Is That a Baguette in Your Pants?

As popular as the baguette has become, it’s no surprise that there are lots of bogus stories about its origin. My favorite attributes its invention to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Forget that the invasion took place some 40 years before anyone had ever heard of a baguette (facts only muddy things up). The story picks up in the planning phases of the 1812 Russia campaign. Napoleon’s army was massed, the objective fixed. It would be a long and arduous march. Extra equipment and ammunition would be required, and that would leave precious little room for food. The bread of the period was round and bulky, almost impossible to stow. So, Napoleon commanded his bakers to create a loaf that would fit in the only space still available: down his soldiers’ trouser legs.

What a bunch of boule.

Napoleon, though it’s not widely talked about today, was an extremely sophisticated a thinker when it came to provisioning. A genius, in fact. He had to be if he wanted to maintain armies of the size he assembled. National conscription was a product of the Napoleonic Era. It’s something we take for granted today, but it allowed him to do something no other military commander in history had ever done before him: wage war on a societal level. The draft allowed Napoleon to marshal armies far, far larger than anything that had been seen until his time. But while the scale of warfare he conceived was unprecedented, so too were the logistical challenges. Where to get all the uniforms? The guns? The food? The latrines?

As it happened, the industrial revolution was getting underway about then, which meant that uniforms and guns could be turned out en masse instead of being crafted individually. Provisions were an especially tricky problem, however, and Napoleon understood very well the relationship between food and warfare. “An army is a creature which marches on its stomach” he often said, and spent most of his waking hours trying to devise methods for satisfying his Grand Armee’s appetite. He achieved this, in part, by supplying each man with several days’ rations, not to be used except in emergencies. Traveling wagons accompanied them, each with enough food for a week. But again, these were only for emergencies. Regular meals were supplied by advance depots, set up along his army’s route. These outposts supplied canned food (a true Napoleonic innovation) and bread, baked on-site in custom-built ovens.

Napoleon’s provisioning techniques became the prototype for later conflicts including the American Civil War. One Napoleonic technique in particular, La Maraude (i.e. the pilfering food from the populace when in hostile or neutral territory) was used to great effect by Sherman during his infamous March to the Sea. When not pillaging and scorching the countryside, however, both the North and the South employed Napoleon’s idea of the movable bakery.

Suffice to say, then, that Napoleon had little use for stuffing long breads down pant legs. Had he, he’d never have made it to the outskirts of Paris, much less Moscow. Though I dare say the troops would have made quite an impression on the ladies…

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