In military and nautical situations food, potables, bedding, clothes, ammunition, and other supplies are all-important, because you often won't be able to get more for months. For the same reason, they are usually purchased in large quantities. The person in charge of acquiring, storing, and distributing these supplies is called the quartermaster (sometimes supply sergeant or purser). These individuals are thus entrusted with large amounts of money and valuable goods, and some find the potential for personal gain irresistible. They may sell supplies on the black market and report them destroyed, or get kickbacks for directing contracts to particular (and often substandard) sellers, or maybe just buy cheap goods with an expensive budget and pocket the difference. May be a Military Moonshiner, and if not can always put you in touch with one, for a price.
They are usually an obstacle or antagonist, causing the heroes to have to do without essential goods, or worse have the essential goods fail at a critical moment. Heroic or protagonist-allied examples will often balance this by being The Scrounger for the unit, and often the Friend in the Black Market as well. This will very often happen in Military Fiction, to the point where many characters will automatically assume that anyone they meet filling this role is doing one or more of these things, and open discussions on that basis.
This is sometimes Truth in Television, although much less so in modern professional militaries than has often been the case historically.
Compare Arms Dealer, who may be a customer, or may be the quartermaster directly.
Compare Honest John's Dealership. Several possibilities:
- The quartermaster acts like or deals with one of them.
- The protagonists will have to deal with one of them to get what they need.
Compare The Scrounger, which may overlap
- In Code Geass: The Prepared Rebellion, these are quite common among the Britannian Military in Area 11, thanks to Clovis' lax administration. Lelouch uses them to get supplies for the Black Knights, and sometimes arranges for them to be found out by Euphemia.
- In Kelly's Heroes, "Crapgame" is an opportunistic supply sergeant who will do anything for money and illegally provides the equipment needed for the raid on the bank storing the Nazi gold.
- The quartermaster in Glory keeps claiming he's out of shoes for the all-black 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, thinking it's funny to leave them either barefoot or getting infections from very worn shoes. Eventually Colonel Shaw loses his temper with the guy and breaks into the stores himself, finding piles of new shoes.
- Bernard Cornwell's novel Battle Flag, set in The American Civil War, introduces Captain Billy Blythe, who holds this position for a regiment of Northern States cavalry raised by public conscription. Galloway's Horse receives a massive cash donation from an Abolitionist preacher to buy its horses. Blythe, who in peacetime had been a horse dealer, is entrusted to buy mounts. but the horses when they arrive are a herd of elderly, mangy, knackered and blown remnants. Blythe defensively says the war has made it hard to get good horses. The suspicion grows that he has pocketed most of the money - but it cannot be proven. Blythe then goes on to be a notorious looter and rapist, who says to the hero, when there are no witnesses, that the only sane thing to do in a war is to get rich out of it. The hero vows to deal with him, but Blythe has powerful protectors.
- Milo Minderbinder from Catch-22 isn't corrupt so much as completely amoral. Officially, he's a mess officer for an Air Force base in WW2; unofficially, he uses Air Force resources to expand his operation, shipping commodities across the Mediterranean. He calls it "the Syndicate," and insists "everyone has a share." Near the end of the novel, he cements his amorality by contracting the Nazis to bomb the base in order to destroy a backlog of Egyptian cotton he couldn't sell.
- In the Ciaphas Cain short story "The Smallest Detail," Ferik Jurgen and a local investigator catch a quartermaster who's selling food and weapons on the black market and fudging the records to hide this. Jurgen spots it immediately when he reads the inventory (the records were too perfect), but he's just there for a supply run and didn't think it was worth reporting until the quartermaster panicked and sent thugs after him.
- Nobby Nobbs was a supply sergeant for several armies, a number of whom lost due to his having sold all their gear. He uses this experience to his advantage in Men at Arms to get into the Ankh-Morpork armory, claiming to be an inspector and accusing the man in charge of everything he used to do.
- In Monstrous Regiment, 'Threeparts' Scallops is a subversion. When the squad sees the shoddy, second-hand gear he has for them, they accuse him of having put aside the best goods so he can sell them off. Then he shows them his back room, full of worse gear - the war is going so badly for Borogravia that the best they can use to equip new units is mangled stuff other soldiers have died in.
- In The Edge Chronicles, multiple quartermasters have turned traitor.
- The Horatio Hornblower novel Hornblower and the Atropos. Captain Hornblower discovers that some of the salt beef the Victualling Yards sent to his ship (the Atropos) is inedible. The superintendent of the Victualling Yards asks that the barrels of bad beef be returned to him, apparently so he can palm them off on some other unfortunate ship's crew. Hornblower considers the possibility that he has some kind of financial interest in doing so, and punishes him by having the word "Condemned" branded on the barrels to warn any other ship they might be given to.
- In Phule's Company, Captain Jester asks his new supply sergeant Chocolate Harry point blank at their first meeting what company gear he's been selling on the Black Market. Harry indignantly denies the accusation until Jester threatens to lock down his inventory and bring in an outside auditor to check everything over. After he owns up, Jester then explains that he doesn't want to lower the boom, just to have some oversight about what gets sold. He also has a shopping list of what he wants from the black marketeers in return.
- The protagonist of the McAuslan series is introduced to his new unit's quartermaster as the 'biggest rogue in the army.'
- In the Prince Roger series, offscreen corrupt quartermasters left the unit with plasma cannons that failed explosively in humid conditions, causing numerous casualties, and "upgraded" powered armor whose critical components also failed (if not explosively) shortly after exposure to Marduk's climate. Prince Roger swears that heads will literally roll over the matter when he gets home.
- In Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Cao Cao creates one. He is fully aware that he doesn't have enough food to take Yuan Shu via a siege, or the strength to assault his walls. So he orders the quartermaster to serve half-rations. When the soldiers complain and threaten to desert, Cao Cao has his generals announce that the quartermaster had been holding back vital supplies for himself and has him executed. After a feast, the men are strong and enthused enough to break through and force Yuan Shu to flee. Cao Cao does provide for the innocent quartermaster's family after this.
- In Ragtime In Simla, an offscreen quartermaster is selling British military rifles to a Pathan tribe via the book's villain.
- In Sharpe's Fortress, Sharpe's nemesis Sergeant Hakeswill wangles a supply sergeant's slot, and colludes with his captain to sell off prodigious amounts of goods. Sharpe himself averts this trope, remaining honest during his own stints as a quartermaster. Few believe it, though; see Real Life, below.
- In the M*A*S*H episode The Incubator, Hawkeye and Trapper John run into one of these, who is hoarding several of the incubators that they need, but refuses to release one. In another episode, Klinger gets a quartermaster to sell him an electrical generator because the camp's main generator is broken and the backup one is missing. Just before they complete the deal the Colonel of the unit which is supposed to get the generator shows up in person because several of their requests for generators have "mysteriously disappeared." The colonel even mentions that they're making do with a backup generator they stole from a M*A*S*H unit. Klinger promptly steals it right back.
- The chanty "The Topman and the Afterguard" has the verse
Then I'll pray for the purser who gives us to eat,Spew-burgoo, rank butter and musty horse meat,With weevily old biscuit, while he gets the gain,May the devil double triple damn him, says the afterguard, amen!
- Troubleshooters in Paranoia often have to deal with the Alpha Complex version of this trope when attempting to get supplies for their latest Friend Computer-assigned mission.
- In EVE Online, player corporations (Read: Guilds) need players with logistics skills to move supplies where they're needed. This is vitally important but very boring grunt work that not many players want to do when they could be blowing up other players instead. So those that volunteer often are not background-checked properly before they're put into a position to siphon off massive amounts of goods that were supposed to be headed to a war effort.
- Sgt Daniel Contreras from Fallout: New Vegas is the New Californa Republic's quartermaster at their Camp McCarran outpost who exploits his position for personal gain smuggling guns and chems to clients in the Mojave Wasteland. If you complete his unmarked quest for him, he'll give you full access to his inventory and also gives you This Machine, one of the best rifles in the game. You can also rat him out to the base's officials (much sooner because you just have to hack his computer, while Contreras's questline has a minimum level to start) and still get This Machine.
- Fallout 4 has Proctor Teagan of the Brotherhood of Steel, who has a repeating quest for the player where he sends you to get food from the local wastelanders, preferring that you use force (though you can choose alternate options).
- The player assigned to the role of Quartermaster on Space Station 13 can usually be counted on to blow the entire station's budget on useless crap like crates full of monkeys. Things get even worse if the quartermaster is a traitor.
- Inverted in Deus Ex Sam Carter is one of the few members of UNATCO that isn't corrupt, sadistic, and/or part of the conspiracy. He even refuses to defect with JC in the last mission in UNATCO, insisting that the place is still ultimately good. He is eventually forced out at the end of the game though.
- Inverted in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion: One of the main reasons for the fall of Castle Vitharn in the Shivering Isles DLC, was because the keep's quartermaster was such a miser that he refused to give any of his equipment to Vitharn's defenders, even while it was under siege, out of fear that they might be damaged or lost during the battle. Somewhat justified, since this is the realm of madness and everyone in the Isles has some form of neurosis; his just happened to be extreme perfectionism.
- In Red vs. Blue, the Reds repeatedly put layabout Grif in charge of their ammo, a task he never performs. Eventually, they expand Simmons' duties to "bringing extra ammo for when Grif forgets." However, when Grif and Simmons are sent to a new base (where Grif is in charge), he actually sells all their ammo to the Blues.
- Rodney inverts this in Archer. In contrast to the highly unprofessional staff at ISIS, he is very by the book, and doesn't allow the team to take out weapons all willy-nilly as it was before he showed up. He does accept a handjob from Cheryl in exchange for a secret phone number however. At his worst, he is more of an Obstructive Bureaucrat than anything else. Becomes a straight version of this in season 6, when ISIS gets shut down he steals all the weapons from the armory and sets himself up as a very successful Arms Dealer.
- Pursers in the era of Wooden Ships and Iron Men were notorious for this sort of behaviour, in part because they were paid poorly and semi-officially expected to do so. The officers and shipowners considered common sailors little better than animals, and didn't much care what their rations looked like (for the most part; officers like Horatio Hornblower did exist, but were rarer in life than fiction).
- Nationalist China's army had to deal with plenty of these during the Second Sino-Japanese War. While the National Revolutionary Army wasn't the best-supplied, they did receive enough foreign aid and produce enough weapons to fill entire warehouses. However, most NRA soldiers barely received any new material in combat, even the basics such as bandages, rations and spare ammunition. This was due to many quartermasters selling off equipment to the black market or other warlords, who would hoard them from their troops. Nothing was done to solve this problem, which lead to quartermasters happily selling several warehouses' worth of supplies to the Chinese Communists in the Chinese Civil War, while the central government's troops starved, watched their equipment break down, or ran out of ammo.