For regiments of the British Army, each mess (five or six men) was issued one bowl, one platter, one ladle, one cooking kettle, six trenchers (a plate on one side and a bowl on the other), and spoons. Using this equipment, the men were to prepare, cook, and eat their “seven rations” of food.
Each week (or so), each mess was issued:
- seven pounds of bread or flour
- seven pounds of beef or four pounds of salted pork
- six ounces of butter
- three pints of peas
- 1/2 pound of rice or oatmeal
- one firkin (36 quarts) of spruce beer
In addition to this basic ration, the men were sometimes issued rum, cabbage, sauerkraut, and salt twice when it was available. The men were encouraged to augment their rations with small gardens (when garrisoned) or through foraging and even hunting. Mess mates would also pool their money and buy eggs, tea, fresh vegetables, MORE RUM, and other foods from the local community.
The men usually ate two meals each day with an early breakfast and a big meal mid-afternoon or early evening. By modern standards, the “seven rations” were not a health diet and the soldiers rations were rarely complete so diseases of malnutrition like scurvy and marasmus were commonplace. There were also issues with spoiled food since most of the rations were actually shipped from Britain and often spoiled before it reached the soldiers.
There were even cases of quartermasters and commissary agents who adulterated spoiled food to disguise it as wholesome. Food procured for soldiers, often of good quality in the first place, became infested with worms, weevils, mold and mildew or just as often became rancid and spoiled in transit and storage. not wanting to accept responsibility for these losses, the corrupt commissary would have this food issued and since the men were hungry it was eaten. To disguise the spoilage, mustard and other seasonings were applied or the spoiled food was cooked (after it had spoiled) to mask the smell and taste. Like most people of the 18th Century, soldiers preferred to drink beer and other brewed beverages since the water was often contaminated. They knew that if you drank much of the local water you got the “bloody flux” (dysentery). Of course, dysentery like symptoms also occur when you eat contaminated food so much of the effect of issuing adulterate food to the soldiers could be blamed on the local water.
Despite all these hardships, most soldiers believed that military life was much more desirable than the poverty, lack of work, starvation and even imprisonment that they likely faced in Britain. Industrialization displaced many workers; the Enclosure Acts, which allowed common pasture land to become privately owned, forced many smaller farmers off of their land; and increasingly austere systems of punishment for criminal acts, including Transportation (to America and Australia), created a general lack of opportunities in the homeland. Military life, by contrast offered a steady pay, generous food rations, if somewhat limited in quality and variety, and an opportunity to advance one’s station either through collection of the “spoils of war” (common) or by advancing within the ranks (rare).
A soldier’s life is only glamorous in the stories we tell but it can be better than the alternative.