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Ross Poldark in the Military, Ration Stew & more

Tags: ross military
Thanks to Barnard Photography and Red Sangre for their photography and art.
Hello Poldark fans
Have you wondered about Ross's Military experiences?  There are subtle hints in the books, mostly in the prologue of the book, Ross Poldark.
I asked a Facebook friend who goes by John Gimlett (get it?) who was in the military to contribute to this blog.  I hope you enjoy reading his comments. When appropriate I will insert copy in BOLD from the prologue to supplement what John is telling us from the book, Ross Poldark.

Ross Poldark's Military Career

"I’m honored to be a guest blogger here at Bonny’s request. I thought I loved Poldark, but my love turns out to be a mere infatuation compared to Bonny’s true love. Bonny made her request because she’s come to know that I’m a former military man. I’m a retired U.S. Army Officer, retiring at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. My last position in the Army was that of instructor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Part of my curriculum was military history and we did focus on the American Revolution as part of our studies. Bonny suggested I could share some thoughts with you about what our hero, Ross Poldark’s military experience may have been like.

First of all, there’s only so much I can know from reading the novels and the rest I have to infer from history. I think we can put some pieces of the puzzle together. Also, I should say I defer to any British military historian who happens to come upon Bonny’s blog and finds that I might not have remembered my lesson plans perfectly.

First of all, Ross joins the war relatively late in the conflict, 1780. The war began in 1775. The public sentiment in Britain was that the uprising in the American colonies was basically a nuisance and that it would eventually be put down. Britons were generally pretty secure in their nation’s military strength, particularly the Royal Navy. However, Ross joins the Army. 

Given his family’s status I think we can be pretty certain that Ross joins as an Officer. In those days, until the late 19thCentury, British military Commissions were purchased. It was a way for the government to raise and retain money for the military. A theme in Graham’s novels is the much more rigid class division we find in British society in this time frame and the military is no different. The purchasing  of Commissions help maintain class divisions between Officers and enlisted soldiers.
The idea of men being “encouraged” to enlist to avoid jail time is fairly common across many nation’s militaries and throughout their military history. Britain is no exception, especially during this time. We all heard Ross telling his superior Officer in the opening scenes of the new series that he joined to avoid jail. My guess is that his father, Joshua, knew that Ross was taking greater and greater risks with the law and the excise men so he probably figured that eventually Ross would be arrested. (It was he , Joshua, who had encouraged Ross to go away.  He had no belief in keeping boys at home as additional lackeys.  Let them find their  own stirrups.  Besides, it would have been undignified to have his son brought up in court for being party to a assault upon excise men, with its associated charges of brandy running and the rest.  Not that Cornish magistrates would have convicted, but the question of gaming debts might have been raised.)Now, once in jail, Ross would have lost his opportunity to serve in the military as an Officer. He could have maybe escaped jail by offering to join, but as a convicted felon, it would have been as an enlisted soldier. The fact that we call him “Captain” Poldark, to me, means that his father buys him an Officer’s  Commission. Again, my guess is that Ross was involved in a crime that was being investigated and the authorities were closing in on him. His father got him out of the country with an Officer’s Commission. 

The action in the American Revolution by 1780 had shifted to the South. General Cornwallis is in North Carolina and he is the main British effort at that time. Debbie Horsfield tells us Ross is seeing action around the James River in Virginia and that makes good historical sense.  Ross would have been part of British General Phillips’ units that saw action along the James River in 1781 as they tried to pave the way for the northward movement of Cornwallis’s main force up into Virginia. It is at Yorktown in October of 1781 that Cornwallis ultimately surrenders to Washington. Yorktown marks the end of major hostilities in the Revolution, however, the Treaty of Paris isn’t signed until 1783 and the last British combatant doesn’t leave New York until November of 1783. We know Ross arrives back in Cornwall in October of 1783. Frankly he’s among the last to leave! What happens to Ross between 1781 and his departure from New York Harbor in 1783 is anyone’s guess. ("He's in New York now" said Joshua (to Charles). "Part of the garrison.  He's quite recovered from his wound.  It was lucky he escaped the Yorktown siege.  A captain now, you know.  Still in the Sixty-Second Foot.") I know I’ve heard the supposition that he was captured and was a prisoner of war, but eventually escaped and made his way to New York. I don’t think Graham’s writings bear this out, but it’s as good of a theory as any.

Life As A British Soldier In The Revolution
The life of a soldier in the 18th century was hard. We know the life of an American  colonist was, of course, much harder than life we have today, so it only makes sense that the life of a soldier was only all the harder. Once in the field, on a military campaign, a soldier was mobile and largely living outdoors.  In order to maintain discipline within the ranks, punishments were handed out for offenses that may seem slight today. And certainly, we’d view the public floggings as entirely too extreme with our “modern sensibilities”. Many locals who observed British military punishments on their own troops remarked that they were also known as “Lobsterbacks” not for their Redcoat uniforms, but from the color of their backs after public whippings!

Now large military forces would generally march for awhile and then make encampments. In the 18th century Armies travelled on foot and on horseback.  So they didn’t move fast. An Army would move as fast as its General would want them to move. Some would just move a little and then make encampments, sometimes for weeks at a time. In the Revolution, the British found some loyal colonists and they found more of them in the South.  Higher ranking Officers would generally avail themselves of housing that was available in the area where they decided upon for encampments. Sometimes this was done with willing participation of the Loyalist homeowner. Sometimes not!
I believe Bonny is going to share with you all some findings on the meals/foodstuffs of a British soldier fighting in America. Here’s what I know from my lessons.  A soldier's rations consisted of soft bread or biscuits, cheese, butter, and beer. Vegetables, beans, rice and peas were added when available. One pound of salt pork, or fresh beef, was the daily ration of meat. Often though, fresh meats were not available. When meat was in short supply, fish was substituted. Since fish did not travel well, it had to be heavily salted, which frequently left the soldier with a hefty thirst. Therefore, fish generally wasn’t liked if it wasn’t fresh. The cheese and biscuits were the usual rations taken when the troops were on a long march. Officer’s rations were generally augmented with some nicer choices of alcohol, i.e. brandy, etc.

You should also know that Armies of this time frame didn’t fight in the winter. They generally camped down for the season. It was considered somewhat “uncivilized” to fight battles in the winter. That’s why Washington’s attack on Christmas Night in Trenton was so shocking. It just wasn’t done!
Another interesting tidbit related to European Armies fighting in this time period – Armies attracted women and women generally travelled with the Army. Allowances were made for marriages within campaigning Armies. I can tell you, as long as there have been large encampments of military men, either at war, or camped in garrison and not engaged in battle, there have been women nearby who see opportunities in such gatherings!  You can make of that what you want. All I can tell you is that if Ross was missing Elizabeth very badly, and found himself wanting female “companionship” . . . he wouldn’t have had to go too far or look too hard to find some. And, as you ladies tell me all they time, assuming that Ross looked like Mr. Turner . . . who knows . . .he probably wouldn’t even have to pay!

I hope you found some of my memories from my history classes somewhat interesting. I’ve enjoyed sharing them with you."

Uniform of the 62nd Foot.  Possible uniform of Ross Poldark?
I've always been interested in history and that includes what did people eat?  Rations for American and British troops were remarkably similar.
Jas. Townsend & Son is a purveyor of reenactor goods, ie clothing, tents, books, as well as what you need to cook over a fire. They also have a wonderful series of videos of 18th c. cooking.  The first in the series includes cooking for Rev War soldiers but British soldiers received the same kind of rations. This remained essentially the same for over 150 years.
There were rations per man, per day; per man, per week, and per company.  
Meat - 1 lb beef, fresh or salted
3/4 lb pork, fresh or salted
1 lb fish, fresh or salted
1 lb loaf of bread, or flour (an even cornmeal)
 1 pt. milk
1 qt. beer
Per company rations would include candles and soap.  Rations would also include dried peas or beans, rice and vinegar.  Soldiers would procure locally from village or farmers or even berries from the woods.
It was Napoleon who said "an army marches on its stomach."  Keeping troops supplied must have been a huge challenge for both sides, but I would think especially so for the British.  Fresh bread would surely have not been practical so soldiers probably were issued flour.
With the flour they could make fire cake or ash cake.  In the Jas.  Townsend video they show how soldiers make the cakes on bannock boards, use leaves so the cake could be placed in the ash bed or just on the ash bed.
Watch how on this video:
 18th c cooking
I have an interesting cookbook, Pease Porridge: Beyond the King's Bread, Cooking at Fortress Niagara, 1726-1865 by JoAnn Demler (2003)  This cookbook covers the French occupation, then British occupation and finally the American occupation of this fort. Fort Niagara is the oldest military site in North America and is located in Youngtown, New York.

 We were always a camping family so I have always enjoyed cooking over the fire.  I recently made Ration Stew, Soda Bread and an Apple Pie one afternoon.

Here are the results:
Ration Stew on the  left, beef, carrots, potato, cabbage and peas.  I precooked the beef to insure it would be tender and I did add beef broth.  On the right, Soda bread before the top of the dutch oven is placed and on which coals will be heaped so the baking action is from the top and the bottom.

Finished stew with soda bread dotted with butter.

 Apple Pie... using pasty dough recipe (lard & butter).  Sliced apples (left skin on), 1 c. brown sugar, plus 1 T minute tapioca (can omit for authenticity but helps thicken the juices).

After the soda bread was done, the pie went in the oven for about 1 1/2 hours as the fire was really dying down by this point.

It was very tasty!

We know Ross comes home expecting to find Elizabeth waiting for him, but that is not what happened.  I particularly enjoy knowing what Ross, Demelza & Elizabeth "think" as well as what they say.  Here's my slightly edited for brevity version of what it was like when Ross returns home to Cornwall.

October, 1783 Ross Poldark returns to Cornwall in a carriage with Dr. Halse who remembers him from school who confused him with Francis.  “You will remember my cousin more clearly,  He stayed on.  I felt, quite wrongly, that at thirteen my education had gone far enough.”  Dr. Halse : Ross Poldark. Well, well, You’ve changed. I remember now,” I  had to thrash you at frequent intervals, and then you ran away.”  “Yes, Poldark turned the page of his book, “A bad business, and your ankles as sore as my buttocks.”

Dr. Halse describes Ross: unusual face with strongly set cheekbones, wide mouth, and large, strong white teeth. The eyes were very clear blue-gray under the heavy lids that gave a number of the Poldarks that deceptively sleepy look.

The coach pulls up at the Red Lion Inn in Truro. Jud had not come to meet him as planned. He goes to see Nat G. Pearce, Notary. He asks about his father’s estate and finds there is little to inherit. A slow smile crept over Ross’s mouth; it made him look younger, less intractable.  He received the will to take  home and read.

Chapter Two
Ten people were dining at Trenwith House. Ross arrives to everyone’s surprise. Verity greets him and then he sees Elizabeth. He sees Francis and remembers at school they were called the Fair Poldark and the Dark Poldark.

He reached Elizabeth, “Well, Ross,” she said softly.  His eyes feasted on her face. “This is most opportune.  I couldn’t have wished it different.”  “I could, she said. “Oh, Ross, I could.” “I almost called to see you tonight,” Ross said to Elizabeth, “but left it for tomorrow. Self-restraint is rewarded.”  “I must explain. I wrote you, but….”

He finds out the dinner is a celebratory one  f0r Francis & Elizabeth…. He decides to go and drinks three glasses in succession and the fourth he gave a toast “To Elizabeth and to Francis… May they find happiness together.”
As Ross leaves Elizabeth says, “I’m so happy you’re back, Ross. I had feared, we had all feared… What can you think of me?”

As Ross rides home: His was not an easy face to read, and no one could have told that in the past half hour he had suffered the worst knock of his life….. They had been in love since she was sixteen and he barely twenty.  … He had gone away eager for fresh experience and sure of the one circumstance of his return that would really matter…. No doubt was in his own mind, and he had looked for none in hers…. He moved on. Occasionally the feeling within him was so strong that he could have been physically sick.

He finally arrives home and yells for Jud.  He finds Jud and Prudie dead drunk locked in each others arms.  He fetches water and soaks the bed to wake them up.  “Dear life! Is it you, Mister Ross?”  “From the grave,” said Ross. “And there’s a horse to be seen to. Up before I kill you.”

This post first appeared on Inspired By Poldark, please read the originial post: here

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Ross Poldark in the Military, Ration Stew & more


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