‘cannon fodder’ | ‘chair à canon’

The English expression cannon fodder and the French expression chair à canon denote:
– literally: soldiers regarded simply as material to be expended in war;
– in extended use: someone who, or something which, is regarded as expendable or easily destroyed; a habitual or easy target.
—Cf. also the origin and sense evolution of
loose cannon.

The English expression cannon fodder and the French expression chair à canon have recently been used in relation to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Two examples:

1-: From The Guardian (London and Manchester, England) of Friday 10th June 2022:

Russian forces were focusing all of their might in the area, Ukraine’s security council secretary, Oleksiy Danilov, told Reuters. “They don’t spare their people, they’re just sending men like cannon fodder,” he said.

2-: From Le Monde (Paris, France) of Wednesday 19th October 2022:

Les 300 000 réservistes rappelés par Vladimir Poutine pour combler les pertes de son armée seront-ils la « chair à canon » que prédisent de nombreux experts ?
Will the 300.000 reservists recalled by Vladimir Putin to make up for the losses in his army be the “cannon fodder” that many experts predict?




According to the Oxford English Dictionary (online edition December 2021), the expression cannon fodder was coined after German Kanonenfutter (attested in 1796), which was perhaps itself coined after the English expression food for powder.

The earliest occurrences of the expression cannon fodder that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From Series of Hunt, in Sketches of a Day in the Serial Order, by the U.S. anarchist Marx Edgeworth Lazarus (1822-1896?), written for, and published in, The Harbinger, devoted to Social and Political Progress (Published by the Brook Farm Phalanx. New York: Burgess, Stringer, and Company. Boston: Redding and Company) of Saturday 20th February 1847:

In War, by the relations of financiers and stock-jobbers, and speculators, mercantile or political, who being the prime though secret movers and only persons whose interests are advanced, occupy, like the landed proprietor or the hunter, the first rank. 2d. Kings, ministers, and parliamentary or other representative machinery, tools of the first class, as the land agent or the forest keeper is of the landed proprietor. 3d. Officers, naval and military, corresponding to the dog-trainers of the hunt; and 4th. Common soldiers—cannon fodder, who correspond to the bailiffs in the civil warfare or mammon hunt, and to the hounds in the hunt of other animals by man.

2-: From Blind Rosa, by Hendrik Conscience, translated by the British author Mary Howitt (1799-1888), published in Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature and Art (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA) of July 1852—this is a translation of Die Blinde Rosa (1851), originally written in Flemish by the Belgian author Hendrik Conscience (1812-1883):

“My late father used to tell me that when I was about six years old I was very near perishing under the ice; but that tall Jan drew me out, and that he went away with the rest in the emperor’s time to serve for cannon fodder. Who knows now where his bones lie in unconsecrated earth? God be merciful to his poor soul!”

3-: From Russia and Finland, a correspondence from Cheapinghaven [i.e., Copenhagen, Denmark], published in The Morning Chronicle (London, England) of Wednesday 8th May 1861:

Finland knows better. By law its regiments cannot be ordered out of the country. Thousands of Finnish families yet remember how, all this notwithstanding, their troops were sent out, to fight and to fall, against their patriot brothers in Poland and Hungary. Most of them never came back. They were Muscovite cannon-fodder. Of one regiment in Hungary not one soul returned; of another, only two.




The French expression chair à canon translates literally as cannon meat—cf. the French expression chair à saucisse, translating as sausage meat.

The earliest occurrences of the French expression chair à canon that I have found all date from 1814 and are used in reference to Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821), Emperor of the French from 1804 to 1815. The following are three of those occurrences:

1-: From Ogriana. (C’est l’Ogre qui parle.), in L’Ogre de Corse, histoire véritable et merveilleuse * (Paris: Chez F. Louis, 1814), by C. J. de Rougemaitre (17..-1829):

Les conscrits sont de la chair à canon.
The conscripts are cannon fodder.

[* Ogriana. (C’est l’Ogre qui parle.) translates as: Ogriana. (It is the Ogre who speaks.), and L’Ogre de Corse, histoire véritable et merveilleuse translates as: The Corsican Ogre, true and marvellous story.—Napoléon Bonaparte was born in Corsica.—In Ogriana, -ana is a suffix used to form nouns denoting a collection of sayings, writings or literary remains of a particular person.]

2-: From Campagne de Paris, en 1814, précédée d’un coup-d’œil sur celle de 1813, ou Précis historique et impartial des événemens, depuis l’invasion de la France, par les armées étrangères, jusques à la capitulation de Paris, la déchéance et l’abdication de Buonaparte, inclusivement ; suivie de l’exposé des principaux traits de son caractère, et des causes de son élévation ; rédigée sur des documens authentiques, et d’après les renseignemens recueillis de plusieurs témoins (Paris: Chez A. Eymery, 1814), by Pierre-François-Félix-Joseph Giraud (1764-1821)—the following is about Napoléon Bonaparte:

Ses mots, ses figures, jusqu’à ses plaisanteries, ont un sel de cruauté. C’est un fait certain qu’il appelait les conscrits les moins exercés, de la chair à canon.
His words, his figures [of speech], his jokes even, have a cruel streak. It is a certain fact that he called the least experienced conscripts, cannon fodder.

3-: From De Buonaparte, des Bourbons, et de la nécessité de se rallier à nos princes légitimes, pour le bonheur de la France et celui de l’Europe (Paris: Mame Frères, 1814), by the French author and diplomat François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848):

On en étoit venu à ce point de mépris pour la vie des hommes et pour la France, d’appeler les conscrits la matière première et la chair à canon.
     translation—from Of Buonaparte, and the Bourbons, and of the necessity of rallying round our legitimate princes for the happiness of France and that of Europe (London: Printed by Schulze and Dean, for Henry Colburn, 1814):
Such a contempt was entertained for the life of man and for France, that it was even customary to call conscripts the raw material, and food for cannon.

The earliest occurrence that I have found of the expression chair à canon in an English text is from Niles’ Weekly Register (Baltimore, Maryland, USA) of Saturday 2nd December 1815:

Extract from L’Observateur,

[[…] The following articles appeared in June and July, and are translated from the French.]—Aurora
“In acceding to the treaty of alliance, concluded at Vienna the 25th of March, 1815, England reserved to herself the liberty of furnishing her contingent either in men or money, at the rate of 30 pounds sterling (about 650 francs) per man per annum. Before the French revolution, the average price of a negro was 3000 francs; the abolition of the trade, and the devastation of the French and Spanish colonies, has augmented the price, insomuch that it is now from 3300 to 3900 francs.—Common flesh, (chair a canon) does not last long in Europe; by good calculators, its duration has been estimated at two years; suppose it lasts five; according to this basis, a white soldier is rated in London at 3250 francs. We then see that a difference in color makes some in the price of slaves; and that in Europe, the centre of light and civilization, a wholesale traffic is carried on by the potentates.”

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