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

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Sat Dec 31 09:45:06 EST 2016

Excellent find, that 1861 passage. The newspaper claims to be drawing on "Mrs. Parton"

but apparently drew on James Parton, The Life of Andrew Jackson (NY, Mason brothers, 1860) vol. 1 pages 457-8, ch. XLII Hunger and Mutiny [durin1813]:

"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 [/p. 148] coffee." I have read somewhere that, that Napoleon, on being asked what a soldier most needed in war, answered, "A full belly and a good pair of shoes."

Stephen Goranson


From: American Dialect Society <...> on behalf of ADSGarson O'Toole <>
...Sent: Friday, December 30, 2016 12:52 PM
To: ...
Subject: Re: [ADS-L] " An Army Marches on Its Stomach "

Thomas Carlyle's multi-volume work about Frederick the Great was
published over a period of years from 1858 to 1865.  The statement in
Book 2, Chapter 6 was ambiguous. The target notion was ascribed to
"our little Friend at Berlin" (as noted by Fred):

[Begin excerpt]
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."
[End excerpt]

Strictly speaking the locution "came to know" does not imply that "our
little Friend at Berlin" coined the target phrase or even said the

Interestingly, Thomas Carlyle employed another simplified instance of
the saying in volume 7 of the same opus published in 1862. There was
no ambiguity in the text below. Carlyle credited Frederick the Great,
This instance omitted mention of the serpent:

Year: 1862
Title: History of Friedrich II of Prussia, Called Frederick the Great
Author: Thomas Carlyle
Volume 7
Publisher: Bernhard Tauchnitz, Leipzig
Quote Page 172 and 173


[Begin excerpt]
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. Loaves do not come,
owing to evil chance, on this occasion: Leopold's people "take meal
instead;" but will follow, next morning, all the same, according to
[End excerpt]

The saying was ascribed to Napoleon by October 1862. This version used
the word "marched":

[ref] 1862 October 18, The Springfield Daily Republican, Gastronomy,
Quote Page 6, Column 1, Springfield, Massachusetts.

[Begin excerpt]
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.
[End excerpt]

Lastly, here is a bonus citation in August 1861 with contiguous
quotations from Napoleon and Frederic. Passages like the one below
sometimes lead to misattributions when a reader inattentively attaches
the wrong name to a nearby quotation:

[ref] 1861 August 26, Janesville Daily Gazette, A Few Words On
Rations, Quote Page 1, Column 4, Janesville, Wisconsin.

[Begin excerpt]
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 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."
[End excerpt]


On Fri, Dec 30, 2016 at 10:17 AM, Stephen Goranson <...> wrote:
> 1) Carlyle used the collocation "our little Friend" more than once in this biography, possibly helping identify him:
> https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v2/url?u=https-3A__babel.hathitrust.org_cgi_pt-3Fid-3Dhvd.hn6m7g-3Bview-3D1up-3Bseq-3D300&d=CwIFaQ&c=imBPVzF25OnBgGmVOlcsiEgHoG1i6YHLR0Sj_gZ4adc&r=uUVa-8oDL2EzfbuMuowoUadHHcJ7pjul6iFkS5Pd--8&m=yE04pqZgipNEFpGFB44SULlKFz-aT0hOeixV7Jtj2D4&s=q4wr8DMZblzXgsgwsHSwCOnqYctJJbfMfwmBe7K0n0k&e=
> 2) "Leaders did not know then...." in context apparently refers to circa 1190. Here, any leader subsequent might qualify?
> 3) A question: our Berlin Friend or a visitor who learned there?
> 4) Might one have learned from the other?
> H. N. Y.
> Stephen Goranson
> http://people.duke.edu/~goranson/

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

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