For centuries, troops have marched off to fight, risking their lives in combat. But what did soldiers eat in different eras? And which conflict offered the tastiest military foods? From blood soup to fermented horse milk, soldiers' rations throughout history have contained some unappetizing options. There have even been military provisions so disgusting that they actually took the lives of soldiers.
Some armies would have been happy to get any food. George Washington's army was forced to go days without rations, and Confederate soldiers stopped to dig up vegetables as they marched. For centuries, soldiers survived on hardtack, tasteless dried crackers that sometimes only contained flour and water. By the 20th century, soldiers complained about mushy canned food but also received smokes and chewing gum in their rations.
While rare WWII photos capture the trauma of combat, they often leave out daily life for soldiers. Even the most accurate movies sometimes forget that soldiers had to eat multiple times a day. And nations that struggled to feed their troops could lose everything, like Napoleon's humiliating march into Russia. After all, military rations could be the difference between victory and defeat.
In ancient Greece, the Spartans built a culture dedicated to combat. Young boys moved into military barracks at age 7 to train. As Roman historian Plutarch explained, "Their training was calculated to make them obey commands well, endure hardships, and conquer..."
In a society dedicated to fighting, the Spartans didn't expect luxurious cuisine. In fact, Spartan soldiers ate black broth made from blood, boiled pigs' legs, and vinegar. Legend claims the soup was so disgusting that Spartans were willing to fall in combat to avoid eating it.
Rome built an army that dominated the ancient world. The army that conquered Europe, Africa, and the Near East benefitted from high-quality provisions. Rome's legions consumed fresh meat and luxurious foods like bacon, cheese, and wine.
Roman legions ate barley and wheat as staples of their diet. The army also consumed a pound of meat per soldier per day. To keep up with the high demand, Roman armies traveled with their own livestock, consuming 120 sheep a day.
The high-calorie diet helped the army cross continents to expand their empire.
In 1095 CE, Pope Urban II called for the First Crusade. Over 100,000 Europeans responded, marching all the way to Jerusalem to retake the city.
In an era without standing armies, soldiers brought food with them. Crusaders probably ate dried meat and porridge, with fruit and cheese if they could afford it. Some soldiers even had to sell their possessions or mortgage their land to supply themselves.
Crusaders thought nothing of stopping mid-fight to eat. During the 1189-1191 CE siege of Acre, twice crusaders halted combat to eat, which helps to explain why it took two years to capture the city.
Genghis Khan and his army conquered the largest land empire in history. With rations of dried milk curd, Mongol warriors managed to conquer territory equivalent to the size of the entire African continent.
The nomadic Mongols weren't farmers, they largely subsisted on their livestock. Mongols divided their diet into white foods and red foods. The white foods, or dairy, included fermented horse milk, while the red foods included meat.
Mongol warriors sometimes stuck a bag of meat, onions, and rice under their saddle while riding. The friction of a day's ride would cook the meat, turning it into a saddle stew. According to Marco Polo, warriors made small punctures in their horses' neck and drank their blood on long rides.