Napoleon on what fuels armies
Napoleon Bonaparte is usually attributed with saying, “An Army marches on its stomach,” although there is no evidence that he ever made that remark. Frederick the Great and Alexander the Great have also been identified as having first made the observation, which of course refers to the need to ensure that troops in the field have adequate provisions for their sustenance. Napoleon did not ensure that the troops which he led bore with them adequate provisions, relying instead on the fat of the land over which they marched to provide them with food. In this, he was not much different from other nineteenth-century commanders.
The closest Napoleon came to addressing the necessities of feeding the troops under his command and those of his Marshals was, “The basic principle which we must follow in directing the Armies of the Republic is this: that they must feed themselves on war at the expense of the enemy territory.” This demonstrates that the burden of feeding the troops was as much on the troops themselves as it was on the commissary of the French Armies. It also demanded that the armies remain mobile, since staying in one place for an extended time would quickly exhaust local resources. This policy did much to defeat the French in Russia, the scorched earth policy of the withdrawing Russians denied resources to the advancing French, and ensured their starvation during their winter retreat in 1812-13.
The French Army nonetheless made several contributions to the preservation of some foods for use on the march, including the preservation of food through the technique of canning, though the cans were actually sealed glass jars similar to today’s Mason jars, rendering their extensive use problematic. The technique wasn’t perfected until the latter days of Napoleon’s empire, but he and several of his officers enjoyed canned foods on the march towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars. His troops however were still largely fed by their meager rations of bread and salted meat, supplemented by whatever they could forage from their surroundings.
Almost as large a concern as feeding the troops was the feeding of the army’s horses, including the several different mounts per man of the cavalry and the draft animals which hauled the armies’ supply wagons and artillery, engineering equipment, tents, water buckets, additional arms, trenching tools, and all of the detritus of a nineteenth-century military machine. The animals simply could not carry enough fodder to feed themselves, and military tactics and routes of invasion were controlled in part by the availability of food for the animals.
Napoleon was aware of the need to ensure troops in the field were adequately fed and sheltered, and he took steps throughout his career to ensure that these basic needs were met. But the French army stomached little better victuals than the opposing armies which they faced, and in some cases, such as the abandoned troops in Egypt and the ghastly retreat from Moscow, they fared far worse. The process of surviving off of the conquered lands of the enemy also contributed greatly to anti-French sentiment across the continent, though the troops of Prussia, for example, could be just as ruthless when seizing the crops and livestock of their countrymen.