Alexis Soyer

The Chef who Fuelled an Empire

The British army currently deploys 16,000 soldiers in logistics. Their job is to get whatever is needed to wherever it’s needed so the combat troops can fight effectively.

And a major part of their job is supplying enough food.

As Napoleon famously said, “An army marches on its stomach”.

He subsequently forgot his own advice when he invaded Russia, but such is the razor’s edge between genius and madness.

The Russians adopted a scorched earth policy so the French were unable to live off the land as they had in previous campaigns.

In October 1812, Napoleon’s starving army was forced to retreat from Moscow.

Seasonal retreats were not unusual.

The problem of supplying an army in the field meant that for a long time in history, warfare was a summer pursuit.

Malnutrition and food poisoning were at least as likely to destroy an army as the enemy.

So generally armies tried to avoid fighting wars in winter when the severity of these conditions naturally intensified.

A couple of inventions were to change this.

The tin can was invented in 1810 and by 1814 the firm of Donkin, Hall & Gamble were supplying canned rations to the British army.

As with much early-stage technology, the idea was better than the execution.

The early cans were made of tin-plated iron and they had to be hacked open with a cold chisel or bayonet.

(It took another 50 years to make them thin enough for a can opener to become practical.)

They were also dangerous, the seams were sealed with lead solder, and lead poisoning was not uncommon.

Nevertheless it was presumably an improvement on starvation.

Then in 1855 Alexis Soyer invented the Soyer Stove for use in the Crimean War.

Soyer was one of those polymaths the Victorian era seemed to effortlessly produce; a celebrity chef, entrepreneur, humanitarian and innovator.

As a chef, Soyer naturally designed his stove based on years of practical kitchen experience.

And it proved to be a beautifully engineered example of bottom-up product design.

{Come and get it lads!}

At the bottom was a clean-out that also incorporated a damper to control air supply and regulate temperature.

It was versatile and would run on just about anything - wood, coal, gas, peat and even camel dung.

Above the sealed fuel chamber, sat an integral 12 gallon cauldron for soups or stews, which could be replaced by a shallow tray, creating an oven to bake bread or roast meat.

Thanks to a capped chimney, the stove could operate even in heavy rain and it also doubled as a space heater.

A single stove could feed 50 men, and its use would save an army of 40,000 men 90 tons of fuel a day, compared to the normal practice of cooking on open fires.

The stove considerably increased an army’s health, mobility and morale.

And to top it off, Soyer established the post of “Regimental Cook” and trained the first cooks personally.

The Soyer Stove fed troops from Rangoon to Ruislip, all across the British Empire, where of course the sun never set.

The contribution it made to the well-being of those men who served their country is incalculable.

The biggest accolade came from the army itself, they used the stove for 120 years, up to and including the First Gulf war in 1991.

You can find one today, proudly on display in London’s National Army Museum.

It’s hard to imagine anything created by today's celebrity chefs enjoying such longevity.