Heather Merle Benbow, University of Melbourne
Sing me to sleep, the bullets fall
Let me forget the war & all
Damp is my dugout, cold is my feet
Nothing but biscuits & bully to eat.
Popular soldier’s song, circa 1918, recorded in the diary of Archie A. Barwick.
Many of us will be making Anzac biscuits this Anzac Day, paying homage to an apocryphal story of soldiers in the first world war and the comfort afforded by these gifts sent from home. While the provenance of this most iconic of war food is debatable, we can learn a lot about what soldiers really ate by reading their letters and diaries. These sources reveal that food was a vital part of daily life, with emotional, cultural and practical facets.
Bully beef (brined and boiled beef in a can) and biscuits were the notoriously dull cornerstones of rations for both Australian and British soldiers in the first world war.
While the rations commonly included other items such as tea, jam, sugar, bacon, peas, beans or cheese, “B.B.B.” were symbolic of the inadequacy of the soldier’s diet.
Am living quite a terrible life! No rations or. than B.B.B. How cheerful.
Leonard V. Bartlett, Alexandria, December 1915.
The shortcomings of the rations weren’t just a lack of vitamin C and other essential nutrients. Lack of variety and taste in food took an emotional toll on the servicemen, and in the soldiers’ letters and diaries we can see a veritable obsession with food.
The diary of Lieut. Bartlett, a signaller who served in Egypt and Gallipoli, pithily conveys how his emotions fluctuated depending on the food available. Thus on 9 July, 1915 he rejoices:
Salmon for Brekker, what joy, my luck is really in today.
Nine days later, while suffering from one of his regular bouts of dysentery, he declares:
Feelg. rotten all day & existed on dried biscuits & tea.
For Bartlett and others serving in the Middle East, the harsh conditions made mealtimes a trial; he declared the rations “putrid”. One history describes mealtimes in the Jordan Valley in May 1918 as unbearably hot, humid and plagued by “venomous creatures” of various kinds, these miseries exacerbated by the food:
Rations reached the lines […] in a condition which would have revolted any men but soldiers on active service. The bread was dry and unpalatable as chaff; the beef, heated and reheated in its tins, came out like so much string and oil.
Supplements to the army ration were therefore intensely welcome. One letter to Mrs Hugh Venables Vernon thanking her for her contribution to the Australian Comforts Funds describes the soldiers in receipt of her gifts as “like kiddies at a picnic”.
Comfort packages – while probably not containing actual Anzac biscuits – did distribute items redolent of home and civilian life. The “Christmas billies” for the Australian Light Horse in Sinai and Palestine in 1916 included “Christmas puddings, tins of milk, packets of chocolates and similar dainties”.
Soldiers also took advantage of opportunities to scrounge, buy or commandeer supplementary foodstuffs from local populations, including “eggs and camel whey” from a Bedouin encampment in Palestine.
Its’s worth noting that conditions behind the lines in France were very different to the Middle East. Sapper Vasco, a caricature artist and draftsman, wrote letters to his wife from “Somewhere in France” as though on a grand tour, and food featured prominently in his rhapsodic prose:
Precious One […] Ever since I landed in France life has been perfect. […] This is our country. If I’ve ever made up my mind about anything it’s to get you over here ‘Apres la guerre’. […] More violent contrasts, more delicious food, wine, exquisite country, music, more café life and true ‘bohemianism’ on a Sunday or any week day than England ever dreamt of in a lifetime. […] Sunshine as mellow as Brisbane’s shines day after day on La Belle France. […] The pastry cook shops make our pastry cakes taste like piffle. You couldn’t believe there was a war on here.
During the war giving or exchanging food – often across cultural divides – was a potent act of caring, and relationships between soldiers were cemented over food. Bartlett writes of having “a pleasant little feed” with his friend Monty, and of a visit from a fellow soldier called Merrivale, who shared cake with him.
Bartlett was involved in a lively network of exchange and barter among soldiers, and regularly visited the “Indian Camp” for “chapadies” or curry. Meanwhile in Cairo, General Rosenthal enjoyed “a sumptuous dinner of about 15 courses, all exquisitely cooked. The table was set out in faultless British style, but the foods were prepared in Egyptian style.”
Even across enemy lines, intercultural culinary encounters occurred, such as during the famous 1914 “Christmas truce” when German and British soldiers entered into no-man’s land to exchange gifts of rations, cigarettes and chocolate.
Australian prisoners of war experienced particularly poignant acts of generosity from civilians as they were marched by German soldiers through occupied France. Corporal Claude Corderoy Benson describes French women attempting to smuggle bread, biscuits and sweets to the POWs, often at great personal cost:
I felt I would rather have died from starvation than see these women so ill treated, and wished the poor creatures would not try and help us.
Bensen describes the deprivation of the prisoners, which makes for harrowing reading:
…very often the German guard would offer us half a loaf of bread for a watch, and I have seen gold watches and rings go for less than a loaf of bread, anything to satisfy our hunger.
In the long and arduous campaigns of WWI, food – and the lack of it – was paramount. Major battles were fought to control supply lines, and hunger was a brutalising and dehumanising tool of war. In looking at food and its exchange, we see how the conflict produced both the best and the worst of human behaviour.
The soldier’s diaries and letters quoted in this article are publically available through the World War One collection of the State Library of NSW.
Heather Merle Benbow, Senior lecturer in German and European Studies, University of Melbourne
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.