I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The British Army, on the advice of dietitians, said soldiers needed 3,574 calories a day (some sources say as much as 4,600 calories a day). The scale of the operation in trying to reach that level of nutrition can be seen in a letter Australian General John Monash wrote in July 1917 from the Western Front: “It takes a couple of thousand men and horses with hundreds of wagons, and 118 huge motor lorries, to supply the daily wants of my population of 20,000.”
Terrible Army Food
When soldiers first went to France they were sent to base depots for further training, which involved punishing routines of bayonet drills, marching, and physical conditioning.
These places were holding camps where soldiers were kept ready for action until needed at the front to replace those who had been killed or wounded.
Will R. Bird in his book Ghosts Have Warm Hands described meals at the base depot near Le Havre. They fell far short of fabled French cuisine.
“A trio of unwashed characters broke up loaves of bread and tossed a chunk to each man, the size of your chunk depending on your luck. Another pair poured each man a tin of cold, greasy tea, and you received a piece of stringy meat in your mess tin top.”
The food, such as it was, was eaten without cutlery in a dirty mess hut. Mr. Bird said an officer would come into the hut on an inspection. He would ask if there were “Any complaints” and scuttle out the door before anybody had a chance to voice an opinion about the swill they were being fed.
Was Army Food Really that Bad?
Army rations may have been an improvement on meals at home.
Grumbling about the food is a military tradition; some have suggested the complaining about rations is a substitute for whining about the terrifying situation in which the soldiers find themselves and about which they can do nothing.
Military food also became a subject for gallows humour as in the hoary old joke about the soldier who saved his entire regiment single handedly―he shot the cook.
In his 2013 book, Feeding Tommy, Andrew Robertshaw says that “… the feeding of the army was actually a stunning logistical achievement.
“The men might have occasionally missed a meal, or not enjoyed one particularly, or got a bit bored, but the range and nutritional value of what they ate was actually remarkably good.”
In many cases, the soldiers got more nutritious and more plentiful food than they had in civilian life. Professor Nic Clarke, at the University of Ottawa, says most Canadian soldiers during the Great War actually put on weight, by an average of six pounds (2.7 kg). He points out that many of the Canadian soldiers who enlisted came from poor, working-class backgrounds and they were “on the knife’s edge of malnutrition.”
Food in the Trenches
When soldiers went up the line the food got even worse.
The History Learning Site notes that, “Food for soldiers in the trenches during World War One was at times considered a luxury. Getting decent hot food from the field kitchens to the front-line trenches could be impossible when a battle was either imminent or in full flow.”
The rations British soldiers were supposed to get on a daily basis were detailed:
- 20 ounces of bread;
- three ounces of cheese;
- four ounces of jam;
- eight ounces of fresh vegetables;
- right down to one thirty-sixth of an ounce of pepper.
Among other things, they got rum or beer (though not very much), and tobacco. But these allocations were “theoretical.”
Soldiers had a ration of ten ounces of meat a day, mostly in the form of canned corned beef; but this was cut to six ounces as the army grew in size and supplies became scarce.
“Later troops not in the front-line only received meat on nine out of every thirty days. The daily bread ration was also cut in April 1917” (Spartacus Educational).
But, the bread was of dubious origin. Flour was in such short supply that by the winter of 1916 “bread” was being made from dried, ground turnips. It could take up to eight days for a fresh loaf to reach the front lines, by which time it was stale and hard.
Soldiers had to fall back on a staple: biscuits of tooth-cracking hardness. The standing joke was that the biscuit made reasonably good kindling. They would try to grind these up and mix them with condensed milk and jam, if they find any, to create a dish they called “Pozzy.”
The High Command thought that corned beef and biscuits were a suitable diet for men in the trenches, although BBC History comments that this was “because they rarely ate it at HQ.”
A More Optimistic View
One ration that was commonly supplied was Maconochie, which was a stew that came in a can. It took its name from the Scottish company that produced it. It was a concoction of sliced carrots, potatoes, turnips, and meat floating in a watery liquid. Militaryhistory.org says “Maconochie was tolerated by famished soldiers, and detested by all.”
Instructions on the can said it could be eaten hot or cold, but heating facilities were rare on the front lines. So mostly, it was eaten cold. Diners had to dig through the congealed lump of fat that collected on the top to get at the scarcely recognizable veggies and mystery meat below.
One consumer described cold Maconochie as “an inferior grade of garbage.” Another said “cold it was a man-killer.”
Soups and Stews at the Front Lines
As time went on, field kitchen staff began to forage for anything they could put in their cooking vats.
Soups and stews were fortified with nettles and horsemeat; there was a plentiful supply of the latter because of the number of animals killed by shellfire.
Soldiers on stand down might expect their food to be hot, but it was nearly always cold by the time it reached the front trenches.
Our cooks [will] turn a lump of finest steak into a rough chip of mahogany in no time.”
Lance Corporal Walter Holyfield
The propaganda people tried to paint a rosy picture of how well fed the soldiers were by putting out a story that they were served two hot meals a day. The soldiers got wind of this fiction and, says militaryhistory.org; “The army subsequently received over 200,000 angry letters demanding that the dire truth be made known.”
(This 200,000 figure is quoted widely, but it has proven impossible to track down the original source so it must be taken with a grain of salt, which, by the way, was another commodity in short supply in the trenches).
The reality of trench food was more like the one described by a soldier called Richard Beasley who gave an interview about his Great War experiences in 1993: “All we lived on was tea and dog biscuits. If we got meat once a week we were lucky, but imagine trying to eat standing in a trench full of water with the smell of dead bodies nearby.”
- The British Army trained 92,627 cooks to make meals for its soldiers.
- Sometimes, German troops received meals that were taken to the front line by dogs that wore a harness containing mess tins.
- According to the Imperial War Museum “By 1918, the British were sending over 67 million lbs (30 million kg) of meat to the Western Front each month.”
- “War Culture – Trench Food.” Military History Monthly, October 12, 2012.
- “Trench Food.” Spartacus Educational, undated.
- “Soldiers Food in the Trenches.” History Learning Site, undated.
- “It Made You Think of Home: The Haunting Journal of Deward Barnes, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1916-1919.” Dundurn, 2004.
- “Beef Tea, Potato Pie and Duff Pudding: How to Eat like a WW1 Tommy.” Jasper Copping, The Telegraph, May 19, 2013.
- “Surprising Health Findings about Canadian Soldiers during WWI.” Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies, February 27, 2013.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on February 21, 2018:
I'm surprised they could still fight. I have lost my appetite reading this, lol.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on February 20, 2018:
I really enjoy reading your articles, I always learn something. Beef tea is actually quite nice.