Tag Archives: troops

Bread like chaff and putrid rations: how WW1 troops obsessed over food

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.

‘A tinned ration consisting of sliced vegetables, chiefly turnips and carrots, and a deal of thin soup or gravy. Warmed in the tin, ‘Maconochie’ was edible; cold, it was a man-killer. By some soldiers it was regarded as a welcome change from bully-beef.‘ (Imperial War Museum.)
© IWM (EPH 4379)

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.

Ration parties, like this one from the 12th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, had to bring rations from horse-drawn limbers at night to avoid enemy fire. Supply lines were often targeted by both sides.
Essigny, 7 February 1918. © © IWM (Q 10685)

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.

An Indian cavalryman who has found two starving Christian girls in the desert leans down from his horse to give one of them half his rations. At the time the men themselves were on short rations.
© IWM (Q 24724)

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.”

Indian Army soldiers eating chapadies at a camp in New Forest, October 1914.
© IWM (Q 53367)

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.

The Conversation

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.

Feeding the troops: the emotional meaning of food in wartime

Heather Merle Benbow, University of Melbourne

“Can an egg save a soldier?” So asked a full-page advertisement for Sunny Queen Farms in the The Age’s Sunday Life magazine last month. A young returned serviceman, a veteran of Afghanistan, looks straight into the camera. He is pictured next to a toast “soldier” dipped in a soft-boiled egg, an image replete with childhood nostalgia for many Australians, and one that speaks strongly of mothering.

The soldier, we are told, “knows how tough returning to civilian life can be for veterans suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”. We can now see that, though his white T-shirt reveals a strong physique, the soldier’s eyes are vulnerable. This is a young man in need of care and Sunny Queen Farms promises to support returned soldiers with a modest donation for each pack of its “eggs for soldiers” sold.

World War I advertising similarly drew on maternal feeling.
Clarke & Sherwell Ltd, Ministry of Food/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

This advertisement draws not just on the power of maternal feeling, and the nostalgia around childhood food memories, but on the heightened emotional significance of food in wartime. Food is central to experiences of war, and not just for the soldiers for whom it is a daily preoccupation. On the home front, too, food gains heightened emotional, social and political meaning.

The website for Walking Wounded, the organisation supported by the Eggs for Soldiers campaign, draws heavily on ANZAC imagery, and in these centenary years, World War One looms large in the national imagination. Yet we are just beginning to understand the role played by food in the emotional battles of WWI.

The ANZAC biscuit epitomises the link between food and WWI in national remembrance, and it is yet another expression of maternal care, having reportedly been devised to withstand the long journey to the front in “comfort packages”.

In WWI food was the most potent means for mothers to convey their love to sons at the front. On their return, Australian soldiers were welcomed with a hot meal at ANZAC buffets and sometimes another kind of female affection, as this iconic photograph (below) shows.

A wounded AIF soldier receives an affectionate welcome home at the Anzac Buffet in The Domain in Sydney. As men started returning from the front, the Anzac Buffet became the place where men were welcomed home.
Australian War Memorial, Author provided

The frisson between the wounded soldier and the young woman are central to this image, but the face of the older woman at left conveys a complex mixture of maternal feelings; delight at the soldier’s return, dismay for what he has endured.

In The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War, (2010) Michael Roper writes that British soldiers’ families were effectively “an adjunct to the army, helping to ensure that the soldier stayed clothed, well-fed and healthy”. In Germany, where the British blockade quickly led to mass hunger on the home front, coping with food scarcity for her family was a mother’s contribution to the war effort.

Food is central to ideas of national and cultural belonging, something that can be used to bolster wartime patriotism, but it also gives a pungent flavour to cultural difference. Food therefore also provides powerful imagery for propaganda, such as in a 1915 Australian newspaper report that equates German food with hatred and bloodlust:

Blood sausage. Brain Sausage. Decaying cabbage pickled in vinegar … only a few of the cheery dishes in which the German rejoices, the delicacies upon which he feeds his hatred.”

In the Central Powers countries it did not take long for hunger to take a toll on home front patriotism. Existing cultural fault lines—between major cities and rural areas, between different nations and ethnic and religious groups—were brought into stark relief.

Scholars such as Hans-Georg Hofer and Maureen Healy have argued that tensions around food supply and distribution contributed in part to the collapse of the double monarchy of Austria–Hungary.

In Germany, rumours of Jewish machinations in food distribution ran rife, and resentment emerged over immigrants from the East placing pressure on scarce resources.

When we look at experiences of wartime through the prism of food we are constantly reminded of its power to to divide us, but also to bring people together. So famously a “weapon” of WWI, food can also occupy a central role in the bridging of national, ethnic and religious divides.

Australian officers having breakfast in a shell hole in Sausage Valley, Pozieres, 1916.
Australian War Memorial

Australian soldier Leonard V. Bartlett writes in his Gallipoli diary of frequent visits to the “Indian Camp” for “a feed of curry & chapadies”. During the informal Christmas truce of 1914 German soldiers entered no-man’s land and offered chocolate to soldiers serving in the British army, an event that was made into feature film Joyeux Noel (2005).

In historian Craig Gibson’s Behind the Front (2014), a recent study of British soldiers’ encounters with French civilians, the most touching anecdotes centre upon the exchange of food: a warm cup of coffee offered to an exhausted soldier, or much-needed army rations donated to hungry children.

Historian Rachel Duffett, in her book The Stomach for Fighting (2012), describes how, along the Western Front, soldiers of the belligerent armies were cared for—often tenderly—in billets. In 1922, the German lieutenant Ernst Jünger wrote of the hospitality of one French couple with whom he shared meals and many cups of tea, during which they discussed “the difficult question […] of why men must make war”.

In the article “Fighting a Kosher War” (2011), researcher Steven Schouten describes how Jewish soldiers serving on the Eastern Front with the advancing Imperial German Army were often welcomed into Jewish homes for a kosher meal.

And when the war during which so many had died of hunger ended, Hofer’s research demonstrates, food also became a tool of peace. Food aid flowed into Austria, and one fifth of Austrian children were nourished by families abroad.

In wartime, when cultural differences are amplified, food can be a potent reminder of shared humanity and reinforce a sense of belonging. Feeding is also a powerful act of love.

Indian cavalry troopers preparing a meal Estrée Blanche, France, 1915.
British Library/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Scholars have recently begun to examine the significance of food in wartime as an aspect that provides a tangible emotional connection to people from earlier times. As we approach the centenary of the end of the Great War it is timely to consider how food helped to heal some of the wounds of this scarifying conflict.

The Conversation

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.

Today in History: 10 May 1940

World War II: The United Kingdom Invades Iceland

On this day in 1940, Operation Fork (The Invasion of Iceland) began early in the morning in the capital Reykjavik. The objective was to prevent German occupation and the promise was made to withdraw at the conclusion of the war. The British troops were relieved by American troops a year later, before the US had officially entered the war.

For more, visit:

Today in History: 13 April 1861

Fort Sumter Surrenders to Confederate Troops

ABOVE: Fort Sumter

ABOVE: Fort Sumter from the Charleston Defences

On this day in 1861, Fort Sumter, the island fort in the entrance to Charleston Harbor surrendered to Confederate troops following a fierce bombardment that had begun the previous day. The Battle of Fort Sumter was the first major battle of the American Civil War.

For more, visit:

Within Fort Sumter, by A. Fletcher
Major Robert Anderson and Fort Sumter, by Eba Anderson Lawton

Today in History: 07 April 1862

American Civil War: The Battle of Shiloh Ends

On this day in 1862 during the American Civil War, the Battle of Shiloh ended in Tennessee, when Union troops under General Ulysses S. Grant defeated Confederate troops under General Albert Sidney Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard.

For more, visit:

The Illustrated Comprehensive History of the Great Battle of Shiloh, by Samuel Meek Howard

Today in History: 06 April 1862

American Civil War: The Battle of Shiloh Begins

ABOVE: Scene depicting the Battle of Shiloh


On this day in 1862 during the American Civil War, the Battle of Shiloh begins in Tennessee, when Union troops under General Ulysses S. Grant confront Confederate troops under General Albert Sidney Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard. Though the battle started well for Confederate forces on the first day, it ultimately turned to defeat on the second.

ABOVE: Generals Sherman and U. S. Grant


For more, visit:

The Illustrated Comprehensive History of the Great Battle of Shiloh, by Samuel Meek Howard

Today in History: 14 March 1590

France: The Battle of Ivry

On this day in 1590, the Battle of Ivry was fought at Ivry, France. The battle was fought during the French Wars of Religion. The battle was fought between the Huguenot troops under Henry de Navarre (future Henry IV of France) and the Catholic League (under Duc de Mayenne). The Huguenot forces won the battle.

For more, visit:

For more on the French Wars of Religion, read the following books:
The French Wars of Religion, by Arthur Augustus Tilley
The French Wars of Religion – Their Political Aspects, by Edward Armstrong
Henry IV, by John S. C. Abbott

Today in History: 05 March 1770

USA: War of Independence – Boston Massacre

On this day in 1770, the Boston Massacre took place and became an important incident in the lead up to the American War of Independence. The massacre was really something of a ‘beat up,’ with five men being killed when British troops fired into a crowd that was harassing them and throwing objects at them.

Also of major interest in this incident, was the court case in the trial of the British troops, as  John Adams (second president of the USA) defended the British troops in their trial.

For more, visit:

Also, a newspaper report:

Today in History: 21 February 1916

France: World War I – The Battle of Verdun Begins

On this day in 1916, the Battle of Verdun began on the Western Front in World War I, between French and German forces. This battle waged in northeastern France killed close to 700 000 troops. Some 40 million artillery shells were fired before the battle concluded on the 18th December 1916 in a virtual stalemate, though regarded as a French win.

For more, visit:

Today in History – 10 May 1863

American Civil War: Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson Died

On this day in 1863, Confederate General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson died from wounds sustained from friendly fire during the American Civil War. Following a magnificent victory at Chancellorsville on the 2nd May 1863, Jackson was making his way back to his own lines when he was accidently shot by Confederate pickets who mistook him and his staff for Union troops.

Having been returned to Confedrate lines, Jackson survived the amputation of an arm only to die of pneumonia on the 10th May 1863. It was a loss the south could ill afford. He was one of the greatest generals of the war.


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