Monthly Archives: April 2016
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.
Five thousand Australian nurses served during the second world war. The most famous of these, Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Bullwinkel, survived a massacre on Bangka Island, and Japanese “hell camps” in Sumatra.
For many other nurses, life in WWII was by turns tedious, perilous and adventurous. Dorothy Janet Campbell was one of the vast majority who survived without capture, imprisonment or fatal illness. Her experiences are caught in her extensive diaries and photographs shared here by her niece Janet Scarfe.
South Australian Dorothy Campbell (known throughout her life to all as “Puss”) served in the Australian Army Nursing Service from 1940 to 1946, in England during the Blitz, in the Western Desert during the siege of Tobruk, in Papua New Guinea, and in Queensland and South Australia.
She spent many nights in air raid shelters and nursing in a tin hat but she was never directly bombed on land or sea.
Campbell’s diaries and photos record the nurses’ day to day lives, mostly away from the wards. She and her friends took full advantage of their split shifts and days off. There were sherry parties, tennis and golf, and sightseeing.
For all that, Campbell’s “real work” was “looking after our boys”. Long periods of inactivity, such as waiting for hospitals to be set up or weeks at sea became tedious, despite the games and socialising.
Campbell nursed in several hospitals that were state of the art, including the Australian Hospital in Surrey and in the Greek hospital in Alexandria. She also worked in freezing tents in Queensland and grass huts in Buna in Papua New Guinea.
She was devoted to her patients – provided they were genuine. She deplored the “B Class” men she nursed in England in 1940. Deemed unfit for service and awaiting repatriation to Australia, they made difficult patients, malingering, drunk and dismissive of the nurses’ orders. By contrast, the sick and wounded evacuated straight from Tobruk received her complete attention:
How I love to be able to help them, and to listen to their great stories they tell … it makes one feel and realise what a dreadful thing war is …
Occasionally she described cases as “very interesting” or “difficult” but mostly her comments relating to work were “busy”, “very busy” or “dog-tired”. Comparisons between her diary entries and the hospital daily war diary show what an expert in understatement she was.
Campbell was never too tired to sight see. She loved England and Scotland. In Alexandria, she sponged her patients very early one Saturday morning, rushed off duty and caught the train to Cairo with several nurses and officers. They shopped, dined and danced till late, saw the sphinx and pyramids, rode camels and donkeys, had their fortunes told (“damn lot of rot”) then caught a small plane back to Alexandria on Sunday afternoon.
She and the other nurses had a rich social life. In Alexandria, there were sea bathing and sailing, occasional dinners with colonels yearning for some female company, mosques to visit, and customs to marvel at.
The American base near Buna guaranteed a rich social life. She learned to drive a jeep, spent time off socialising with American officers and fell for one who was charming but duplicitous.
Campbell’s diary entries change over the years. Exhaustion and monotony set in as the war ground on. England, Egypt and Papua New Guinea were highlights.
Queensland in 1942-43 and 1945 was dull and she never liked dull. Entries from Townsville in 1945 were brief and largely confined to golf games (nine holes most days between shifts) and the narrow-minded matron. There were few photos. Her exaltation at the news of peace was personal, professional and patriotic. Here are her diary entries for 15th and 16th August 1945:
Very exciting day PEACE. Every body very excited – Party arranged in Red + Hut for all Hosp. (pts and staff.) – had few drinks in our Mess first, then… went to Sgts Mess – and then to dance, and then on to Officers Mess and spent very bright evening happiest night ever spent in army – felt rather ill and went out for walk…
Thursday Aug 16th [Townsville].
Terriffic [sic] headache., after a few hrs felt better and got busy and arranged party in our Mess – Off [duty] 1–6 – had a little rest and helped to prepare supper… Went off duty 8pm to party, it was one of the best we have had and it kept on until 1 am. every body thoroughly enjoying themselves.
The diaries end abruptly the night before she boarded the train home to Adelaide on 28 November 1945. Her great adventure was over.
She had nursed men with battle wounds and serious illnesses. She knew the anxiety of air raids and long sea voyages. But she also relished all the opportunities that came her way, particularly the friendships, the sightseeing and new experiences.
Campbell remained in the Citizens Military Forces until 1958 and was decorated for her work with the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps.
After her demobilisation, Campbell worked as a radiotherapy technician, one of the first women in South Australia to do so. She remained single, explaining to a small boy in an Anzac Day school talk that she “had loved them all and married none”.
She spoke of her time in the war to her family only in the broadest terms (“When we were away …”). She kept her diaries to herself to the end of her life. But kept them on her bookshelves for easy discovery.