110: Food at the Front


In our final episode about food (for now) we check in with what the men are eating at the front.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 110. This episode is brought to you by listeners just like you who have chosen to support the podcast on Patreon where they get access to special Patreon exclusive episodes like the one to release shortly focusing on life in the Occupied territories in the East during the war. You can find out more info over at patreon.com/historyofthegreatwar. If you don’t want to do the whole Patreon thing, but still want to come hang out with awesome listeners you can check out the show’s Facebook page at facebook.com/historyofthegreatwar. Finally, this week I would like to once again give my recommendation for the book the Hunger War by Matthew Richardson, which was a priceless source for this episode, you can find out more of my thoughts over at historyofthegreatwar.com/thehungerwar. This will be our fifth episode where we end up talking a lot about food, but this one will be a bit different. Over the course of the last few years I have gathered a bunch of random notes on what the soldiers at the front were eating during the war. This seemed like as good of a time as any to talk about it so I combined them all up into what we will be discussing today. This episode will be broken up into two separate sections, the first will be covering the Western Front while the second will be a whirlwind tour around the world where we will discuss food in the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire, Serbia, East Africa, and Russia. In all of these countries there would be unique and interesting problems in trying to keep the soldiers at the front fed, generally related to geographical location and climate. This will be our final episode about food and the homefront and next week we jump back into the actions with one of the more interesting events of 1916, the entry of Romania into the war, followed closely by what I can only describe as a very swift kick to the face by the combined forces of Germany and Austria-Hungary. That will be a month long series, and quite an interesting one, but for now, let’s jump into this episode.

In The Hunger War Matthew Richardson would say of the challenge of food on the Western Front that “whilst it was relatively easy for all armies in France and Belgium to feed their soldiers whilst out of the line, and parcels from home added greatly to the comfort of the troops in this regard, the real culinary challenge of the Western Front was how to get an adequate supply of warm and nutritious food to their men whilst in the front-line trenches, and more particularly whilst in battle. Naturally this could have a critical effect both upon their morale, and upon performance in combat. To some degree this problem was overcome by extensive use of tinned food, such as bully beef and Maconochie’s, and sometimes brave ration parties were able to get through with supplies for their comrades, but often the food of the fighting man in France and Belgium was lacking in quantity, and usually less than appetising. Even supplying fresh drinking water was difficult under battle conditions.” As the Western Front solidified into the trenches the food situation became both easier and more difficult for the armies. It was easier because the liens did not move very much, for most of the front the armies would know exactly where their men would be at any given time, often months in advance and this made positioning field kitchens and supply depots easier. However the static nature of the lines made the last mile of food delivery more difficult since it was always within range of enemy guns. This meant that for all the armies there was a pretty wide difference between what was eaten in the front lines, where tinned and preserved food, and when they were out of the line where hot food was easier to obtain. There was also quite the difference between the amount of fodo that each side’s soldiers received, especially later in the war. When the United States entered the war its goal was to provide 4,714 calories to its soldiers every day, this would be the highest of the war with the French at 4,466 and the British at 4,193. These numbers were what was strived for, although missing them would happen pretty often. For the Germans the official number was at 4,000 calories, but this was much harder to his consistently. While the Germany Army was often better off than those on the home front there was not an infinite supply of food. In mid 1916 the soldier’s rations were already being cut heavily, with meat being the first casualty before bread and other items were also reduced. The Germans were at least good about making sure that field kitchens were as close to the front as possible and this assured that even if there was not a ton of food it was at least as warm and prepared as possible. The Germans were not even close to the worst off though, and some of the soldiers we will discuss later will be far hungier. The Germany Army always made a priority of getting as much food to the soldiers as possible, realizing that it was a key part of morale and even if cuts had to be made in every other area of society the German soldier was always better off. This did not prevent the soldiers from going hungry though, leading to some issues in 1918 when German soldiers who were supposed to be advancing felt like eating British supplies instead, but that is something to be discussed later.

Most British soldiers would express some level of satisfaction in the rations provided to them, even in the front lines. Here is Alexander McClintock, part of the Canadian forces on the Western Front in 1916. “Our rations in the trenches were, on the whole, excellent. There were no delicacies and the food was not over plentiful, but it was good. The system appeared to have the purpose of keeping us like bulldogs before a fight – with enough to live on but hungry all the time. Our food consisted principally of bacon, beans, beef, bully-beef, hard tack, jam and tea. Occasionally we had a few potatoes, and, when we were taken back for a few days’ rest, we got a good many things which difficulty of transport excluded from the front trenches. It was possible, sometimes, to beg, borrow or even steal eggs and fresh bread and coffee.” For the British all of their food came to the front in sand bags, the ever present transportation utility which could then be used at the front as, well, a sand bag. Some items that were not in sealed containers would then take on the taste of sandbags, or just dirt in general.

There was one item of British rations that was safe from this, the ever present tinned corned beef, getter know as bully beef. This was a beef product that was fully cooked, via boiling, before being put into tins. If you read anything about food from British soldiers during the war you will definitely read about bully beef. It was a pretty good bit of kit, and could be eaten cold if necessary, but of course it was better warm. It was also easy to mix in with other things to make a soup or stew, anything laying around, but when the soldiers were forced to eat it day in and day out for long stretches in the trenches I’m not sure anything would have made them excited to eat it. Another type of tinned food that they had was called Maconochie, hopefully I am close on that pronunciation, which was a variety of soup made with items such as carrots, potatoes, and turnips. While this was heavily issued, it was not enjoyed by all, here is Robert Holmes who was an American serving in the British Army

“Maconochie ration is put up a pound to the can and bears a label which assures the consumer that it is a scientifically prepared, well-balanced ration. Maybe so. It is my personal opinion that the inventor brought to his task an imperfect knowledge of cookery and a perverted imagination. Open a can of Maconochie and you find a gooey gob of grease, like rancid lard. Investigate and you find chunks of carrot and other unidentifiable material, and now and then a bit of mysterious meat. The first man who ate an oyster had courage, but the last man who ate Maconochie’s unheated had more.” Another item given to the men, and one they liked quite a bit more, was the rum ration. This rum was imported from the Carribbean in large containers and then in France it was diluted and sent to the front. This would then be portioned out every morning to the soldiers, with a bit of extra handed out being attacks. As I have mentioned before it was never enough to get the men drunk, but even at the time the rum ration was controversial. There were temperance movements in pre-war Britain and they were none too happy that the army was making alcohol so easily available to all of the men in uniform. The Germans had beer, wine and schnapps, the French had white wine, and the British had rum. The French were even known to carry it in their canteens, to the amusement of their British allies. The alocohol ration was not present in all of the Western Front armies, noticeably lacking the alcohol would be the Americans and I am sure many of the Doughboys were jealous of their European compatriots.

Another important piece of rations at the front, and I am sure the part that many men would claim as the most important, were gifts from home. These gifts, brought forward by the mail brought both more food but also variety, something that army rations generally lacked. Here is another Canadian, George Clark “I am writing this in the ‘Dug Out’ where I have been for the last four days. I am sitting on an empty cartridge box watching the supper cook. I am going into camp to night. I have been the cook this turn in the trenches. By the way, I want to thank you for the big box of eats you sent me. They were fine. I didn’t open the box at camp where there is so much of that kind of good eats, but brought it out to the dug out where it is appreciated. We certainly did enjoy it; everything was so well packed it was all in good order when it arrived. It is all eaten except what is in the little sealed box. I am taking that back to camp. I have just turned the bacon. We will have bacon and French fried potatoes tonight, besides bread and jam, butter, tea and milk and sugar. We have had some great meals. Today for dinner I had beefsteak and onions, carrots, turnips, potatoes, bread, tea, and jam for the boys. That doesn’t look as if we are suffering much, does it? and we are not! At the ‘dugout’ we have great meals. We put in a mess fund, a franc a piece for the six men – and that brings us Ideal canned milk, oatmeal, and extra vegetables – then it is up to the cook. For three days I gave the boys stews; besides the meat, there were carrots, turnips, potatoes, pea-meal, onions and cabbage, also several oxo cubes. It surely made a very savory mess. I can understand how a woman loves to cook and have her cooking appreciated. I don’t cut the wood or haul the water, the boys rustle the wood out of old destroyed barns, and we get our water out of a little creek nearby.” One issue that the British had early in the war was when they brought Indian troops onto the Western Front, this presented an entirely new set of difficulties when it came to providing rations for those units. Here is a British soldier describing how this problem was at least partially handled. “One of the commissariat problems, which, however, has been solved satisfactorily, was the question of ‘Native meat,’ or the ration of meat for Indian troops serving in Europe. The solution has been found in the institution of ‘Native butcheries’. A Native of high caste in India would, of course, not eat any meat that even the shadow of a European had passed over. In coming to France the Native troops have, however, been granted certain religious dispensations, not only with regard to food, but, in the case of Hindus, in being allowed to leave the boundaries of their own country. Nevertheless, their caste rights as to food are as strictly observed as the exigencies of active service allow. The goats and sheep, chiefly Corsican and Swiss, purchased for their consumption, are sent up in a truck to railhead alive, and are slaughtered by men of their own caste in a butchery arranged for the purpose, generally in a field or some open place in close proximity to the railhead. The Mohammedan will eat only goats or sheep slaughtered by having their throats cut, and the Hindu, by their being beheaded.” While this was a workable solution, it was not seen as a viable long term one and so because of this, and other issues related to the Indian troops on the Western Front, they would all be transferred to other theatres over the next few years.

One of these theatres would be the Middle East, and for the British, Indian, Australian, New Zealand, Ottoman, and other nation’s soldiers in the middle east there would be unique problems, mostly related to weather. It was generally far warmer in the Middle Eastern theatre, especially during the summer such as the one experienced by the troops during the Gallipoli Campaign. In this heat there were problems of keeping food unspoiled, and even the venerable bully beef met its match and would often melt inside the cans creating a kind of liquidy goopy substance that could be poured out. Joseph Murray would discuss the food situation at Gallipoli, as well as some of the other issues that the troops would have from the ever present flies. “I cannot understand why our rations are so meagre. One would have thought that as our numbers are reduced to less than half each time we leave the firing line there would be additional rations, at least for a day or two, but they seem to get less. Surely they don’t cut the ration requirements on the assumption that we shall need only half the previous amount as only half will return each time? I did not think it was possible for a man to exist, let alone live, on such meagre portions of fly infested oily cheese, a few hard biscuits and a daily billy-can of bully beef stew flavoured with millions of blue-black flies. I don’t know what the other troops get but this is all we have. My stomach aches for food and aches even more after I have eaten the food that is given me.” Because I find the stories from soldiers about the flies both fascinating and extremely bothersome at the same time I am going to pull two quotes here that I also used during the Gallipoli episodes, but I think they deserve to be revisited. First here is Private Harold Boughton “One of the biggest curses was the flies. There was millions and millions and millions of flies. The whole of the side of the trench used to be one black swarming mass. Anything you opened, if you opened a tin of bully or went to eat a biscuit, next minute it would be swarming with flies. They were all around your mouth and on any cuts or sores that you’d got, which all turned septic through it. It was a curse, really, it really was.” Then here is a gunner from the Royal Field Artillery who discusses the practical challenges that these flies caused when trying to eat “We were invaded by millions of flies. There was no escape from these beastly insects. They swarmed around everywhere. Drinking and eating was a real nightmare and I avoided no matter how hungry I was rice pudding, which was served up frequently, mixed with currants and dehydrated fruit. It was difficult to distinguish currants from flies. They looked alike in this repulsive mixture. Immediately the lid was taken off the dixie the flies would swarm down and settle on the rim in a cluster and many of them would fall into the pudding. The spreading of jam on to a hardtack biscuit was indeed a frustrating exercise. Driven by the pangs of hunger, the hated apricot jam was tolerated of sheer necessity. A concerted effort by at least three of us to transfer the jam from the tin on to the biscuit was necessary, one to open the tin, another to flick away the flies and a third to spread the jam and cover up.” The issues with the weather were exacerbated by the transportation problems experienced in the theater. Unlike Gallipoli where the men were near the water or on the Western Front where the lines were very static, the Mesopotamian and Palestinian theaters involved very long supply lines that had to be maintained. This was especially difficult early in the war when the British had issues transporting food to the front as it extended up the Tigris and Euphrates towards Baghdad. They tried to use the rivers, but until they were able to get the right kinds of boats they were often reliant on more manual methods of transport and this made transporting fresh items like fruit and vegetables problematic if not impossible and instead the men would have to be given a ration of lime juice so that they could get some vitamin C and prevent deficiency diseases like scurvy. There was also a pretty generous use of condensed milk which I personally have issues just seeing, it is something to do with the color and texture.

Now we will start a rapid fire discussion of food from various countries, and we will start with the Ottomans. Overall the Ottoman troops would never have an abundance of food and the army would almost always be short on rations, however in some cases this was taken to an extreme. An example of this would be the attack against the Suez Canal that the Ottomans launched in 1915. This required the Ottomans to extend their supply lines across the Sinai desert all the way to the canal, and this was some pretty formidable desert. Because of this the troops were forced to be on a very strict ration of not just food but also water. The goal was to make it easy to transport the food required and also to make sure that the men would could not drink too much water every day. Here is Kemal Pasha, the leader of the expedition to explain “The 8th Corps reported that as the supply of food for officers and men right through the desert to the Canal was impossible, we must adopt a new system and call it the ‘desert ration’. It was based on a list of comestibles, the weight of which was not to exceed one kilogram per man, and comprised biscuits, dates, and olives. As regards water, no man must carry more than contents of a gourd.” This structure, combined with a system of wells dug along the way allowed the Ottomans to successfully launch their attack, an impressive feat.

For the Serbian troops the situation was dire during the defense of the country in late 1915. Before the war the goal of the Serbian government was for each soldier to get between 2,000 and 2,500 calories per day, far less than western armies, but all that could be provided. However, during the defense of the country after the German and Austrian invasion this ration got down to somewhere between 500 and 1,670 calories, that is below the suggested intake for adults who do no physical activity today, and these men were marching and fighting. The civilians who were with the army when they tried to escape were even worse off and it is no wonder that by the time the Serbs got to the coast and to the British navy many of them were literally dying of starvation, and many of them would not recover.

In one of the more exotic theatres of the war in East Africa, where a German force led by General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck would hold out for eyars, they had to turn to quite the exotic animal to surive. Here is Lettow-Vorbeck to explain “Owing to the general demand for fat, hippopotamus shooting became a question of existence. One has to watch until the animal’s head is clearly visible, so as to hit in a spot that will cause instantaneous death. The animal then sinks, and comes up again after a little time when it can be drawn to the bank by means of a rope, quickly made of bark. There it is cut up, and the expert knows exactly where to find the white, appetizing fat. The quantity varies: a well-fed beast provides over two bucketfuls. But one has to learn, not only how to prepare the fat, but also how to kill immediately with the first shot.”

Our final stop today is to the Russian front where the Russian army provided their soldiers with the typical ration of bread and tea but there was also a form of cabbage soup that would be created for the men called shtchi, s-h-t-c-h-i. Which I make pretty often, very simple, reasonably nutritious, and quite tasty. There was also another difference in the Russian lines. For most armies the officers and men in the front line ate mostly the same. This was definitely not the case out of the line, where the officers had better options available, but in the trenches the food was often pretty similar. For the Russian army there was a huge difference between the quality of food provided for the officers and the men even while in the front lines. This is notable if only because of the friction that would begin 1917 as the soldiers formed their own councils and began to separate from their officers with food high on their list of items they wanted to have improved.