Making Tea…

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.   

Tea or coffee, sir?

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.

This entry was posted in History.

4 comments on “Making Tea…

  1. B.Lloyd says:

    The carelessness of arrogance, is what I have usually attributed to Napoleon’s ultimate failure. And, harsh as discipline in the British army was, with looting and even picking up an escaped chicken being punishable with hanging, it illustrates the simple fact that Wellington had realised how to engender local support through honest dealing and building up trust. It may not have been 100% successful (what system ever is), but it went a long way to sustaining relations. It is a strange conundrum, his relationship with the army : scum of the earth, and salt of the earth seems to sum it up. Boney may have inspired divine devotion in his soldiers, but they still had to leave the battlefield if they muddied their uniforms, which cannot have assisted the cause de guerre overmuch. Nosey knew where he was with his lot, though. Let’s not even start to digress on their courage in the surgeons’ tents . . . And when the army doctor told him the total number of casualties the morning after battle, Wellington took his hand and wept. ‘Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.’ He did not delight in war.
    Wandering around Waterloo though, you could be forgiven for imagining that Waterloo was won by the Corsican. The souvenir shops are filled with tricorno busts of Napoleon. We were even given a set by the receptionist when we returned to the hotel. But of Wellington (whose bust we would much preferred to have found)? Ne’er a sight to be seen.
    The best place to sense the presence of the Allied Forces is the Wellington Museum, the old inn at Chaussée de Bruxelles 147, where even his room on the upper floor is still pretty much as it was. Squeaky floorboards and all. (Wonder if the floorboards were squeaky then too and if he could tell which of his officers was approaching . . ‘that you, Ponsonby ? Stop faffing about on the landing and come in; yes , I know I’ve been carrying on with your married sister, but we have a war on here, so get over yourself and pay attention . . .’)Still no sign of Wellington busts, however. Oh dear. I have been trailing on for rather a while. My bustle is quite worn out. And I promised Wellington another quadrille on the dance floor . . .

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I have spent many happy hours in the Army Museums in Winchester (the Rifles’ Museum is there) where there is a vast model of the Battle of Waterloo. However, I must admit, there always got to a point where I got lost. Not so with Andrew Roberts’ fine, slim tome on the subject.

      Transpires that the topography of the place has been changed in the past 200 years, some levelling out done, etc. which makes the manoeuvres confusing…all of which he points out and explains. Which leads to complete clarification for the befuddled.

  2. B.Lloyd says:

    In fact, the topography changed very soon after the Battle : when Wellington revisited it, by which time the Lion Mound had been constructed, he said : ‘They have spoiled my battlefield.’
    Owing to the usual glitches, I see I neglected to include in my second copy how he always had a sovereign in his pocket for every Waterloo man he met, in spite of his rather acerbic attitude towards them.
    David Howarth’s ‘A Near Run Thing’ is a scrupulously clear description,with many first hand accounts and an excellent map of the battlefield, even down to the positons of the various soldiers whose accounts are quoted in the book.
    And I find Richard Holmes’s ‘Wellington’ another scrupulously researched piece of work; objective and compelling, it offers an excellent piece of insight into the man himself.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      I’ve read several biographies of Wellington and of course many of Napoleon too. One of the more interesting was Roberts’ comparison of the two men. Because there was a rivalry there, certainly on Wellington’s part.

      “Waltzing into Battle” although fatuous in many ways, certainly in its assessment of Wellington, had one of the finest collections of excerpts from letters from the men who fought the battle in the days and weeks leading up to it.

      But I confess, at the moment, my reading list extends into next year. Ha ha. It has finally dawned someone or other that there were in fact battles before Waterloo. I know, who could credit such a thing? So they are being allowed to pen things like Napoleon’s Downfall and 1814 and Russia against Napoleon 1807-1815. All of which is good news for me and my work.

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