A Look Inside Tommy’s Ration Pack.
What did the British soldier of WWI eat?
Here Gem Boss tells us what’s on the menu.
If you were to ask a modern-day British soldier to show you the contents of his ration pack, out would spill enough food to sustain a single active person for 24 hours whilst on operations. At 4000 calories this bundle contains a range of high energy snacks, 3 main meals which are ready to eat either hot or cold, and a selection of electrolyte drinks including hot chocolate.
This seems fair, our army cannot march on an empty stomach after all. However, what is surprising is the vast menu – the choice and selection available. This was not the case for the British Tommy in 1914. But to understand the evolution of Tommy’s rations we need to go further back.
During the 18th century a British soldier could expect to be given 2 meals per day which would likely consist of salt-preserved meats accompanied by bread and of course their daily alcohol ration (wine, rum or gin). This was believed to boost the morale probably dampened by the simplicity of the food offering if not the war being fought at the time!
Things changed in 1811 with the advent of a new invention, the vacuum tin can. Canning as a concept was actually developed in early 1800 by a Frenchman in response to a prize of 12,000 francs being offered by the French military to help with the logistics of food supply.
His method though, was to use glass jars to preserve food – perhaps not the most practical object within which to transport food to troops fighting a battle. The tin can itself was patented in 1810 by an Englishman named Peter Durand.
His ‘tins’ were made from wrought iron and predate the tin opener by some 50 years! Soon big-name brands such as Heinz Beans and Campbell’s soup began to adopt cans.
There was widespread use of preserved, canned food by the First World War where demand for them increased dramatically, assuring their continued popularity among the British public all the way up to the present day.
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However, despite the success of the tin can in preserving food (especially meat) and the ease of delivering it to troops in battle, the supply chain became broken during the Crimean War (1854 – 56). British troops serving in the Crimea often existed on half rations.
Army biscuits and salted meat were the usual fare. Vegetables were not rationed heavily causing many soldiers to develop scurvy (a severe vitamin c deficiency usually caused by not eating enough fruit and veg).
It is said that at this time more soldiers were admitted to hospital suffering from scurvy than with wounds sustained in fighting. The whole affair was a scandal and after the Crimean War the British Army reformed its dietary requirements for troops.
Variety is the spice of life
They were on the right track when ensuring army rations provided a high-energy diet. However, unlike our modern-day soldiers rations, variety was not forthcoming. By the Boer War (1899 – 1902) the army biscuit became a regular and hated feature of the soldiers’ diet.
If you attempt to produce these biscuits according to the original recipe you will quickly understand why they were so unpopular. Tasteless and rock hard, the biscuits had to be soaked in water or tea before they became soft enough to chew.
Tinned foods were still used to feed soldiers at main meal times and were sometimes used as emergency rations. In one you might find a meat meal and in the other, a portion of cocoa. This was considered an appropriate amount of food to sustain an active soldier for a period of 36 hours!
By the First World War (1914-1918), food provided by the Army was basic but the calorie count was far more realistic. Like our modern-day soldier, the British Tommy could also expect around 4000 calories per day.
The new diet was supposed to include fresh or frozen meats but once again, tinned products reigned supreme. Again, the staple foods were tinned rations and army biscuits but with the welcome addition of vegetables, bread and jam and plum pudding for dessert.
The British line during World War One was largely static. This made the logistics of food supply much easier to navigate. It also meant that parcels from home, which often contained treats that supplemented rations by adding some flavour to an otherwise bland diet, could reliably reach soldiers. It also meant that soldiers could enjoy hot meals produced in canteens behind the lines or from kitchens supplied by local farmers in host towns and villages.
The Tommy Cooker
It wasn’t always easy. Cooking in a front line trench was always going to be fraught with difficulty. The long, narrow and meandering dimensions of a trench meant there was little room to set up a stove and start cooking, and so food rations on the front line were often consumed cold.
The ‘Tommy Cooker’, a small folding stove, made cooking possible but these were a luxury sent to soldiers at the front from families at home. Those without cooked in mess tins over charcoal or piles of kindling in makeshift, discarded fuel can stoves.
One of the most common tinned food items was ‘Bully Beef’ now known as corned beef. Made by curing beef brisket in a brine solution, it is then slow cooked, minced and canned. Another familiar food item was something named Machonochie Stew.
Also available to troops during the earlier Boer War, the stew was manufactured by the Machonochie brothers and consisted of a variety of sliced vegetables and chewy chunks of beef in a thin broth. The directions on the can read “contents may be eaten hot or cold” and the recommendation is to place the can in boiling water for 30 minutes.
Whether or not the average British Tommy had the time or the fuel to carry out these instructions in a front line trench is highly debatable. However, there does exist a vast array of first-hand sources which indicate that the stew was edible when hot, but when eaten cold it was “a man-killer”.
As in the Boer War, the First World War Tommy was issued with their own, sealed emergency ration. This included the staple tin of bully beef and more army biscuits complemented by the addition of sugar and tea. A soldier was only permitted to open his ‘iron ration’ in an emergency at the direction of his commanding officer.
More tea, Vicar?
Tea became a part of the British soldier’s rations in World War One. Putting on a brew could have helped our Tommy in more ways than one. Firstly, it was a taste of home, something familiar and comforting.
Secondly, preparing the tea would have given our Tommy something to do during those long hours waiting in the trench and thirdly, tea likely disguised the taste of the water used to make it. Drinking water was transported forward to the front line in petrol cans, and though it was later purified with chemicals to make it drinkable it still retained an unpleasant taste.
The British Tommy continued to enjoy his daily ration of alcohol, this time in the form of rum. The belief still being that this would improve morale and also help keep soldiers calm in the face of battle.
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Besides the tea and rum rations the British Tommy had the largest allowance of tobacco ration at 2oz a day. This was not enough for some men who routinely smoked to pass the time or steady their nerves. Vast numbers of cigarettes were shipped to the front by charities set up at home and in eagerly awaited food parcels. Cigarettes became a form of currency in the trenches with soldiers often exchanging items of value for smokes.
A Christmas to remember
We are all familiar with the now legendary status of the Christmas Truce – that coming together on Christmas 1914 of groups of young men from both sides of the battle who, were it not for the war, could easily have been friends. But what about the Christmas’ that followed?
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that cards were exchanged at Christmas alongside gifts received from home or from relief charities established to provide comforts to troops serving abroad.
Parcels containing cigarettes, warm knitted clothing, sweets and chocolates, books and magazines and games were all sent to the front. In fact, the sending of charitable gifts to troops was encouraged by the high-profile persons of the day.
Those troops lucky enough to not be serving on the front line at Christmas, were usually able to partake in some form of Christmas dinner. However, if you did have the misfortune to be in a front line trench on Christmas day, you could expect it to be business as usual in terms of your food ration.
Not enough cooks spoil the broth?
So who was it preparing the Christmas dinner for troops against the odds in wartime conditions and how were they doing it? The answer to this question again takes us back to the earlier Crimean War and this time to a celebrated French chef working in England, named Alexis Soyer.
Alexis was a highly trained and experienced cook with a philanthropic nature. On hearing reports of the Irish potato famine of 1847 he was granted leave to travel to Ireland whereupon he established the first known version of a soup kitchen with his own invention of nutritious ‘famine soup’.
Later, hearing about the scandal of British soldiers rations and the malnutrition and sickness that followed he travelled to the Crimea at his own expense and volunteered his services. Before leaving Britain he designed and produced the Soyer field stove which was still standard issue equipment in the British army over a century later.
Whilst in the Crimea he also worked closely with the hospitals to correct their dietary provision and then he set about arranging for each regiment to have its own trained chef, who not only could use the Soyer field stove to cook regardless of weather conditions, but who also had an understanding of dietary requirements and nutrition. This was the beginnings of the Army Catering Corps.
In 1876, the official training of ‘Sergeant Cooks’ was authorised by the British army and a military cookery school was established just under a decade later. During World War One, recognising the diversity of the soldiers employed by the British, separate kitchens were set up to ensure that food could be prepared according to the requirements of Muslim, Sikh and Hindu soldiers. This practice of course continues in today’s military.
Meals on Wheels
It was all very well and good providing chefs who had the skills and understanding of how to feed an army but the coordination of collecting provisions and getting food and supplies to the troops remained a problem. After several failed experiments around the French Revolutionary Wars to create some form of land train that could transport supplies reliably, the Royal Army Service Corps was established in World War One for this purpose.
Delivering everything from, horses and ammunition to equipment and food to the frontlines, they developed and managed a complex transportation system to keep supply lines open. This often involved multistage process of shipping performed by boats, trains, horses and then finally by men who carried supplies to frontline troops.
The ASC also played a key role in the provision of bread and meat to troops by establishing field bakeries and butcheries. This regiment pulled off many logistical wonders during World War One and numbered over 10,000 officers and over 315,000 men at its height.
In France alone, the British army numbered more than 2 million men so it is difficult for us today to comprehend the scale of the operation involved in keeping that many individuals fed, watered and stocked with everything they needed to wage war effectively.
In short, the British Tommy was well fed, at least in theory. A main complaint from men serving in the military during the First World War was the lack of variety in their diet which is where food parcels from home really came in to their own. A dollop of HP sauce with his Bully Beef or a tasty hot drink from that jar of Bovril could do a lot for a man’s morale.
Fortunately, during the Second World War (1939 – 1945), the British army was far better prepared thanks to the myriad of developments that took place during and after the Great War.
If we could go back in time and ask a real life, frontline serving Tommy whether he thought he was well fed by the British army, he may well snort and direct words at us that are too indelicate to mention here! We are not naïve enough to believe that the supply chain always worked seamlessly all the time or that soldiers weren’t feeling the pangs of hunger.
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At times, our Tommy may even have been tempted to risk a court martial by pilfering from a nearby farm or orchard. But on the whole, and with the benefit of hindsight we can see how the cogs turned and how the understanding of the needs of the soldier began to evolve.
In World War Two, despite the continued prevalence of tinned foods, more fresh food was prepared in camps and field kitchens were established in a concerted effort to provide the hot food and nutrition now understood to be vital to a soldier’s health and morale. This understanding has continued to develop all the way up to the present day, now exemplified in the modern day soldiers ration pack, although personally, I’d steer clear of the vegetable and chickpea Biryani!