An Army Marches On Its Stomach

Napoleon Bonaparte? Frederick the Great? Thomas Carlyle? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Proper logistics are crucial to any successful military campaign. The importance of food supply is highlighted in a well-known aphorism. Here are four versions:

  • An army marches on its stomach.
  • An army marches on its belly.
  • An army travels on its stomach.
  • An army goes upon its belly.

This saying has been ascribed to the famous leaders Napoleon Bonaparte and Frederick the Great. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in the 1858 work “History of Friedrich the Second, Called Frederick the Great” by the prominent philosopher, essayist, and historian Thomas Carlyle. The saying occurred in the description of an unsuccessful military endeavor. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

They were stronger than Turk and Saracen, but not than Hunger and Disease. Leaders did not know then, as our little Friend at Berlin came to know, that “an Army, like a serpent, goes upon its belly.”

The referent “little Friend at Berlin” was ambiguous, but a later volume of this work by Carlyle clearly ascribed the adage to Frederick II, i.e., Frederick the Great.

Frederick II died in 1786 and Napoleon Bonaparte died in 1821. An instance of the aphorism was attributed to Frederick II by 1858 and to Bonaparte by 1862. In each case the long delay reduced the credibility of the linkage.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Napoleon did make thematically related remarks that were reported (in translation) in the 1824 book “Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena” by Count de Las Cases. An entry dated July 1816 described an exchange between Napoleon and a child named Tristan who was seven or eight years old: 2

Tristan is very idle. He confessed to the Emperor that he did not work every day. “Do you not eat every day?” said the Emperor to him; “Yes, Sire.” “Well, then, you ought to work every day; no one should eat who does not work.” “Oh! if that be the case, I will work every day,” said the child, quickly. “Such is the influence of the belly,” said the Emperor, tapping that of little Tristan. “It is hunger that makes the world move.”

The creator of the book included the statement “The belly rules the world” in the section header. Also, the book index included the phrase “the belly governs the world”. These expressions referred to the general populace and were not specialized to a military domain.

The subject of food in the military occurred in a later volume of the “Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena”. Napoleon stated that he had considered a radical plan in which each soldier would have been given a supply of corn to grind in a hand-mill. In addition, each soldier would have been required to bake his own bread: 3

I had long entertained the idea of such a change; but however great might have been my power, I should never have attempted to introduce it by force. There is no subordination with empty stomachs.

In 1849 a book about the coal trade in England attributed to Napoleon an instance of the saying in the 1824 book: 4

The beer question ever returns. It would be difficult to say how much of the animosity of the nautical men of Shields against Newcastle, and their consequent efforts to overturn the monopoly of the latter, has had its origin in the beer. “The world,” said Napoleon, “is governed by its belly.”

On 1854 “The Apophthegms of Napoleon” by Joseph Leech included the following: 5

There was not, however, always consistency in his dicta, for on one occasion he said, “imagination governed the world,” and on another, it was “the belly” that did so.

In 1858 Thomas Carlyle published a volume about Frederick the Great containing the following as mentioned previously in this article:

. . . as our little Friend at Berlin came to know, that “an Army, like a serpent, goes upon its belly.”

In 1860 “Life of Andrew Jackson” by James Parton placed a remarks attributed to Frederick II, Marshal McMahon, and Napoleon adjacent to one another: 6

“An army, like a serpent, goes upon its belly,” Frederic of Prussia used to say. “Few men know,” Marshal McMahon is reported to have remarked, after one of the late Italian battles, “how important it is in war for soldiers not to be kept waiting for their rations; and what vast events depend upon an army’s not going into action before it has had its coffee.” I have read somewhere that Napoleon, on being asked what a soldier most needed in war, answered, “A full belly and a good pair of shoes.”

In 1861 a short piece in a Janesville, Wisconsin newspaper reprinted the words attributed to Frederick II, Marshal McMahon, and Napoleon. The journalist incorrectly referred to the author James Parton as “Mrs. Parton”: 7

Marshal McMahon says that vast events depend upon an army’s not going into action “till it has had its coffee.” We quote these words from Mrs. Parton, who adds that Napoleon says that what a soldier needs most is two things, “a full belly and a pair of shoes”—and tells us that Frederic used to say, “An army, like a serpent, goes upon its belly.”

One important mechanism for generating misattributions is based on the misreading of neighboring quotations. A reader sometimes inadvertently transfers the ascription of one statement to a nearby statement. This might help to explain the popular modern linkage of the adage to Napoleon.

In 1862 a newspaper in Springfield, Massachusetts attributed the “belly” version of the saying to Napoleon: 8

Napoleon said an army marched on its belly. Dismiss all incompetent and hang all rascally commissaries, and decrease the number of deaths in the army twenty-five per cent.

In 1862 Thomas Carlyle published volume 7 of “History of Friedrich II of Prussia”, and he credited the adage to Frederick the Great: 9

The main Army is to follow under Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau tomorrow, Wednesday, “so soon as their loaves have come from Königsgrätz,” — for “an Army goes on its belly,” says Friedrich often.

In 1868 “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War” ascribed a variant to Napoleon: 10

The necessity of a long halt after Bragg’s retreat was therefore inevitable; yet, strange as it may seem, General Halleck, at Washington, not appreciating Napoleon’s maxim that “an army crawls upon its belly,” wondered and chafed at this delay, and finally issued a peremptory order directing Rosecrans to advance, and report his progress daily to the War Department.

In 1869 “The Overland Monthly” of Francisco, California attributed another phrasing to Napoleon and suggested an alternative semantics: 11

Napoleon’s maxim, that an army travels on its belly, was metaphorical; but long range and repeating rifles have made it approximately true in a literal sense. Our double lines of battle sought the shelter of the ground as soon as blood was drawn.

In conclusion, Thomas Carlyle credited Frederick the Great with “an Army, like a serpent, goes upon its belly” in 1858. This was many years after the leader’s death. In 1862 Napoleon Bonaparte received credit for “an army marched on its belly”. This was also many years after his death. Perhaps future researchers will locate earlier instances in English, German, or French.

There is good evidence that Napoleon made a related general remark: “It is hunger that makes the world move.” He also said of the military that “There is no subordination with empty stomachs”. These comments appeared circa 1816 in “Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena”.

Image Notes: Portrait of Frederick II (Frederick the Great) by Anton Graff circa 1781. Painting of “Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow” by Adolph Northen. Images accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been resized and cropped.

(Great thanks to Fred Shapiro whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Charles Doyle who located the important 1858 citation and to Shapiro who gathered evidence that the phrase “little Friend at Berlin” referred to Frederick the Great. Many thanks to discussants Barbara Schmidt, Marisha Sullivan, John Cowan, Dan Goncharoff, Laurence Horn, T. F. Mills, and Stephen Goranson. Goranson located the 1860 book by James Parton based on the text in the 1861 citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1858, History of Friedrich the Second, Called Frederick the Great by Thomas Carlyle, Volume 1, Book 2, Chapter 6: The Teutsch Ritters or Teutonic Order, Quote Page 83, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1824, Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena by Count de Las Cases, Volume 2 of 4, Date: July 9 to 11, 1816, Quote Page 340 and 342, Printed for Henry Colburn, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1824, Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena by Count de Las Cases, Volume 4 of 4, Date: November 14, 1816, Start Page 188, Quote Page 196 and 197, Printed for Henry Colburn, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1849, England’s Grievance Discovered: In Relation to the Coal-trade; the Tyrannical Oppression of the Magistrates of Newcastle by Ralph Gardner, (of Chirton in the County of Northumberland), Chapter 50, Footnote, Quote Page 164, Printed for R. Ebbitson and P. Stent, London. Reprinted by Philipson and Hare. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1854, The Apophthegms of Napoleon: Being a Lecture, Delivered at the Theatre of the Philosophical Institution, Bristol, February 20, 1854 by Joseph Leech, Quote Page 41, Hamilton, Adams, & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1860 (1859 Copyright), Life of Andrew Jackson by James Parton, Volume 1 of 3, Chapter XLII: Hunger and Mutiny, Quote Page 457 and 458, Mason Brothers, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  7. 1861 August 26, Janesville Daily Gazette, A Few Words On Rations, Quote Page 1, Column 4, Janesville, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1862 October 18, The Springfield Daily Republican, Section: Editorial, Gastronomy, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1862, History of Friedrich II of Prussia, Called Frederick the Great by Thomas Carlyle, Volume 7, Quote Page 172 and 173, Bernhard Tauchnitz, Leipzig. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1868, Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, Timeline Date: September, 1863, Chapter 34: The Chattanooga Campaign, Quote Page 535, Column 2, Harper and Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 1869 November, The Overland Monthly, Volume 3, Number 5, Article: Under Fire, Start Page 432, Quote Page 434, A. Roman & Company, San Francisco, California. (Google Books Full View) link