What grub meant to our boys at the front

First World War soldiers sometimes joked about their rations, but it was often no laughing matter.even if we agreed with the cause.

Steven Russell

First World War soldiers sometimes joked about their rations, but it was often no laughing matter. Steven Russell discovers how, on the western front, food was more than something you ate

MOST of us would feel a bit dazed after being handed a rifle, deposited in a muddy trench in some foreign field, and asked to fight for our country - even if we agreed with the cause. A nice bit of supper would bring temporary cheer - literal crumbs of comfort as the artillery shells whiz overhead - but our luck is out. Nosh, more often than not, is rather unappetising: fatty bully-beef and hard biscuits that hurt our mouths. Such was the lot of thousands of rank-and-file soldiers during the First World War. Bearing in mind how important nourishment is to us, from our very first day on this planet, it's no surprise that food became a focal point for Tommies sore about their lot in life.

Rachel Duffett, from the University of Essex history department, knows all about the issues. The PhD student's thesis examines the rations “enjoyed” by those on the western front. Specifically, it explores grub's relationship with soldiers' emotions.

Food, she says, becomes a symbol of feelings. “An especially strong example of that is in men's memoirs, where it becomes a metaphor for injustice. They use it extensively in stories where, for instance, the officers had roast pork and the men had bully-beef.

“A lot of memoirs are written after working men retired. It's all right for Robert Graves or Siegfried Sassoon - that's what they do; they're writers - but if you're someone who works in an office or a bank you go back to your job, if you're lucky.” Thirty or 40 years later, when the rank-and-file Tommy might commit his memories to paper, history had been sifted and judged. There had been the claims about “lions led by donkeys” - brave soldiers being commanded by allegedly inept generals - “and there's a lack of the patriotism that is much more evident in earlier writing. Food is used very much as a metaphor for the unfairness of it all”.

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Also, says Rachel, it's a way of getting difficult concepts across to family and friends who hadn't experienced warfare in France and Belgium. “Food is something everyone knows about, so it's a way they can communicate. Life in the trenches was so awful, but talking about food was a way they could at least explain part of it.”

Logistics were challenging at the front, so tasty tuck was often in short supply, but food was also about control. An army relying on non-professional soldiers has to inculcate them into military ways and mould individuals into a united force. “You take their clothes from them; give them a uniform. You take their name; give them a number. And I propose, as well, that what you feed them and how you feed them is as important. If you have them eating as they would at home, what's the point of that? They have to know they're in the army now.”

The calories were adequate - nearly 4,000 a day, as stipulated in the regulations - but came in unappetising form. The main fare was fatty, congealed and cold corned beef. “It wasn't really a case that they went hungry, although that did happen, particularly when the army was moving and supply lines broke down, but at the front it's hard to get hot food and mixed supplies, so often it's just bully-beef and hardtack biscuit, which is very unpalatable.”

Those biscuits were a simple kind of dry and hard cracker made of flour, water and salt. They were easy to store, easily transported, and didn't really go stale. Many of the troops found them a devil to eat, however.

“A significant problem for a lot of them was their teeth. The working class was not healthy before it went into the war, as the authorities knew from the recruitment for the Boer War at the turn of the 20th Century. They found about a third of the people were not meeting the health standards, which were not terribly high.

“The British Army wasn't so picky in the First World War, but it meant many men with poor teeth and a history of poor dental care couldn't physically eat the hard biscuits they were given.”

The shortage of veg, and the lack of vitamin C, probably exacerbated gum disease. “Before you get 'bad scurvy' you get stage two scurvy, which features a lack of healing - the men often complained about boils - and sore gums. If they got potatoes and jam, that's some vitamin C, but there was a lot of low-level vitamin C deficiency.” Fresh fruit was rare, unless snaffled from a local orchard.

Individual ration packs were something for the future; between 1914 and 1918, men had to share tins of corned beef, loaves of bread and jars of jam. At worst, when troops were isolated in trenches or found themselves in the middle of chaos, a tin of meat might have to feed 18 mouths.

There was often hot food on long marches, provided by travelling caterers with big vats of stew. Hot meals were welcomed, although many army cooks were not known for their culinary finesse. Tins of sardines were frequently added to the meat.

The working class diet back in Britain was dominated by bread and potatoes. There was little meat and not much fat. The favoured meat of working families, when they could afford it, was bacon; it didn't take long to cook - and so was easy on fuel - and was full of flavour.

Wartime rations offered little of this comforting familiarity, but men did their best to make meals more appealing.

“They did things with the biscuit. They'd make something called pozzy. If you had time, and access to a fire, which they didn't, necessarily, on the frontline, they'd crumble it into water - or, better still, a tin of condensed milk - heat it up to make a porridge and then put jam in it and stir it up. They'd be pleased with that, because it would be sweet and hot.

“And tea, of course - 'gunfire', as they called it - would be something hot, at least.”

Food parcels from home brought comfort, as they continue to do today in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq. A homemade cake, particularly one sent from mother to son, could lift spirits immeasurably. “Parcels were celebrated as symbols of affection; it was difficult to articulate love and concern in a letter, but a package of food was its tangible embodiment.”

Most soldiers distributed the contents among their friends. “The men all seem to have regarded comradeship as one of the few positive things about their war experience.”

Sharing was important “not just because it was comradely but because it was just. I think many of them felt they were treated unjustly, and that by behaving in a very dignified, proper fashion - sharing food equitably among themselves - they kind of reasserted justice in a world that wasn't wholly fair to them”.

At times, there were opportunities to enjoy more wholesome fare by buying a meal at an estaminet - a civilian-run bar/caf� for off-duty soldiers on the western front that would typically be set up in a farmhouse kitchen or home. “Their meal of choice was egg and chips! They didn't want any French food. You read some very sniffy complaints about smelly cheese and garlic!”

Officers, with greater access to transport and with more money, tended to go somewhere posher. Amiens, for instance, offered some nice restaurants. Their experience of war was incredibly different closer to the action, too. Officers generally had access to a dugout, while their men lived in trenches. There were batmen and cooks. “Officers were still gentlemen, and lived like gentlemen.”

Christmas was usually a culinary highlight for the troops, at least by wartime standards. “If they were on the frontline, it could be the same food as they normally had, but for anybody away from the frontline effort would be made - meats, beer - and it would be down to the officers to provide. Some of them did very well indeed. Officers often wrote home and asked for food to be sent: mince pies and things like that, as well as chocolate and cigarettes. But that's about the only time the men were appreciative of army food.

“They'd generally complain non-stop about the cooks, but I think they hated the cooks because they had a relatively safer job than they did - they were usually further back from the frontline - and the fact many of them were not highly competent.

“The other thing you find from soldiers is that if you were at the front it was dreadful, clearly, but if you were there all you wanted to do was dig in. You wanted to get as close as you could to the earth and not move. If you're going to be in a ration party - to go and get food and bring it back - you're moving, and that made men very vulnerable, because you'd catch the attention of snipers or artillery. You got a chance to steal food, quite often, but they regarded ration party duty as quite dangerous.”

Rachel suspects many of the officers, charged with looking after their men, were rather perfunctory in fulfilling their duties and didn't show they valued soldiers as much as they might.

What with feeling unappreciated, being fed unappealing rations, working in dreadful conditions and with the prospect of death ever-present, it is easy to see how food became a focal point for discontent.

It simply wasn't what they were used to back in Blighty - and it usually wasn't very well presented.

“It reminds you every day of what you had at home and the freedom you've lost. Institutional catering is always a problem. And many of them were quite distressed by the way it was served: the fact the plate was grimy; that you couldn't get a knife and fork and had to eat with your fingers.

“They felt they should be treated better, because they were conscripted or volunteered, and that it was so uncivilised. Those kinds of issues are even more important when you're being asked to do such uncivilised things. You really need to be treated like a man rather than an animal feeding. The army didn't meet their expectations in every which way, really, but food, because it's a common language, became a way of expressing a lot of the dissatisfactions and dislikes. You could focus on food and everyone would understand you.”

That said, she's sure soldiers would still have grumbled whatever the army provided. “It was more about where they were and the freedoms they had lost: the dreadfulness of the conditions. If the army had fed them full main meals every night, I don't think they would have been happy.”

Some of these conundrums continue to vex us. The Second World War differed from the first in terms of the mobility of troops and the numbers involved, so that posed different demands. But the sending of food parcels was still a way for folk back home to show their concern - as it continues to be today.

Rachel watched a TV programme recently about army chefs in Afghanistan. They weren't based near the frontline, but every couple of weeks or so some of them would travel forward and prepare a better-than-usual spread for those in the thick of the fighting. “The issues of morale - about how you feed soldiers - are clearly still there.”

Rachel Duffett is giving a talk about food on the western front as part of the Essex Book Festival. It's at Walton on the Naze library on March 24, at 3pm. Box office 01206 573948

SHE admits loving history because she's nosy, and curious about how others lived, but Rachel Duffett is always mindful that she's dabbling in the stuff of real lives.

“It's a privilege, reading these memoirs and letters. I try never to forget that when I'm up in the Imperial War Museum reading room, which is where most of my research is done. It's not some poncy academic exercise, it's people's lives, and it's very upsetting, some of it. Especially the men's letters.

“A lot of them weren't that articulate. There was a 19-year-old from Woolwich, who was killed. His letters were in a 10-year-old's writing, or less, and every one begins 'Dear Mum, just a line to let you know I'm all right . . .' Eighty letters, all the same.

“There's one bit where she's obviously pressing him - 'What do you want? What can I send you?' - and he says 'You keep asking what I want . . .' - and it's almost like tunnel vision - '. . . all I want is to come home.'

“In a way, the lack of articulacy is even more touching. They're not Wilfred Owen 'You don't know how I've suffered'-type letters, with all due respect to him and other war poets and writers, but the men didn't write like that in general.”

Rachel loved history when she was at the girls' high school in Colchester but her mind was invariably on the 20th Century rather than Tudors and medieval farming practices.

She took an English degree and spent more than a decade with BT. She loved the commercial world, but the travelling and the hours began to pale. “The last couple of years I was travelling all week and living in hotels in Leeds or Tunbridge Wells or Guildford, and it's not conducive to any sort of lifestyle.”

It was time for a change. Rachel travelled with her husband, whose job in IT took him abroad, and had a daughter, now nine years old.

Later, she signed up for a year-long history evening course for adult learners and then, about five years ago, did a two-year, part-time, MA at the University of Essex. That was followed by the PhD - and the chance to do some teaching at the university.

Last year, too, Rachel contributed a chapter to a book called British Popular Culture and the First World War.