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Food the Last Thing to Evolve on the Battlefield

I think we can all agree that the role of war has played a major part in the human story. As technology evolves, advances in weapon technology, tactics and transportation increasingly become more sophisticated. One often overlooked factor that determines the effectiveness of an army is the ability to provide its soldiers with adequate nutrition. While the primary focus has often been developing bigger and better weapons, research into feeding masses on the move has lagged behind. For most of history, the way that troops fed themselves has remained the same. It is only recently, in the 20th century, thanks to the industrial revolution, that new ways of preserving food have allowed the diet of soldiers to improve.

MREs were only developed in the 1980s

The MRE (meals ready to eat) is a portable ration, lightweight and incredibly long lasting. The food is dehydrated and packed in plastic. While there are some predecessors to the MRE as we know them today, they weren’t officially introduced until 1981. The development began slightly earlier with the army undertaking the project in 1975. The initial field trial of MREs was not a rousing success. A division of soldiers ate the new meals three times a day for 34 days. Consisting of twelve different options, soldiers that were given the first batch only ate 60% of the rations. Clearly some re-hauling of these new meals was necessary. As improvements were implemented over the next several years, multiple tests were conducted. Nine of the original twelve meals were scraped, hot sauce was added to four of the dishes and candy added to all of them.

MREs made their first appearance on the battlefield in the early 1990’s, in the U.S. War with Iraq known as Operation Desert Storm. Originally intended to sustain troops only up to ten days, many soldiers were reliant on them for periods as long as sixty days. Seeing how integral these meals were proving to be, the army made several adaptations in quick order. They approved the updating of two meals every year, developed both bread and chocolate that would hold up better in field conditions and included flame-less ration heaters to ensure the meals could be warmed up.

Since Operation Desert Storm, the military has continued making improvements to the MREs. It was found that printing graphics on the containers, increased the consumption rate of the rations. Biodegradable spoons were added and then lengthened to provide easier access to the food in the bottom of the bag. The amount of various meals has doubled from the initial twelve to the present twenty four options available.

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WWI & WWII Change the Way War is Fought, and Also How Troops are Fed

Before MREs were developed, the previous major leap forward in battlefield cuisine, was due to the industrial revolution. Beginning in the First World War and really hitting its stride in the Second, factories and new methods of preservation began to change the way food was supplied to soldiers in battle. The battle-lines in WWI were immense, stretching the entire length of France from the English Channel to Switzerland. Due to the expanse of trenches, getting food to troops on the front lines was challenging, getting that food there hot was next to impossible. Often the bread was stale and would be cooked with potatoes to soften it up. Since there weren’t always pots for cooking in the front trenches, soldiers would reheat their dinner in sandbags.

During the conflict troops were rotated back for a reprieve from the front lines. During which they could enjoy the benefits of cooking regiments providing them hot meals. Still these cooking regiments usually only had two pots for cooking and lacked the proper supplies to clean them. Men reported that over time, despite the ingredients, the food always had the same flavor. The fighting became so entrenched that gardens were started in the rear, and the men feed with the crops grown in them. These gardens became essential as naval blockades began to strangle the supply lines of both sides.

In the Second World War, both sides created ration kits for their men. On the axis side they were known as iron rations and on the ally side, K,C, and D rations,. The German rations contained basic food stuffs; canned meat, crackers and dehydrated vegetables. The allies included some amenities aimed at improving morale, such as chewing gum and cigarettes. These new rations allowed the distance that soldiers could be stationed away from mess halls to increase. Giving them the mobility to conduct operations that penetrated enemy territory and the ability to remain there while reserves moved up.

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If there’s one item that defines a soldier’s diet throughout history, that item is ‘hard tack.’

Hard tack is the most versatile and wide spread food soldiers have had to eat throughout history. The term food however could be debatable. Consisting of only flour, water and a bit of salt if you were lucky, this bread like substitute remained preserved for long stretches of time. While providing a good source of caloric energy, it lacked any flavor and was often so hard  it was barely edible. Soldiers as far back as the Greeks and Persians carried with them a form of hard tack. During good times their meals were subsidized with salted meat, cheese, and occasionally some soured wine.

Making sure that the provisions kept up with the troops was as much an undertaking as moving the troops themselves. Huge logistical caravans had to follow behind as troops marched across open country to wage war. When times were tough, soldiers were left to fend for themselves. Forced to forage as they marched, or pillage from the landscape they were moving through. The Persian army under Xerxes was the largest army of its time. As they grew they conquered and incorporated the skills of the seagoing people along the coast of present day Turkey. Xerxes created an armada of 3000 ships to transport the goods needed to support his army. The ships sailed along the coast as the army marched across the land. As their campaigns took them on distant excursions, this proved to be extremely advantageous. Without this logistical capability, entering the continent of Europe and attacking the ancient Greeks would not have been possible.

In the U.S. during the revolutionary war the men were made to cook for themselves. In an effort to keep up morale the rebels propagandized how well the soldiers were fed. Officially the rations they received seem quite generous, consisting of allotments of meat vegetables and even beer. The reality was probably much more daunting. With the typical problems of maintaining supplies, the men were forced to endure times with hardly anything to eat. The Continental Congress, plagued by economical problems struggled to finance provisions.  As both the Americans and the English vied for supplies, the limitation of food suppliers became evident.

During its civil war the U.S., would see both armies establish field kitchens. The union army established ‘The Sanitary’ a branch that provided food to troops. It also played a role training men on what food was edible and teaching them preservation methods. This took some of the load off of the soldiers, but the menu didn’t change that much. Salted meat and foraged/plundered vegetables would be served, turned into stews and there was still hard tack on the menu.

Food on the battlefield for much of history was a secondary concern. For centuries the diet of men who were sent off to fight remained the same. Armies struggled to find effective ways to address the needs of their men. The commanders who realized the advantage of well-fed troops and were able to implement more effective logistics proved more successful. As technology advanced, new techniques would improve the ability to preserve food. As these techniques were refined, the food quality improved and became easier to transport. All these factors incrementally increased troop morale. As time passed and the improvements compounded, strategic functionality quickly showed the advantage portable nutritious meals provided.

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