This morning, while making a fresh pot of tea, I had one of those brilliant flashes of understanding.
There I was, making the tea–you know, boiling the water, adding it to the tea, waiting the requisite four minutes and…hallo! In that instant, I understood one of those infinitesimal historical details which must have had a disproportionately huge impact.
The French army throughout the Napoleonic Wars lived off the land. That is to say, they didn’t have huge supply trains, they didn’t bring their grub with them, therefore they didn’t need to secure supply lines.
This led to an unprecedented ability to move quickly and efficiently throughout central Europe. The plan was that they bought (ha ha) whatever they needed wherever they were. (Officially, looting was frowned upon…)
But that meant in practise was that their provisions were as good or as poor as the country in which they were stationed.
Were they stationed somewhere like Austria, which had a stable economy, or Italy, which had the benefit of long-established farms, excellent local wine and the local fishing fleets–well, that would have been excellent. But were they stationed somewhere poor, where the people survived in grinding poverty as in Spain…well, you get the picture.
When Napoleon planned his invasion of Russia, he massed his troops in Prussia and Poland, expecting them to live off the land as always. What he didn’t know, and didn’t bother to investigate, was that Silesia, eastern Prussia and Poland were among the poorest countries in Europe.
Not only that, but they’d had a very bad harvest in 1811, winter had arrived early and spring late. So, what seed the peasants hadn’t eaten over the winter, was planted late. Hence by June the grain wasn’t ready to harvest–the peasants were starving already, feeding the thatch from their roofs to their few animals, barely surviving on a diet of acorns.
Historians now reckon that Napoleon lost half of his army to dysentary and dehydration before he even crossed the border into Russia at the end of June 1812. That’s a loss of 250,000 troops.
However, the British, led by Wellington, did not operate this way. Wellington would never allow his troops to be cut off from their lines of supply. Which is the reason for the yearly retreat into winter quarters in Portugal during the Peninsular Wars.
And that reliance on providing for themselves, on their own supplies, meant that the British had an edge over the French and their allies that they didn’t know they had. Because in addition to regular food, the British troops drank tea, coffee, or grog–all supplied from home.
Think about it: the grog was watered rum with a high alcohol content. And for making either the tea or the coffee (here it comes!), they boiled the water.
I know one shouldn’t blame someone for not knowing something that wasn’t known at the time. But I’ve often pondered those French casualty lists from the Peninsula and thought, they certainly did run through troops! They lost over 30,000 a year. Which is a lot. How’d they do that?
But then, they weren’t boiling their drinking water, were they…poor blighters.