“Although the use of salt provisions was problematic, they were vital in supplying Britain’s armed forces and sustaining its empire across the world.”
By George Yagi
FOR 18th CENTURY military commanders, salt often spelled the difference between victory or defeat in wartime.
Prior to canning, which was first perfected in France during the Napoleonic War, salt was the most effective way to preserve the rations of an army in the field or a fleet at sea. Without pickled rations in barrels, troops couldn’t march and navies couldn’t sail. One general during the Seven Years’ War summed it up when he declared that any shortage of salted provisions, like beef or pork, would put Britain’s campaign in North America in jeopardy.
While officers were encouraged to provide their men with fresh rations rather than preserved food, Forbes further explained, “Live Cattle does Very well where you can feed them, or keep them along with you with safety but where both those means fail salt provisions is our only dependence.”
This proved particularly true while on campaign, as live animals were susceptible to raids by the enemy and sometimes supplies were not available among local populations. Both scenarios could have devastating effects — Forbes understood this all too well.
“The want of one day’s provision to an Army is of more consequence than the value of three months.”
Salt was equally vital to fleets at sea; its role in food preservation was crucial in keeping sailors fed. Yet while of critical importance to naval operations, salt provisions were also a health hazard to crews, particularly if there were no other rations available. Excessive sodium consumption leads to dehydration, which on a vessel far from land and with limited fresh water stores was dangerous. Despite this, salt provisions were the backbone of British logistics as they maintained both soldiers and sailors for extended periods of time across the globe.
When packed and stored properly, salted food could keep for months and even years in wooden barrels. As a result, considerable efforts went into new and ever more efficient methods of pickling provisions. William Ellis described one contemporary method used in Hertfordshire to preserve pork:
To a porker, weighing twenty stone, she made use of a quarter of a pound of salt-petre mixt in powder with common salt to the quantity of a peck, and after the pieces of pork were sprinkled with salt, to extract the bloody part that remained in them, she rubbed them well all over with the salt mixture; and if, after the pork had been potted down about a week, the briny dissolution of the salt did not appear to her linking, she drained off what was liquid, and boiled and scum’d it, and in the boiling added more salt and water, which when cold, she poured on her pickled pork.
Another process involved a mixture of “common salt, bay-salt, and salt-petre, beat very fine with sugar in a bowl,” which was then thoroughly rubbed over each piece of pork, as well as the inside of the “pot or tub” it was to be placed. Regardless of the manner employed, a common ingredient was salt-petre, which was also used in the manufacture of gunpowder. Described by Ellis as “a bitterish salt, and of a sulpherous nature,” it could spoil both the taste and smell of meat if too much were applied. After the pickling process was complete, and the salt provisions properly stored in their barrels in a mixture of salt and brine, they were ready for transport.
Although salt provisions were a reliable method of supply, they were unhealthy when eaten alone. During the Seven Years’ War, Colonel Ephraim Williams reported from Albany, “Great part of ye men are obligd to Eat their Vituals almost as Salt as Brine, the Doct. Tels me by the best observation he can make that in a very little time (Except fresh provision Can be had) the men will be so Sickly yet the Expedition will be at an End.”
While observing the army at the same time in Germany, Dr. Donald Monro added:
“Where there is a Want of fresh Provision, and they are obliged to live on salted Meat, and cannot have Greens, Pot Herbs, Roots, or other fresh Vegetables, nor be properly supplied with Beer Cyder, Wine, or other generous fermented Liquors, they as well as Sailors, are subject to the Scurvy.”
While scurvy was deadly when suffered over an extended period of time, the more pressing issue for commanders on campaign was the decrease in available manpower for military operations, while those struck with the illness recovered.
In order to counter this problem, fresh provisions were introduced to maintain a healthy diet. These included supplementary rations of vegetables, fruits, and fresh meat. In addition, beer brewed from the boughs of spruce trees and sauerkraut were also distributed, all of which were rich in scurvy-preventing Vitamin C. Consequently, officers were at all times very eager to collect these items. In the days prior to the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson busied himself issuing orders stating, “Ships, absent for any length of time from me, are at liberty to purchase the gratuitous onions of Government for the recruiting the health of their Ships’ Companies, who may have been long fed upon salt provisions.” It is easy to understand one of the reasons Nelson was a victorious commander; he knew that healthy sailors fought better than sick ones.
Despite all the efforts to improve the pickling process, a shortage of salt provisions remained troublesome. Improperly packed barrels were regularly discovered during inspection, with many being immediately condemned and destroyed. In other cases, the contents might only be partially spoiled and salvageable. But even when properly preserved, stores didn’t keep indefinitely. During the American Revolution, Johann Gottfried Seume observed, “The bacon was probably four or five years old, had black stripes on both the outer edges, was yellow towards the middle, and had only a very thin white stripe in the very center. It was the same with the salted beef, which we used to eat raw, in short, like ham.”
Although the use of salt provisions was problematic, they were vital in supplying Britain’s armed forces and sustaining its empire across the world. Until the coming of better means of preservation, salt provisions were not only “the sole dependence of an Army,” but the entire British military system.