Soldiers heading into battle are often equipped with rifles and ammunition for fighting, helmets for protection and uniforms able to withstand the worst weather conditions imaginable.
They have picks and shovels to dig fortifications, Field telephones for communications and even bicycles to speed an advance. This could apply to soldiers of World War One, World War Two and even soldiers fighting in conflicts today. The technology and materials used may differ though not everything changes.
An army is static and not going anywhere if those soldiers can’t eat. Soldiers have, and always will need feeding. For did not Napoleon say, “An army marches on its stomach”?
Supply lines of food to keep the soldiers going takes time to establish and get up and running. The logistics of an army on the move is an immense undertaking and one that needs careful planning and thus takes time.
During World War II, in the midst of the most secretive, defining campaign ever – the invasion of Normandy – soldiers had to land on the beaches before those supply lines arrived. These supply lines could take hours, days or even weeks to get going so what kept the soldier moving forward?
Well, keeping them nourished, giving them enough nutrition to continue the fight, was a challenge answered by something called the Assault Ration Pack. They were ingenious little boxes that meant the difference between starvation and sustenance. Inside these packs were meals, boiled sweets, tea, chocolate and even cigarettes. A hungry soldier is an unhappy one after all.
Although many decades have passed since that pivotal event on the beaches of Normandy, artifacts carried by soldiers and seamen are occasionally still discovered. Just a few weeks ago, dog tags belonging to two soldiers from the invasion were found by archaeologists in the village of Swindon in England.
D-Day was the beginning of the Allied campaign that turned World War II decisively in their favour, so every item found tied to that fateful day in early June is representative of important military history.
And as luck would have it, an even rarer artifact was just discovered at the Keep Military Museum in Dorchester, Dorset. Assault Ration Packs are even rarer than dog tags from that period. But this one, which museum officials say is likely the last of its kind, was simply mislabelled and misfiled. It was found in 2006, but incorrectly identified as an item from the 1950s.
Fortunately, no one made the mistake of opening it to examine its contents.
Staff at the Keep Military Museum sent the small, waxed cardboard box to specialists who could x-ray its contents without damaging them. Very similar to how our suitcases and bags are checked at airport security now. Dorset was the major D-Day embarkation county and had many airfields throughout where planes, like the Typhoon helped attack the German supply lines.
Assault Ration Packs were distributed to every British and Commonwealth soldier participating in the invasion of Normandy. Each one contained 4,000 calories worth of foodstuffs, which were considered the minimum number a soldier needed to have enough energy to fight for 24 hours.
Are they still edible?
Some of the foods in each pack included biscuits, chocolate, dried meat and milk, sugar and (of course!) tea. The cardboard was originally layered in wax in order to prevent penetration of it by gas or water.
Thankfully this helped preserve the items to this day. The photos of the x-rayed contents look rather like rows of chocolate in simple squares, but each one is from an important food group, not simply sweets. And while they look wholly unappealing today, it’s easy to imagine a hungry soldier viewing these foods like a welcome feast after hours of fighting the enemy.
Soldiers would often rip open these boxes and devour the contents after a day of marching or fighting, sometimes pocketing items they didn’t eat or swapping them with friends. Even the boxes were kept as the waxed card would often be used to light a fire in order to boil the all-important cup of tea.
The pack contains:
- 10 Biscuits
- 2 Oatmeal blocks
- Tea, sugar and milk blocks
- 1 Meat block
- 2 slabs of raisin chocolate
- 1 slab of plain chocolate
- Boiled sweets
- 2 Packets of chewing gum
- 1 Packet of salt
- Meat extract tablets
- 4 Tablets of sugar
- 4 Pieces of toilet paper
Foods were not the only vital component of each pack. Someone had the presence of mind to include small sheets of toilet paper, in case Mother Nature called at an inopportune moment.
Elliot Metcalfe is the museum’s director. Upon announcing the pack’s discovery, he told the media, “…we’re thrilled to have found this ration pack, which every soldier carried that day. It’s strange to think that this is the only one left in the world.”
Strange, perhaps, but logical. After all, the packs were intended for consumption, and no doubt most were. Any remaining ones were likely lost in the fog and chaos of war.
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Those not eaten by the soldiers, be they lost or discarded would almost certainly have been picked up by a hungry local for the French too had started to starve and were in need of food intake. Imagine being a young French child and perhaps tasting chocolate for the first time. Being fed and liberated in the same week!
D-Day may be almost 80 years in the past, but it is still one of the most important military campaign success stories of the 20th century. That’s why museums like the Keep in Dorchester, Dorset continue to honour that battle and the men who fought it. They defeated the Nazis, and turned Europe and the world toward a peaceful, modern new order, all fueled on food supplied in cardboard packages.