Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics


Setting Up The Mess

Equipping The Mess

Feeding The Mess

Conclusion

Notes


The British Regimental Mess in the Peninsula War

By Robert Burnham

During the Napoleonic Wars, the British Army officer's life centered around his regimental mess when he was not on duty. Although the mess often provided the officer a meal and a bed, it was more often a club where he could socialize with his peers and unwind from the stress of the campaign. The importance of the mess can not be overstated for it was the heart of the regiment. As one officer put it "it brought us together each evening after our requisite duties to the soldiers had been gone through... and, all things considered our club was most comfortable, and tended to keep up that feeling of harmony and action for which the 'Connaught Rangers' were so remarkable during the Peninsula War." [1] What occurred in the mess, as a rule stayed in the mess, however the friendships formed or ended there often affected the performance of the unit on the battlefield. The services offered by the mess varied from regiment, location, and year. No two messes were alike. This article will examine many of the factors that affected the mess, including when it was organized and the types of food and beverage served.

Setting Up The Mess

In the many British memoirs that were written during and after the Napoleonic Wars, the term mess was used very loosely by most of the writers. In most cases it referred to a group of officers who ate and socialized together on a regular basis. Depending on the unit or the location this could be as small as two or three men or several hundred. Some of the factors that affected the size of the mess included:

Type of duty the unit was performing. The regiments of the Light Division often were on outpost duty and dispersed over a wide area with many miles between the companies. The officers usually then messed with the other officers in their company. [2] Lieutenant Robert Blakeney, who commanded the Light Company of the 28th Foot, gives a classic example of this dining the final days of the retreat to Corunna. His company mess was on the front line over-looking a key bridge that he and a company of the 92d Highlanders were supposed to be guarding. The rest of the regiment was somewhere in the rear. The room was much exposed to French fire from across the river except for one corner. There, he and one subordinate set up their mess using the only table to be found in the house and some chairs. To get to this corner they had to crawl beneath the window to avoid being shot. His servant would bring the meals the same way pushing the plates in front of him. The space was so cramped that they had to be careful exposing any part of their body. Captain Cameron, of the 92d and a guest in the mess, found this out the hard way, when he waved his glass and accidentally exposed it to the enemy. A lucky shot broke his glass, which unfortunately for him was the only one available. Leaving him no recourse but to share one with the other officers. [3]

Where the unit was billeted. When in winter quarters, occasionally the village assigned as a billet was too small to support the unit, especially for cavalry regiments. Not only did the men need to be under a roof, but so did the horses. This often necessitated the regiment being billeted in several villages in the area, making a centralized mess impossible. The officers would form separate messes in the area they were billeted.

A major factor was the availability of a large enough building for the mess. Inns were preferred because they usually had numerous rooms, a wine cellar and a kitchen; however churches, large houses, and even barns were used. Jonathan Leach tells how when during the winter of 1812-1813, the 1st of the 95th Rifles were actually quartered in the same village for the first time in several years, they immediately established a mess in an old barn "through the roof of which we built two large chimneys, rather uncouth as to size and shape; and making a long table with benches, equally rough, around it." [4]

When space was not available for both billeting, eating, and socializing, the officers would often be billeted outside the mess and would use the mess for eating and socializing. Sometimes the allocated space would be so small or be missing a kitchen, they could only use the mess for socializing. [5] Other times the mess would be so large that it could seat the officers from several regiments. Blakeney provides a very vivid description of the mess in Tarifa, in 1811, where he was its president. The mess served as a dining room and a place for entertainment for over 150 officers on any given day. It "was very spacious, and at either end was a room which entered into it; not only these three, but in fact every room in the house, had tables put down; and many there were who felt glad to procure a dinner even in the kitchen." [6]

While campaigning, a formal mess rarely existed. The officers from each company would usually eat together, however it was too difficult to set up a mess similiar to what they would have in winter quarters. There were a few exceptions to this, including:

If the unit was in a place long enough (usually several days), they might make informal arrangements. A major factor against setting one up was the expense of maintaining it on the move. Lieutenant Grattan, of the Connaught Rangers stated that twice they set up formal messes while campaigning, the first after Talavera in 1809, the second after Salamanca. Both times it was a great deal of trouble and the costs were extremely high. [7]

On special days, such as Christmas, even when under difficult conditions, the officers would get together to celebrate. The 15th Hussars, during the retreat to Corunna in 1808, held a formal Christmas dinner in Sahagun. "All the offcers of the regiment, except those absent on duty, were assembled to celebrate the day; but the mirth and jollity usually prevalent at this season were considerably damped by reflection on the critical situation in which we were placed," [8] The King's birthday was also another day that was celebrated quite heavily.

Several units were known to celebrate their founding days, the most famous case of this was on 25th of August 1813 when the officers of the 95th Rifles came together to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the activation of their regiment. In full sight of the French on the Vera heights, 73 officers from the three battalions of the regiment sat down in a crude hut made from the branches of trees. No table was available, so tables and benches were made by digging a trench for the officers to dangle their legs in. Depending on the source, either there was a large amount of food (according to Kincaid) or very little (Leach), however "neither vocal nor instrumental music was wanting after the feast; and, with the aid of cigars and black strap, we enjoyed the most extraordinary fete champetre I have ever witnessed." [9] Lieutenant Johnny Kincaid confirms this but to even a greater degree "... the earth almost quaked with the weight of the feast, and the enemy certainly did, from the noise of it. For so many fellows holding such precarious tenures of their lives could not meet together in commemoration of such an event, without indulging in an occasional cheer -- not a whispering cheer, but one that echoed far and wide into the French lines, and as it was a sound that had often pierced them before, and never yet boded them any good, we heard afterwards that they were kept standing at their arms the greater part of the night..." [10]

The Connaught Rangers, an Irish Regiment, always celebrated Saint Patrick's Day in style. In 1813, Lieutenant Grattan, was appointed the caterer for the celebration. He travelled 15 miles over bad roads through the mountains to Vizeu to obtain the proper quantity and quality of food and beverages. On his way back he was attacked by wolves, however he survived and "the dinner went off well, the attendance was good, and we were all as happy as any corps could wish to be..."( [11]

The night before a campaign began the mess usually had one last feast. In I8I1, one hundred and ninety -one officers from the 28th Regiment and other units that were destined to fight at Barossa came together the night before they departed Tarifa. "The exhilarating juice of the grape was freely quaffed from out the cry" cup, and the inspiring songs of love and war went joyfully round, and the conclusion of each animating strophe was loudly hailed with choral cheers... Hilarity and mirth reigned throughout. Lively sallies of wit cheerfully received as guilessly shot forth added brilliancy to the festive board... Our revels continued until morning ... we marched out of Tarifa with aching heads but glowing hearts." [12]

Equipping The Mess

When campaigning life was fairly spartan for the officer, especially for the company officers. Regulations only authorized one mule for every two subalterns and one for a captain. [13] Furthermore, some commanders placed a restriction on the amount of baggage that an officer could bring with him. Ensign John Aitchison, of the 3d Foot Guards, proudly wrote home in late 1808, that General John Moore had ordered that all servants who were serving soldiers in the officers' regiment had to rejoin the ranks. "... in consequence the officers have provided themselves with knapsacks to carry their necessaries themselves... I have weighed what I have to carry and find it amounts to 27 pounds." [14] Neither the restriction on the number of baggage animals nor the requirement for junior officers to carry their own equipment appeared to be followed too closely. Most officers, who could afford them, immediately bought themselves a horse to ride and a mule to carry their personal items. The Army even provided the payment of an allowance, known as bat and forage money, for the upkeep of the animals they were authorized. This payment, like their regular pay, was generally six months in arrears at any given period of the war. Each infantry battalion was authorized 13 baggage mules, one for each company to carry the camp kettles (after 1812 the company tents), plus one each for the surgeon, the paymaster, and for carrying camp equipment." The lack of authorized baggage animals and the subsequent cost of maintaining private animals usually precluded the regiment from taking with it any formal mess equipment, such as silver, punch bowls, etc.

When a mess was established the officers would donate from their own personal equipment the necessary cutlery, plates, bowls, etc. Other items would be bought locally or taken from abandoned buildings." As the years went on, the more seasoned campaigners were able to obtain sonic unusual items for use in the mess. Lieutenant Schaumann, the commissary officer for the 1st King's German Legion Hussars, acquired a set of French amputating knives to use as carving knives. [17] The most famous field acquisition of course was by the 14th Light Dragoons, who captured Joseph Bonaparte's silver chamberpot after the battle of Vitoria. This became the regimental punchbowl.

Feeding The Mess

Food and beverages for the mess was obtained a variety of ways. The primary source of course being the issued ration, however whenever possible the officer tried to supplement the rations with local purchases, hunting, foraging, packages from home, from captured French stocks, or at the last resort from the enlisted soldiers. On campaigns, food was often scarce due to the inability of the commissary to provide enough, none being available in the countryside, or the lack of money to buy it even when it was available. In garrison, as long as the officer had the money to pay for it, food could usually be obtained. Depending on whose memoirs you read, the British were either quite adept at making the best meal out of the food available or totally incompetent. Captain Peter Hawker, of the 14th Light Dragoons, wrote in his diary that during the Talavera Campaign in 1809 "By the good management of one of our officers (who is perhaps the best forager, the choicest caterer, and the first amateur cook in his Majesty's service), we had contrived to establish an excellent mess... "[18] Yet a German officer serving with the British reinforced the stereotype of the British not being gourmets, when he wrote "It is strange but true, that Englishmen would rather starve than trouble themselves about cooking; ... the men together with their officers, are like young ravens -- they only know how to open their mouths to be fed." [19] As the became more experienced, most officers built up their private larders. In garrison, many kept chickens, turkeys, and goats. On campaign, they often brought their goats with them as part of their personal baggage. Harry Smith claims that this practice was so widespread that "... every [company] mess had a boy, who was in charge of them on the march and in quarters, and milked them. On the march the flock of each Regiment and Brigade assembled and moved with their goat- herds, when each drove his master's goals to his quarters. We observed extraordinary regularity with these goats, and upon inquiry we found out the little fellows organized themselves into regular guards. They had a captain; ... their time of duty was as regular as our soldiers;' they had sentries with long white sticks in their hands, and Mein's little boy held a sort of court-martial, and would lick a boy awfully who neglected his charge." [20]

Local purchases were a hit or miss affair, depending on the locale. When on campaign, as long as the unit was not moving through an area that had been picked clean by either side, then some kind of food was generally available. Unfortunately very few of the memoirists left a detail list of the type of food that was available and how much it cost. The best source on purchasing food during the Peninsula War is Major Alexander Dickson's Petty Cash Books. The books cover the years 1809-1811 and provide clues not only on the types of food available but the cost of the items. The following items are taken from the books and includes the cost in both local currency and in British shillings. [21] (The conversion rate is based on the 1811 exchange rate of one Portuguese Dollar equals 40 vintems, which equals 4 shillings 6 pence. [22] Note: One pound equals 20 shillings; 1 shilling equals 12 pence)

ITEM

AMOUNT

COST IN DOLLARS

COST IN SHILLINGS

YEAR

Tea, sugar, butter

1 dollar 35 vintems

3 shillings 5 pence

1809

Anchovies

10 dozen

2 dollars

9 shillings

1809

Gin

3 bottles

3 dollars 24 vintems

16 shillings 2 pence

1809

Ham

1

1 dollar 27.5 vintems

5 shillings 2 pence

1809

Ham

17 pounds

3 dollars 34 vintems

14 shillings 4 pence

1809

Turkeys

2

12 vintems

1 shilling 3 pence

1809

Fowls

4

2 dollars

9 shillings

1809

Tea

1 pound

3 dollars

13 shillings 6 pence

1810

Rum

2 bottles

1 dollar 24 vintems

2 shillings 1 pence

1810

Gin

6 bottles

7 dollars 4 vintems

31 shillings 6 pence

1810

Tongues

2

2 dollars 16 vintems

9 shillings 6 pence

1810

Salmon

1

1 dollar

4 shillings 6 pence

1810

Fowl

1

24 vintems

2 shillings 6 pence

1810

Brandy

16 bottles

6 dollars

27 shillings

1810

Tea

2 pounds

4 dollars 30 vintems

18 shillings 9 pence

1810

Holland Dutch Gin

8 bottles

8 dollars

36 shillings

1810

Anchovies

10 dozen

2 dollars

9 shillings

1810

Gin

3 bottles

3 dollars 24 vintems

14 shillings 1 pence

1810

Tea

2 pounds

2 dollars

9 shillings

1810

Ducks

3

1 dollar 5 vintems

4 shillings 7 pence

1810

Gin

4 bottles

3 dollars 10 vintems

13 shillings 9 pence

1810

Salt, refined

2 pounds

15 vintems

5 shillings

1810

Pepper

1/4 pound

10 vintems

3 pence

1810

Ham

1

2 dollars 32 vintems

9 shillings 10 pence

1810

Brandy & Gin

2 bottles of each

4 dollars

18 shillings

1811

Biscuits

1 small barrel

1 dollar 20 vintems

5 shillings

1811

Tongues

3

1 dollar 20 vintems

5 shillings

1811

Port

48 bottles

15 dollars 29 vintems

68 shillings 3 pence

1811

Marmalade

5 pounds

1 dollar 35 vintems

5 shillings 4 pence

1811

 

The above table is interesting from several aspects. A wide range of food was available in Portugal throughout much of the years 1809-181 1. (Unfortunately the Dickson Manuscript volumes IV and V (for years 1812 and 1813 do not include excerpts from his petty cash books.) George Hennell, of the 43d Light Infantry wrote home in 1812, that in Madrid the following items were available:[23]

 

ITEM

AMOUNT

COST

Mutton

1 pound

1 shilling

Hares

Whole

3 or 4 shillings

Partridges

Whole

2 shillings

Pigeons

Whole

6 pence

Bread

1 pound

1 shilling

 

Francis Larpent reported in early 1813, that the following items were available at the sutler's store in the vicinity of Wellington's Headquarters [24]

ITEM

AMOUNT

COST

Butter

1 pound

4 shillings

Bread

1 pound

1 shilling 6 pence

Gin

1 bottle

12 shillings

Pepper and mustard

1 small bottle

7 shillings

Tea

1 pound

13 shillings 6 pence

Cheese

1 pound

4 shillings

Gin

1 bottle

7 shillings 6 pence

Brandy

1 bottle

7 shillings 6 pence

Porter (beer)

1 bottle

5 shillings

Milk

1 quart

1 shilling

Salt-butter

1 pound

3 shillings

Pork

1 pound

1 shilling 8 pence

Oil

1 bottle

5 shillings

Port

1 bottle

6 shillings 6 pence

 

Not surprisingly, the items which had to be imported, such as tea and gin, Were fairly expensive. Interestingly, certain items went up significantly (compared Dickson's 48 bottles of port in 1811 at 1 shilling 8 pence per bottle to almost 4 times that for a bottle that Larpent paid in 1813; tea also increased fourfold.) What is important to note about the prices however is the cost. When compared to the officer's pay, they were fairly high. An infantry captain made l0s6d per day; an artillery captain 11s0d; and a cavalry captain 14s7d. [25] The three bottles of gin that Dickson bought in 1810 would have cost a cavalry captain a day's wages. Either the officer had to have an outside source of income or he had to live very frugally. One of the advantages of belonging to a mess was it allowed the junior officers to pool their resources and thus save money. George Simmons of the 95th Rifles, not only had no income but his pay, he regularly sent money home to support his parents! [26] Belonging to a mess could be especially advantageous when it came to organizing a special meal. Lieutenant Grattan wrote that for the Connaught Rangers' Saint Patrick's Day celebration in 1813, he was provided 50 dollars (225 shillings) to buy food for the forty or so officers of the mess. He wrote that "The fish was excellent, the fowl of the best quality, and to any one who has ever had the good fortune to taste a Lamego ham, it would be but superfluous to descant on the merits of so delicious a morsel. For the beef and mutton I can't say much, but the wine was of the best quality. I had taken particular care on this essential point, and went to a convent where my friend Graham, with his Portuguese regiment, were quartered, and, through his interest, prevailed on the priests to send us some of their own best. In saying this I need not say more in praise of the wine, as it is well known those gentlemen never kept, for their own use, one drop of any wine that was not of the best quality. [27]

A third source of food was the care packages sent from England. Most items sent out were those that could not be obtained locally, such as spices and condiments. The two weeks to two months shipping time from England prevented the shipping of perishables. The most unusual item I found was a care package that an officer in the 95th Rifles received in southern France in late 1813. It consisted of "... two immense pies, weighing nearly a hundred-weight each, and packed in tin cases. They were composed of every kind of game and the best description of fowls, such as turkeys, &c., with the bonese taken out, and the meat baked till it became like brawn when cut in slices. They were most excellent." [28] Frequently the officers would supplement their rations with game they hunted. Many of the officers carried shotguns in their baggage and quite few even brought hounds for coursing after hares, partridges, quail, and deer. The most ingenious hunting technique was one used by the lst Battalion, 95th Rifles. On bathing days, the officers would form the battalion in line, the men in "... their light fatigue dress, foraging caps, and a stick, for a purpuse which shall immediately be explained. The officers were desired to take with them their fowling pieces and greyhounds... the whole battallion was extended in one long line skirmishing order, bringing rather foward the wings, and proceeding in this manner straight across the great plain to the river. Hares, rabbits, and partridges were soon started at all points; when such shooting, coursing, and knocking down with sficks and stones, and such mobbing of quadrupeds and birds commenced, that a game-preserving John Bull would undoubtedly have stigmatized us as a most nefarious corps of poachers. [29]

The final place an officer could obtain food was from the enlisted men. This was avoided except in cases of extreme need, because unlike modern Western armies today, the British officers of that time did not look after the needs of their men to the same degree as they would today. The sharing of food from private stocks was unheard of, and it was not uncommon to hear of officers eating while the men were hungry and vice-versa. However, depending on who the officer was and the relationship with his men, was often the determinant of whether food would be offered by the men. If the officer was liked by the men, they would more likely offer him some of their meager rations. Sergeant Edward Costello, of the 95th Rifles records a case of this during the retreat from Burgos, in 1813. "Lord Charles Spencer, then a youth about eighteen years of age, suffered dreadfully from the hunger and fatigue of this retreat; trembling with cold and weakness, he stood perched upon some branches, that had been cut down for fuel, the tears silently starting from his eyes through the pain he experienced, while thus sharing in the conunon lot, anxiously watching a few acorns, which to stay the pangs of hunger he had placed in the embers to roast. I dare say his Lordship had never known till then the joys of poverty- a good appetite! Nor will he, I expect, forget how willingly the rough soldiers flew to offer him biscuits, which their own sufferings could not withhold from one so tenderly and delicately rear..." [30]

Conclusion

Finding food other than the issued ration while deployed overseas has always been a problem for soldiers of every army since the first army marched. One of the benefits of the regimental mess system was that it allowed the officers to feed their selves more efficiently through a common larder and having fewer number of cooks and servants to support them. Thus benefit was secondary, however to the real purpose behind the mess - it was a place for the officers to relax and unwind with their peers after the stress of a day. The mess was where the bonding among the officers that was so essential to the esprit of a unit occurred.

Notes

  1. Grattan, William: Adventures with the Connaught Rangers 1809-1814; Howard Arnold, London; 1902. Page 316
  2. Smith, Harry: The Autobiography of Sir Harry Smith; John Murray, London; 1910. Page 20
  3. Blakeney, Robert: A Boy in the Peninsular War; Edited by Julian Sturgis; Greenhill Books, London; 1989. Pages 103-104
  4. Leach, Jonathan: Rough Sketches of the Life of an Old Soldier; Ken Trotman, Cambridge; 1986. Pages 297-298.
  5. Grattan; P. 316
  6. Blakeney; P. 1,70
  7. Grattan; Pp 316-317
  8. Gordon, Alexander: A Caval!y Officer in the Corunna Campaign 1808-1809; Worley Publications, Tyne & Wear; 1990. Pages 132-133.
  9. Leach; P. 337
  10. Kincaid, John: Adventures in the Rifle Briggde and Random Shots from a Rifleman; Richard Drew Publishing, Glasgow; 1981. Pages 122-123
  11. Grattan; Pp 320-321
  12. Blakeney; Pp 175-177
  13. Oman, Charles: Wellington's Army, 1809-1814; Greenhill Books, London; 1986. Page 269
  14. Aitchison, John: An Ensign in the Peninsular War; edited by W.F. Thompson; Michael Joseph, London; 1981. P. 31
  15. Oman; P. 271
  16. Leach; P. 297
  17. Schaumann, Augustus: On the Road With Wellington; Edited by A. Ludovici; Alfred Knopf, N.Y.; 1925. Page 291
  18. Hawker, Kevin: Journal of an Officer in Portugal and Spain; Ken Trotman, London; 1981. Page 41
  19. Schaummann; P. 38
  20. Smith; P. 129
  21. Dickson, Alexander: The Dickson Manuscripts Volumes 1,2. & 3; edited by John Leslie; Ken Trotman, Cambridge; 1988.
  22. Dickson, Vol 3. Page iii
  23. Hennell, George: A Gentleman Volunteer; Edited by Michael Glover; William Heinernann; London; 1979. Page 41
  24. Larpent, Francis S.: The Private Journal of Francis Seymour Larpent, Judge Advocate General of the British Forces in the Peninsula; Edited by George Larpent; Richard Bentley, London; 1853. Pages 50 & 52
  25. Glover, Mchael: Wellington's Army; Hippocrene Books; New York; 1977. Page 96
  26. Simmons, George: A British Rifle Man; Edited by W. Verner; Greenhill Books; London; 1986. Page X
  27. Grattan; P. 320
  28. Surtees, William: Twenty-five Years in the Rifle Brigade; Frederick Muller LTD, London; 1973. Page 256
  29. Leach; Pp 109-1 10
  30. Costello, Edward: The Peninsular and Waterloo Campaign; Archon Books, Hamden, Cn; 1968. Page 114

 

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