Friday, 29 July 2016

Weird War 1 rations in the trenches

They say an army marches on its stomach, so feeding the two million men who were in the trenches at the height of the First World War was some task. It was a great achievement that in the entire conflict not one British soldier starved to death.

Yet no one should think that the Tommies enjoyed the food that was served up by the military. According to the wags on the frontline, the biggest threat to life was not German bullets but the appalling rations.

Most despised was Maconochie, named after the company in Aberdeen that made this concoction of barely recognisable chunks of fatty meat and vegetables in thin gravy.

When served hot, as per the instructions on the tin, it was said to be barely edible. Eaten cold for days on end in the trenches, where a warm meal was usually no more than a fantasy, it was said to be disgusting.

It was the stated aim of the British Army that each soldier should consume 4,000 calories a day. At the frontline, where conditions were frequently appalling, daily rations comprised 9oz of tinned meat (today it would be known as corned beef but during the First World War it was called bully beef) or the hated Maconochie.

Additionally the men received biscuits (made from salt, flour and water and likened by the long-suffering troops to dog biscuits). They were produced under government contract by Huntley & Palmers, which in 1914 was the world's largest biscuit manufacturer. The notoriously hard biscuits could crack teeth if they were not first soaked in tea or water.

Tea was a vital part of the British soldier's rations. It was a familiar comfort and concealed the taste of the water, which was often transported to the frontline in petrol tins. If the troops were lucky they got bacon a few times a week, which they'd cook themselves over a candle taking care not to create smoke and attract a barrage of German shells.

"The soldiers in the trenches didn't starve but they hated the monotony of their food," says Dr Rachel Duffett, a historian at the University of Essex. "They were promised fresh meat and bread but the reality was often very different."

As the stalemate dragged on and supply lines were affected by a German submarine blockade it became increasingly difficult to feed the Tommies.

However by the end of 1916 flour became hard to come by so bread, known as K-Brot was made from dried potatoes, oats, barley and even pulverised straw. The occasional arrival of vats of stew called "pan packs" was a cause for celebration.

Battle to feed tommy, ww1, world war one, world war one food, soldiers food, imperial war museum,A soldier's mess kit including the dreaded Maconochie stew.

An older tradition of a rum ration endured although it was viewed with mixed feelings. "If rum was handed out it often signalled they were about to go over the top," adds Dr Duffett, also author of The Stomach For Fighting: Food And The Soldiers Of The Great War.

Food science was in its infancy and the lack of variety led to vitamin deficiencies, while stomach upsets were common. Because of the shortage of fresh water, troops often resorted to drinking from the ditches and puddles.

Yet faced with such challenging conditions, the soldiers also learned to be ingenious.

Before the advent of tinned food in the late 19th century, it was normal for armies to herd cattle as they went. The Gloucestershire Regiment is said to have kept the custom alive in the First World War by having a trench cow which ensured a supply of fresh milk. It's also claimed that some soldiers who were dug in for months grew vegetables.

Away from the frontline there was scope for men to improve their diet. They went fishing, poached game, scrounged fruit and liberated chickens from the French farms. Officers often turned a blind eye, believing the victims had every reason to be grateful for the presence of the British Army. Soldiers were also able to receive food parcels from home containing cakes, chocolate and other goodies, and used their wages to buy food locally.

In villages impromptu cafes called estaminets sprang up everywhere. Often they were in front rooms but they became very popular with the Tommies.

The locals soon realised that their own cuisine was not to the taste of most of the British soldiers, who were especially dismissive of the "smelly" French cheeses. Instead they began serving up platefuls of eggs and chips washed down with cheap "vin blanc" which became known as plonk.

For officers with access to transport the options away from the front were even more tempting, including the fine restaurants of Amiens. There's no doubt that the British troops ate better than their German counterparts, particularly when the war finally turned in favour of the Allies.

However a propaganda broadcast in which it was claimed that British soldiers were enjoying two hot meals a day caused an outcry because it was far from the truth.

In the reserve lines there were also Army cooks and mobile kitchens but the quality varied. Although the dishes could be plain, cooks were taught to look for nettles, sweet docks, wild mushrooms and marigold flowers with which to season dishes. Many of the cooks died in the fighting but it was considered by the Tommies to be a cushy job.

Andrew Robertshaw, a curator at the Royal Logistic Corps Museum, in Camberley, Surrey, and author of Feeding Tommy, says: "There was no Army catering corps and in the trenches the men fended for themselves. But away from the frontline there was a cook for about every 100 men.

"For the first time in a major conflict frozen food, which was allowed to thaw on its way from the French ports, was also available. The priority was to keep the men fit to fight, not provide variety, but to feed so many was very impressive."

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