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Messing Arrangements of the British Army during the War of 1812
by Robert Henderson

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Canadian Voltigeurs preparing soup in the field by Eugene Leliepvre
(courtesy of Parks Canada)

              Despite the abundance of literature on the logistics of supplying troops in British North American garrisons during the War of 1812, little has been written on the role of the solder's mess in organizing food preparation and consumption.  The following article offers some insight into this area of study.

              Each company of soldiers was divided into messes which allowed men to pool their rations and rotate as cooks. Messes were established in the British Army to ensure that the soldier did not starve himself or squander his meal money away on gambling or drink.   This purpose is illustrated in an account by a soldier of the 94th Regiment in 1809:

We arrived in Aberdeen, after a march of ten days, where we had better barracks, and cheaper provisions than in Dunbar; but the barracks being too small, a number of our men were billeted in the town, and not being in the mess when pay-day came, it was a common thing for many of them to spend what they had to support them in drink; and some of them were so infatuated as to sell even their allowance of bread for the same purpose. They were then obliged (to use their own phraseology) to "Box Harry," until the next pay day; and some of them carried this to such a length, that it was found      necessary to bring them into barracks, to prevent them from starving themselves.

The size of each mess varied considerably: some regiments envisioned the ideal mess size to be between ten and eighteen men, while others practised messing as an entire company. When not in the field, the 85th Regiment ordered its companies to establish messes by barrack rooms. Messing by rooms was also practised in the Embodied Militia stationed in Fredericton in 1813.  It is likely regiments on the Niagara frontier also favoured this form of messing at the opening of the war, especially with the establishment of soldiers' kitchens at the principal garrison, Fort George. The development of new barracks in the 1790s and 1800s included kitchens or cooking places for each company. These new additions were best served by messing in great numbers, without exceeding a company in size. When in the field or rented accommodations, the size of the soldiers mess was reduced. For example, In the case of the 100th Regiment each mess had fourteen or fifteen members.

            Married soldiers were usually permitted to pool their rations with their families, apart from the company messes. If, however, a wife could not provide for herself and her children and was "found to encroach on the man's subsistence", the soldier was placed in a mess and the woman turned away.   As a preventative measure, the army issued a half ration of food to each woman and a quarter ration to each child.  These rations were limited to twelve women and their children per company stationed on foreign service.   It was expected that the rations would be topped up by the family through provisions purchased privately.   In the case of unmarried soldiers, each mess had a head or president. He was a corporal, chosen man or older soldier, and his responsibility was to ensure that the men sat down to dinner dressed as soldiers and that each was in possession of a fork, knife, spoon, and plate.  It should be noted that sergeants usually messed separately from the other men, complete with their own president, mess regulations, and perhaps a servant. Regardless of rank, each soldier contributed six to six and a half pence a week to the mess to cover expenses such as messing utensils not provided by the Barracks Master.

              To track the expenses and charges against each soldier a company weekly mess book was kept. This book contained:

an account of the expenditure of that part of the soldiers' pay, which is appropriated to messing. On the left hand, or debit side, the sums expended in vegetables, washing, etc. are to be regularly entered, and the quantities, price, etc. of all articles, are always to be detailed. On the right hand, or credit side, the names of the non-commissioned officers, trumpeters, drummers, and private men, are to be entered, the number of days each man is messed, and the amount of expenses of his messing at the fixed rate per day.

An original mess book for the 74th Regiment has survived and is in the Library and Archives of Canada.  Entries into this book were the responsibility of the pay sergeant and were regularly inspected by the Regiment's quartermaster.

Regulations and official military opinion yield only a partial picture of messing arrangements and food preparation. Though valid, they lack the human element influencing the accomplishment of duties. One officer's description of a group of soldiers preparing food around a fire during the Peninsular War provides further insight:

...one [soldier] making dough boys (flour and water mixed) swearing all the time at one for not producing a frying pan, at another for getting in his light; another giving a young soldier a thump for crossing between him and the fire while he plastered his blistered feet. The poor creature is turning round to beg his pardon, when he treads upon another, who threatens to upset him if he does not sit down. A woman who is undressing by his side (perhaps the wife of one of the party) raises her shrill voice and blasts him for not being quick. An old soldier sits smoking his pipe and frying the mutton or skimming the pot, while a dirty fist seizes the mutton, and another equally so lays hold of it and it is torn as under by a knife with edge and back alike. The whole is shortly devoured and they lie down to sleep in their blankets.

Similar conflicts would have arisen in garrison kitchens, especially with each family preparing their meals along side the mess cooks. One soldier in garrison expressed dislike of one woman on strength, "who used to make a great disturbance about the fire in the cooking way." Conflicts in the kitchen continued throughout the first half of the 19th century. The constant quarrelling amongst married people in the soldiers' kitchen instigated barracks reforms in the 1850s establishing separate cooking places for each family.

Copyright The Discriminating General 1997

 


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