Soldiers get the lousy food

Soldiers get the lousy food

Veterans Day is this Monday, and it is a wonder war continued to be an option at all once the very first one was concluded eons ago, if for no other reason than the lousy food soldiers have always gotten.

Bloodlust, the defense of home and hearth, and a hunger for land and power is one thing, but doing all that on a weevil-filled cracker and some dank coffee for months on end should have called the whole practice into question from the front lines.

In all seriousness, the leading cause of death among fighting men, especially those fighting on land, was illness and malnutrition, not combat. You were far more likely to succumb to typhoid, influenza, cholera, scurvy or pneumonia than cannon fire, at least up through the beginning of World War II, when conditions improved a bit, nutrition was better understood and doctors began the revolutionary practice of washing their hands.

The main diet for soldiers was for centuries whatever they plundered as they occupied new lands, which must have been a major motivator toward victory. If you aren’t getting any supper until you break through to where the chickens are, you’re probably going to make sure you win. Salted meats and bread were a staple diet for troops on the move, and the lousy storage practices of our ancestors made that a dicey game.

There are numerous stories of men getting their meager rations of rotting, fatty meat and bug-filled bread and throwing them away in favor of whatever they could round up in nearby forests and villages. War was hard on everyone, and it still is.

During the American Civil War, troops on both sides grabbed an opportunity at every short stop on a march to make a quick fire and boil up some coffee. If they put their hardtack crackers into the hot liquid, the stale things would give up their worms, which floated to the top, where they could be skimmed off.

Sailors have traditionally had things a little better in terms of food and comfort. Naval commanders had continuous, centuries-long experience in feeding and accommodating large numbers of men on the move; whereas the commanders of foot soldiers only had to deal with the issue sporadically, and it took ages to get the same kind of standardization.

Sailors knew how to preserve food for long voyages, what they needed to eat to stay relatively healthy and to avoid drinking water, favoring beer, cider or rum instead. They also usually had some kind of bed to sleep in, rather than on the ground. All those advantages seem trite when you consider the risk of plunging to the bottom of the sea or becoming a shark’s dinner.

With the coming of the Second World War, soldiers got something called K-Rations. They were three separately boxed meals for “breakfast, supper, dinner.” Breakfast was canned ham and eggs, biscuits, oatmeal, water-purifying tablets, dried milk, chewing gum and some cigarettes. Supper brought more canned meat, a chocolate bar, and more gum and smokes. For dinner, canned meat, canned processed cheese, candy, some powdered citrus drink mix, and more gum and cigarettes. Now you know why the Greatest Generation smoked like chimneys.

Those meals were for when the army was on the move. At bases they got proper, cooked meals and often got cooked meals at any point where they were stopped for more than a few days, especially at Christmas.

Modern military personnel have things a bit easier with their “meals ready to eat” in sealed pouches. Still not so appetizing, but it ain’t spoiled fatback and disease-carrying water.

If you want to truly appreciate the sacrifices of centuries of armies, here is a recipe for hardtack crackers, the staple from Roman times to World War I. The long baking time in a relatively hot oven lets you know how tooth-breaking these crackers are.

2 cups flour

3/4 cup water

1 tablespoon shortening

1 teaspoon salt

Preheat your oven to 400 F. Mix the ingredients into a stiff dough and knead for several minutes. Spread onto an ungreased baking sheet to a thickness of about 1/4 inch and cut into squares about 3 inches each side. Use the blunt end of a skewer to poke four holes across to make 16 holes in each cracker. Bake for 30 minutes, turn them over and bake 30 minutes more. You can probably use them to soak up oil spills in your garage.

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