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Food Quality and Quantity

3,240,948 tons of food was sent from Britain to the soldiers fighting in France and Belgium. The British Army employed 300,000 field workers to cook and supply the food. At the beginning of the war a soldier was given 10 ounces of meat and 8 ounces of vegetables a day. As the size of the army grew and the German blockade became more effective, the army could not maintain these rations and by 1916 this had been cut to 6 ounces of meat a day. Later troops not in the front-line only received meat on nine out of every thirty days. The daily bread ration was also cut in April 1917. The British Army attempted to give the soldiers the 3,574 calories a day that dieticians said they needed. However, others argued that soldiers during wartime need much more than this.

The bulk of the food the men ate was bully beef (canned corn beef) bread and biscuits. By the winter of 1916 flour was in such short supply that bread was being made with dried ground turnips. The main food had now changed to pea soup with a few lumps of horse meat. The food was so short that the cooks had to use things like nettles in soups and stews. The battalion's kitchen staff had just two large vats, in which everything was prepared. As a result, everything the men ate tasted of something else. For example, soldiers often complained that their tea tasted of vegetables. Fresh food was difficult to get hold of. It was estimated that it took bread eight days to get to the front line and by that stage it was very stale. So also were the biscuits and the soldiers attempted to solve this problem by breaking them up, adding potatoes, onions, sultanas or whatever was available, and boiling the mixture up in a sandbag. The catering staff put the food in dixies (cooking pots), petrol cans or old jam jars and carried it up the communication trenches in straw-lined boxes. But by the time this food had reached the front line it was very cold. So they moved the kitchens closer but this didn’t make much difference. Sometimes a small group of soldiers managed to buy a small primus stove between them. When they could obtain the fuel, which was always in short supply, they could heat their food and brew some tea. Food was often supplied in cans. Maconochie contained sliced turnips and carrots in a thin soup. As one soldier said: "Warmed in the tin, Maconochie was edible; cold it was a mankiller." The British Army tried to hide this food shortage from the enemy. However, when they announced that British soldiers were being supplied with two hot meals a day, they received over 200,000 letters from angry soldiers pointing out the truth of the situation. Men claimed that although the officers were well-fed the men in the trenches were treated appallingly. Food supply was a major problem when soldiers advanced into enemy territory. All men carried emergency food called iron rations. This was a can of bully beef, a few biscuits and a sealed tin of tea and sugar. These iron rations could only be opened with the permission of an officer. This food did not last very long and if the kitchen staff were unable to provide food to the soldiers they might be forced to retreat from land they had won from the enemy.