Keynote Joint Annual Scientific Meeting of the Nutrition Society of NZ and the Nutrition Society of Australia

A history of nutrition and war:  from Ancient China to Gallipoli and beyond (376)

Chris Forbes-Ewan 1
  1. Defence Science and Technology Group, Australia

Access to adequate quantities of nutritious food has always been a prerequisite to success in war. In military terms, food can be a ‘force multiplier’.

About 2500 years ago the Chinese general and military philosopher Sun Tzu recommended that invading armies forage on the enemy rather than take food. Half a millennium later, the Romans had discovered that if a general relied on foraging, there was a good chance his army would starve. Roman legionaries commonly carried foods such as ‘hard tack’ biscuits, dried or salted meat and cheese. Combined with foraging, these simple but reasonably nutritious ‘patrol rations’ allowed the Roman Empire to conquer the known world.

There was little progress in food and nutrition for waging war from Roman times until the 18th century, when James Lind—a surgeon in the Royal Navy—showed that citrus juice is antiscorbutic (prevents and cures scurvy). The Royal Navy put this knowledge to good effect: scurvy was virtually absent on British naval vessels after Lind’s discovery. Similarly, but about 150 years later, the Japanese Navy found that reducing the quantity of refined rice in the diet of sailors, and adding meat, fish, flour, milk and vegetables (including beans) led to the elimination of beri beri.

Although the first military application of the principles of nutrition occurred during the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870s—with rationing being based on the estimated protein, carbohydrate and fat requirements of soldiers—the involvement of scientists in the formulation of national food policy in wartime did not occur until World War I. While the UK accepted the need for protective factors in food besides protein, fat, carbohydrate and salts—and that some of these components occurred in fruits and vegetables—Germany underestimated the importance of these factors (which are now known as ‘vitamins’), perhaps influencing the course of the war.

However, there were still problems with getting adequate food to troops during World War I. There is no better illustration of this than the siege of Kut in 1915, when enemy troops surrounded the town, preventing resupply of rations. More than 10 000 British and Indian troops were forced to surrender following five months of increasing levels of malnutrition and outright starvation.

The Gallipoli campaign was also affected by food- and nutrition-related issues. Although food was usually plentiful at Gallipoli, Allied troops (including Anzacs) were fed a diet that was deficient in micronutrients, especially vitamin C. By the end of the campaign, the Anzac troops who survived the fighting had been rendered unfit for military duties as a result of their appalling diet.

The feeding of troops improved dramatically during World War II, with the USA leading the development of a wide range of nutritious combat rations for field feeding.

Developments in military-related nutrition science and food technology continued after World War II, to the extent that troops from developed nations are now supplied foods designed to meet not only their nutritional requirements, but also their taste preferences and cultural needs.

Funding Source:  N/A