In 1855 Alexis Soyer went out to the Crimea to sort out the British Army’s catering.
Two years earlier the British and French had invaded the Crimea to teach the Russians a lesson, though it wasn’t entirely clear what the lesson was to be.
The expedition was a disaster and the British Army’s neglect of its soldiers became a national scandal. The Army’s officer class was packed with incompetents and brutes. It was a dumping ground for the fools of rich families. This was a time when commissions could be purchased and a twenty year old could become colonel of a regiment. A slave owner had more consideration for his slaves than the British officers had for their men. At least the slave owner had an economic interest in the survival of his property.
Little provision had been made for the shelter and feeding of the soldiers. Their medical treatment was a disgrace. The casualty statistics make the situation clear.
Total British Empire dead: 21,097; of which 2,755 were killed in action, 2,019 died of wounds and 16,323 died of disease.
Florence Nightingale had gone out to try improve nursing in the Army’s hospitals. Alexis Soyer went out to improve their food.
Soyer was a Victorian celebrity chef and much more. He was an organiser and an innovator. He designed innovative kitchens, catering equipment and foods. He wrote several books, including a book of recipes for the poor. He had done much to help the starving during the Irish Potato Famine. One million died in the Famine and the English ruling cast demonstrated their usual self interest and callous indifference to the suffering of others. Soyer set up kitchens to feed the starving.
One of his finest Crimean innovations was the Soyer Stove. The soldiers in the Crimea were cooking their inadequate meals on open fires. This was very wasteful of wood and the army was running short of fuel.
Soyer’s stove consisted of a drum with an enclosed furnace below. One stove was sufficient to cook for fifty men and the stoves required less than 10% of the wood required by open fires. The stove could use any available fuel [wood, coal, gas, peat and even camel dung] and was capable of boiling 12 gallons of liquid.
The stoves were strong but light and a donkey could carry two and enough wood to last several days. They were easy to clean. Removing the caldron, and inserting a false bottom allowed the stoves to be used for baking bread as well as roasting meat, potatoes, puddings etc. They also functioned as space heaters.
Soyer designed a Scutari Teapot which provided the troops with better tea and created nutritious and easily portioned vegetable cakes. He was very good at doing all the things needed to ensure his innovation were actually used and used properly. He trained cooks, wrote instructions and persuaded the army to make organisational changes.
The stoves were so successful that the army continued to use them for 120 years. Australia and Canada adopted them and still keep stocks of stoves for use in civil emergencies.
The Soyer stoves were used by many organisations during World War II and were staffed by the Women’s Voluntary Service who provided emergency food in the bombed areas during the Blitz. The Queen’s Messenger Service equipped five lorries with Soyer Stoves and went to recently bombed areas to provide hot drinks and meals to people who had been bombed out of their homes.
They remained an essential piece of army equipment through both World Wars and all campaigns until the Falklands War in 1982, when, an Exocet missile hit the massive supply vessel Atlantic Conveyor. The ship went down with Chinook helicopters and most of the army’s stock of Soyer stoves.
Because Soyer was French we never idolised him as much as Florence Nightingale but he probably did more real good for soldiers than she ever did. Soyer went out to the Crimea at a time when decease was rife and could affect anybody. Several of the people who he asked to go with him refused because they thought it too dangerous. Both Soyer and Nightingale fell dangerously ill and Soyer died soon after his return.
You can read more of his remarkable life in
Cowen, R., 2006. Relish: The Extraordinary Life of Alexis Soyer, Victorian Celebrity Chef 1st ed., Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Soyer Stoves in the Cold War
In the aftermath of a nuclear attack on Britain Soyer Stoves were to be used as part of the operation to feed the survivors. For example, Essex was to be given 600 Soyer Stoves for use in Civil Defence Corp kitchens.