‘food for powder’: meaning and origin

The phrase food for powder denotes soldiers, especially low-ranking recruits, collectively regarded as expendable in war.
—Synonym: cannon fodder.

The phrase food for powder occurs, for example, in the review of Our Horses in Egypt (London: Chatto & Windus, 2007), by the British novelist Rosalind Belben (born 1941)—review by Stevie Davis, published in The Independent (London, England) of Friday 23rd February 2007:

The horses of the southern shires, requisitioned for the Great War, were sent all over the world to battle alongside suffering millions of men, equally food for powder.

The phrase food for powder was coined by the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) in The History of Henrie the Fourth; With the battell at Shrewsburie, betweene the King and Lord Henry Percy, surnamed Henrie Hotspur of the North, With the humorous conceits of Sir Iohn Falstalffe (London: Printed by P.S. for Andrew Wise, 1598):
—Context: In a soliloquy, Falstaff, who accepted bribes to dismiss good soldiers, has declared that his “whole charge consists of Ancients, Corporals, Lieutenants, gentlemen of companies: slaues as ragged as Lazarus in the painted cloth, where the gluttons dogs licked his sores, and such as indeed were neuer souldiours, but discarded, vniust seruingmen, yonger sonnes to yonger brothers, reuolted tapsters, and Ostlers, tradefalne, the cankers of a calme world, and a long peace, ten times more dishonourable ragged then an olde fazd ancient”:

Prin. Tell me iacke, whose fellowes are these that come after?
Falst. Mine Hall, mine.
Prince. I did neuer see such pitifull rascals.
Falst. Tut, tut, good inongh to tosse, foode for powder, foode for powder, theile fill a pit as well as better; tush man, mortall men, mortal men.
West. I but sir Iohn, me thinkes they are exceeding poore and bare, too beggerly.
Falst. Faith for their pouerty I know not where they had that, and for their barenesse I am sure they neuer learnd that of me.

The earliest occurrences of the phrase food for powder that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From Journal of the War in Europe, published in The Champion: Containing a Series of Papers, Humurous, Moral, Political, and Critical. To each of which is added, A Proper Index to the Times (London, England) of Thursday 10th April 1740:

Orders are given for a Review of the Household Troops, (a la Mode de France) some Time next Month.——Where it will appear that instead of being Food for Powder, Powder is Food for them.

2-: From Journal of the War in Europe, published in The Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland) of Tuesday 8th July 1740:

’Tis said some Recruiting Officers have outdone Sir John Falstaff in damnifying the King’s Press, their Corps consisting of Boys that can hardly bear Arms, and who must be put to Nurse at the publick Charge, before they can be fit for Food to Powder.

3-: From Seasonable Considerations on the Expediency of a War with France; Arising from a faithful Review of the State of both Kingdoms (London: Printed for F. Cogan, 1743), by George Burrington:

Germany is usually called the Grave of the French; and not without Reason; since their most successful Wars in that Country have ever cost them more Lives than the Advantages attending them were worth; nor hath this last been less destructive than those of former Times: For to say nothing of the Havock which the Sword hath made, their Troops have been equally wasted with Famine, Sickness, and Fatigue: Of all which Hardships, the Survivors are become so sensible, that their very Spirit seems to be subdued, and they rather act as Men going to be sacrificed, than inspir’d with the Hope of Victory. It was on this Account, perhaps, that a Penny a Day Sterling additional Pay was lately allowed to every private Man: Of whom it may be literally said, that they are only Food for Powder, according to the Expression of Falstaff.

4-: From Fortune not to be blamed, but a neglect or abuse of her favours, published in The Gentleman’s Magazine, and Historical Chronicle (London, England) of July 1745—reprinted from the Old England Journal:

The n——nal debts were increased, the n——nal credit rack’d, to furnish our ineffectual troops, for no other visible end under heaven, but that our virtuous Broadbottoms might fulfil their engagements, by wantonly exposing a handful of men to glut our enemies swords, and to be food for powder.

5-: From The Female Spectator (London: Printed and published by T. Gardner, 1748):

He received his discharge, and gave up his cloaths and musket, which the other immediately equipt himself in, with the greatest resolution and intrepidity:—the officers clapped their hands, and the mob huzza’d, and cried he would beat ten Frenchmen, while others shook their heads, and said it was pity so brave and honest a fellow should be food for powder.

6-: From The Spring-Garden Journal. By Miss Priscilla Termagant (London, England) of Thursday 7th December 1752:

My single State is a heavy Incumbrance in the Way to Happiness; and I now experience that Beauty is only a Punishment; for I am so cruelly tormented with Pamphleteers, and Authors of all Ages and Sizes, that my Hours of Study are broke in upon; and I can never take the Air in the Park, but some impertinent Coxcomb steps up to me (as near as Decency will permit) with, That’s she; there goes Termagant; a fine Girl, Food for Powder: And another, to shew his Wit, cries, Ay, and Ball too.

7-: From The Naked Truth (London: Printed for A. Price, 1755), by James Edward Oglethorpe (1696-1785), British army officer, philanthropist and founder of the British colony of Georgia:

War makes great Armies, and many Provisions for the younger Branches of great Families; and notwithstanding the Marriage Act, there are not quite Heiresses enough for all the younger Brothers of noble Families, some are left Food for Powder.

8-: From The Connoisseur. By Mr. Town, Critic and Censor-General (London, England) of Thursday 6th March 1755:

If the country is infested with these useless and obnoxious animals, called Squires, this metropolis is no less over-run with a set of idle and mischievous creatures, which we may call Town Squires. We might soon levy a very numerous army, were we to enlist into it every vagrant about town, who, not having any lawful calling, from thence takes upon himself the title of gentleman, and adds an Esquire to his name. A very large corps too might be formed from the Students at the Inns of Court, who under the pretence of following the law, receive, as it were, a sanction for doing nothing at all. With these the several tribes of play-house and coffee-house Critics, and that collective body of them, called the Town, may be allowed to rank: And though no great exploits can be expected from these Invalids, yet (as they are of no other use whatever) they may at least serve in the army, like Falstaff’s men, as “food for powder.”

9-: From The World (London, England) of Thursday 11th November 1756:

I cannot look on our troops, powdered and curled with so much exactness, without applying Falstaff’s expression, and thinking indeed that they are food for powder. Nor can I behold the lace, and all the waste of finery in their clothing, but in the same light that I survey the silver plates and ornaments of a coffin: indeed I am apt to impute their going to battle so trim and adorned, to the same reason that the fine lady painted her cheeks just before she expired, that she might not be frightful when she was dead.

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