I have had today’s story in mind for a while, and today seems the perfect day to tell it to you, as it sheds some interesting perspective on yesterday’s post on feeding the military in 1942. The story is in the form of a letter to the editor of The Times [London] on November 10, 1855. The correspondent relates a conversation he had some 35 years earlier with a “Peninsular guardsman” who made some observations about the differences in both supplies of and attitudes to field rations between British and French soldiers. I am guessing that the guardsman’s experiences were during the Hundred Days war of 1815 – but I await clarification and comments from the military historians amongst you.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES.
Sir,- The leading article on the subject of Aldershot, in The Times of the 6th inst., reminds me of the confessions of an old Peninsular Guardsman, with whom I formerly travelled in Spain. John Denny’s words were, so far as I remember them, to this effect: “The French, Sir, never got so good rations as our own men, and yet on the whole they managed to live better, as far as we could pick up a notion of their ways from prisoner, or outpost sentries, indeed, when there was not much going on. Whatever they had in the way of meat they popped into the pot along with dry old ammunition crusts, and any sort of vegetables they could rap or rend, no matter if ‘twas nettle tops; and what with a sprinkle of pepper and salt, which don’t take much room to carry about, they contrived to make a good ‘stodgy’ savoury mess, fit to stick to a fellow’s ribs, as one might say. Now, what did we do? What as soon as a man got his ration of meat, he stuck it on the end of his ramrod – that is, most of ‘em did, till they come to know better – and he went and held it over the hot wood embers till all the fat and goodness of it frizzled out into the fire, and he got nothing most times but a black bit of dry stuff hardly fit for a dog to erat. And that’s how we went on for a long time, for want of the knowledge them French always had of making the most of everything.”
How far are our untrained men advanced in this species of knowledge since the time – some 35 years ago – when the veteran John, whose good sense I much admired, uttered this reminiscence of past times?
Trusting that it may be pertinent to the purpose of your recent well advised strictures, I have the honour to remain,
Malvern, Nov. 8.
Nettles were of course well known and used in Britain at the time, and were a welcome springtime addition to the soup pot as well as being prized for their perceived medicinal benefits. This knowledge however does not seem to have percolated down to the ordinary British soldier of the time, who was likely drawn from the urban poor and had lost the lore of foraging. French men of the same era clearly had not lost touch with the land in the same way – or perhaps they had remained more domesticated. Interesting, Non?
In a previous post I featured nettles (here) and they are mentioned in several other stories, but there is surely room for more ….
Nettles and Dandelions.
These, gathered before they are in flower, may be dressed like turnip tops, and served on toast like spinach, and are a valuable and wholesome addition to the list of vegetables.
The English Cookery Book: Uniting a Good Style with Economy,
by John Henry Walsh (1859)
To Stew Lettuces, Nettles, etc.
Wash them well, drain them, and put them in boiling water with a little salt; boil them from twenty to thirty minutes, press the water from them, and then chop them a little; heat them in a saucepan with a little butter, pepper, and salt, dredging in a little flour as you stir it in; add a little cream, and stew quickly till it is tolerably dry. Stir in a little vinegar or lemon juice, and serve hot with snippets.
The principles and practice of vegetarian cookery. By the author of 'Fruits and farinacea the proper food of man' by John Smith of Malton (London, 1860)