a daily or weekly meat issue.

Between 1-2 pounds of bread or flour per day was average. In the Continental Army, one pound of bread or flour per day was a normal official issue, potentially dropping to a half-pound of flour during hardships of 1777-1778. The British army attempted to issue it's soldiers slightly more, around 1.5 pounds of bread or flour per day.[2]

The Prussian service gave the most bread, at the rate of 2 pounds per day in both war and peace. Frederick's army stopped the pay of its soldiers in peacetime for bread, but issued it free of charge during wartime.[3] The Austrian Army issued their soldiers 1.75 lbs of bread per day, free of charge.[4] On the other hand, the Prussians gave out the least protein to its soldiers: at the measly rate of 2lbs per soldier per week. Again, this issue was free of charge during wartime alone. The Austrians followed the practice of other Western European armies, providing one pound of meat per day to the soldier. However, unlike most armies, Austrian soldiers had to purchase their meat from regimental butchers.[5]

The Continental Army, at least officially, gave out a comparatively large portion, at 1 pound of meat (mixed beef and pork) per day, although this dropped to 3/4 of a pound as the war progressed. The British army on campaign attempted to give its soldiers 1.5 pounds of beef per day.[6] In the British service, both the bread and meat ration would occur on a weekly basis, which led to it being referred to as, "Sevens."[7]

Soldiers in both Europe and North America would frequently supplement their food issue through both forage and purchases. Soldiers bought and requisitioned vegetables, fruit, and other food not issued to them by the military supply system. British soldiers would also [very] occasionally be issued other substances, such as sugar or cocoa.

Soldiers became quite accustomed to their particular army's way of issuing rations. The diaries of the German troops who came to North America are full of complaints. These complaints are manifold and can be found in a variety of sources, but I will share my favorite, from a Brunswicker with Burgoyne:

The banks of the lake are covered with the thickest woods, and every time a camp had to be pitched, trees had to be cut down and the place cleared. In spite of the hard work, no other provisions were furnished than salt meat and flour. As each soldier had to bake his own bread, and no ovens for baking the same were there, he had to either bake it in hot ashes or on hot stones. This bread was, of course, very hard and heavy, and required good teeth. Furthermore there was neither whisky nor tobacco, which the German soldiers were accustomed to have. I consider these last indispensible for soldiers. According to ar rangements of the English Commissary, the troops are never supplied with bread. Only flour is furnished and the men have to bake their own bread. We were not accustomed to this and did not know how to do it...It is not my intention to pity the soldier. He cannot always find things as he is accustomed to having them. He must know how to endure the hardships of his profession without murmuring. However, it would be better to prepare him rather than have him come upon these hardships unexpectedly.[8]
(Photo Credit: Wilson Freeman/Drifting Focus Photography)
Reenactors giving an excellent portrayal of Brunswick Regiment Prinz Friedrich.
In this passage, the Brunswicker refers to the Germanic practice of having large mobile ovens following the army in Europe. German troops did not have a frame of reference for baking their own bread, because they were accustomed to a slightly more developed military supply system. In North America, these expectations were shattered by a more hearty method of campaigning.

Soldiers in the eighteenth-century, by and large, depended on their armies to feed them. If this food and logistical support was not forthcoming, armies would quickly cease to exist as a credible fighting force. Frederick II of Prussia found this particular lesson had this particular lesson driven home during the lean months of the 1778 campaign in Bohemia. However, if all remained well, a soldier could count on his army to supply he and his mess comrades with a daily allotment of bread, meat, and maybe even a little something extra.

Please feel free to share if you know anyone who might be interested.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

[1] Anderson, A People's Army, 84.
[2] Post, "Victualling the Army," 8.
[3]Duffy, Army of Frederick the Great, 198-201.
[4] Duffy, Instrument of War, 324.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Theberge, To Nourish the Troops, 122.
[7] Ibid, 160.
[8] Du Roi, Journal of Du Roi the Elder, 90-91.


  1. When comparing quantities between nations, is there a difference between the Austrian & German "pounds" vs the English pound?

    For the French, a "livre" is slightly more than an English pound.

    1. No, in this case, the author (Duffy) has converted the measurement.

  2. The difficulty of feeding troops was brought home to my by the superintentant of Morristown NHP. At the time the ration was a lb of meat and a lb of bread a day. That was 10,000 lbs of meat and bread that they had to come up with every day. The local farmers were generally subsistance farmers. The sold any excess, but that excess didn't come close to fullfilling the needs of the army.

    So they had to import meat from throughout the colonies. The south and New England. By the time the cattle and hogs arrived, they would weigh about half what they did when they started out. The logistics involved of supporting an army in the field were incredibly difficult. No wonder that when reading the memoirs of Pvt. Joseph Plum Martin, that hunger is a constant theme.