[Ads-l] " An Army Marches on Its Stomach "

Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Thu Dec 29 17:02:31 EST 2016

Charlie Doyle is so consistently accurate and insightful that I hesitate to disagree with him on anything, but I think that his 2012 posting about the quotation "an army marches on its stomach" is misguided.  In the Yale Book of Quotations I traced the army/stomach proverb back to 1866; Charlie improved upon this by finding it in Thomas Carlyle's History of Friedrich II (1858).  Carlyle wrote, "Leaders did not know then, as our little Friend at Berlin came to know, that an army, like a serpent, goes upon its belly."  My disagreement is not with the 1858 dating, which is an excellent discovery, but rather with Charlie's statement that "A casual reader might miss the reference, but it is not Fredrick being quoted there ... the epithet 'our little Friend' almost certainly refers to Napoleon!"

I believe that Carlyle was referring to Frederick the Great, not to Napoleon.  I base my conclusion on the following:

(1)  Of the thirteen non-Carlyle usages of the phrase "army like a serpent goes upon its belly" between 1858 and 1921 in Google Books/ProQuest/Readex/Newspapers.com/Archive.org, eleven describe it as a Frederick the Great quote and zero describe it as a Napoleon quote (two describe it as a Carlyle quote).  In other words, most readers of Carlyle interpreted "our little Friend at Berlin" as referring to Frederick, or based attribution of this wording to Frederick on some pre-1858 tradition.

(2)  Charlie may have assumed that "our little Friend at Berlin" referred to Napoleon, who is well known as having being little in stature.  But Frederick the Great appears to have been only about five feet three inches tall.  And "at Berlin" seems more likely to apply to Frederick than to Napoleon.

I would welcome any responses from Charlie or other list members to the above.

To move on to another point, I am puzzled by the wording of "an army, like a serpent, goes upon its belly."  I assume that the army going on its belly or stomach means that the success of an army depends heavily on its soldiers being well fed.  But the serpent going on its belly seems rather a mixed metaphor: crawling on one's stomach is pretty different from filling one's stomach with food.  Am I right that this is an odd mixed metaphor?

Finally, the earliest sources I have found attributing the wording "an army marches on its stomach" to Napoleon are from 1896.  Can anyone point me to any pre-1896 Napoleon attributions of this or similar wordings?

Fred Shapiro

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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