Starving Their Own Men: Britain’s Epic Supply Failure in the Crimea


The very least a soldier expects when sent on a campaign is to be fed, clothed and given the necessary equipment to carry out their mission. Without these basics of survival, combat becomes even more difficult than it might already be. Yet one of the most successful armies of the nineteenth century, the British, could not provide these necessities for their own troops fighting in the Crimean War (1853-1856). The failures were so terrible and so avoidable that it became something of a national scandal.

An Imbalanced Diet

Food supplies for British troops in the Crimea were poor. Half rations were common, and it was not unknown for men to receive no food at all, as happened to Colonel Bell’s troops on Christmas Day 1854.

Much of the food that was provided consisted of biscuits and salt meat. This diet ravaged digestive systems, and some men could not eat the meat because it gave them such bad diarrhoea. When fresh meat could be found, salt meat was sometimes given out instead as those distributing it found this less hassle. Most men’s ration of vegetables for the month was two potatoes and an onion.

The biscuits were little more pleasant to eat than the salt meat, being so hard that they caused pain to troops whose gums were inflamed from scurvy. The French, Britain’s allies, had started providing their troops with bread by setting up military bakeries. The British, who had bakers among their troops, never seem to have considered the option.

The diet of these soldiers was worse than that of Scottish prisoners at the same time, who received more generous rations, including milk, vegetables and fish.

Delivery Failures

Valley of the Shadow of Death, by Roger Fenton. One of the most famous pictures of the Crimean War.
Valley of the Shadow of Death, by Roger Fenton. One of the most famous pictures of the Crimean War.

Lack of supplies was made worse by the pedantic behaviour of some supply officers. 150 tons of vegetables were shipped out in November 1854 and arrived at Balaclava without the right paperwork. Without the correct forms, no-one would take responsibility for the cargo. The food rotted and had to be thrown overboard.

At one point, Lord Raglan tried to help the troops’ troubled bowels by ordering that each man be given two ounces of rice a day. Nobody remembered to renew the order when it came to its end, and so the rations stopped. The Commissariat, which still had rice at Balaclava and Scutari, claimed to have no way of getting it to the troops, and so the rice remained uneaten.

Scurvy Strikes

Russo-French skirmish during the Crimean War.
Russo-French skirmish during the Crimean War.

The problems with food supplies are exemplified by the example of Commissary-General Filder and 278 cases of lime juice.

For a century, the British navy had countered the risk of scurvy by providing the men on ships with lime juice, which gave them the vitamins to avoid the disease. Short of supplies, the British troops in the Crimea started succumbing to the ailment. Nearly 20,000 pounds of lime juice was shipped out to tackle the problem.

A small amount of lime juice had been obtained from the navy in the previous month and distributed to the troops. Despite this, Filder ignored the newly arrived cargo, claiming that it was not his job to tell troops it was there. For two more months, men were ravaged by scurvy while all 278 cases of lime juice remained untouched.

The Dreaded Green Coffee

Enjoying coffee, painting by unknown artist in the Pera Museum.
Enjoying coffee, painting by unknown artist in the Pera Museum.

Another of Filder’s failings came in the supply of coffee. To avoid problems with damp and mould, he ordered that coffee beans should be sent unroasted to the Crimean troops. Lacking equipment to roast or grind the beans themselves, the men brewed foul concoctions of green beans that made them ill. The more ingenious found ways around the problem, grinding them in shell cases and roasting them over fires of the loathed dried meat.

Meanwhile, 2,075 pounds of tea remained unissued at Balaclava.

The Wrong Boots

Two French Zouaves officers and one private.
Two French Zouaves officers and one private.

When marching and fighting, decent footwear is of critical importance. Yet manufacturers, looking to save money and add to their profits on a government contract, had made the boots of the British soldiers as cheaply as they could. Not only were these shoddy shoes not up to the cold and damp of the Crimea, but they start to fall apart after a week’s hard use. On one occasion, the soldiers of the 55th Regiment lost the soles of their shoes, as they stuck better to the mud of the parade ground than to the uppers of the shoes.

Not only were the shoes poorly made, but they had been ordered in unsuitable sizes. In the cold and damp of the Crimea, men’s feet swelled up, and they wore extra pairs of socks to try to stay warm and dry. But the Commissariat had set ideas about what sizes were needed and didn’t send the larger boots that would now fit the men.

Many British officers switched to wearing boots taken off dead and captured Russians, rather than suffer in their regulation footwear.

Exposed to the Cold

Winter warfare.
Winter warfare.

The failure to equip the troops for Russian weather extended to the rest of their uniforms. In the wet winter at the Siege of Sevastopol (October 1854 – September 1855) uniforms became soaked trudging around the trenches. With only a single blanket and a greatcoat each to sleep in, the men found the damp rising into their clothes even at night, as they slept on the muddy floors of their tents.

In response, huge quantities of warm clothes were sent from Britain. But on November 14th the ship carrying many of them sunk, taking 40,000 new greatcoats with it. Over 9,000 greatcoats, having arrived, were kept in storage because of regulations. By January, 25,000 rugs had arrived, but only 800 were issued, no-one thinking that they would be useful as blankets. The palliasses that would have saved soldiers from sleeping on the ground were not issued because there wasn’t enough straw to stuff them.

Men died of cold, hunger and exposure due to a lack of organization and initiative. A commission sent to investigate found that a shocking number of deaths were directly linked to supply failures.