Talk to a soldier or veteran about their field rations and you’re probably going to hear a lot of complaints. Part of that is because soldiers just complain a lot (that’s no criticism – you would too, if you had their life) but most of it’s totally justified; field rations just aren’t that good. They’re nutritious and packed with energy, but they’re never going to win any awards for taste.
There are degrees of bad, though. A modern MRE is much tastier than the C Ration, issued from 1938 to the early 1980s. There’s also a lot more variety. There are currently 24 different MRE entrees; by the time of Vietnam the C Ration came in a selection of 12 infamous delicacies like ham and lima beans, but in World War Two they only offered a choice of three disgusting meat products.
That was still way ahead of what other Allied forces got in WWII – British and Commonwealth troops often lived for weeks on a monotonous diet of canned corned beef and hardtack biscuits. Meanwhile German rations had more variety than British or American ones, but by the Normandy campaign in 1944 there wasn’t enough of anything to keep the troops well fed.
So both the armies that fought in the hedgerows and towns of Normandy through summer 1944 had serious problems with their field rations – US and British troops didn’t have enough variety in their food, while the Germans just didn’t have enough food. Faced with these problems, enterprising soldiers supplemented their diets with anything they could find that would give them the energy and nutrition they needed to keep fighting.
Of course, that wasn’t easy. Buying food, or scrounging it from farms, weren’t really options for most soldiers. Stores were closed or empty, many civilians had fled, and the fighting in Normandy began before the year’s crops were ready to harvest.
Although troops were issued French currency to buy food with there just wasn’t much available. Some lucky soldiers managed to buy eggs, milk and even meat from farms, but in general the local population wanted to hang on to whatever food they had – they didn’t know if they would need it themselves.
All this meant the hungry troops had to adapt, be imaginative and use whatever was available. Here are some of the survival foods that sustained soldiers through the battles after D-Day.
Stinging nettles are a common weed that grows just about everywhere in Europe. Soldiers hate it, because nettle rash is just another inevitable discomfort of life in the field – but they also used it as a food source. The truth is that although it’s a weed, the nettle is also a very nutritious plant. It contains lots of Vitamins A and C, iron, potassium, manganese and calcium, and it has a very high protein content of around 25% dry weight – more than most vegetables.
Nettles can be boiled or steamed, then served as a green vegetable – they taste quite like spinach – but soldiers caught up in the vicious Normandy battles didn’t have time to make elaborate meals.
They just wanted greens to break the monotony of their rations, and some extra bulk and energy to keep their bellies full. That meant simple dishes like nettle soup. They would collect the leaves from nettles, chop them or pound them to pulp, then boil them in a mess tin or steel helmet.
Related: How to Cook Spring Nettles
For the German army, soup was a regular part of their diet. The main meal of the day, which for the Germans was lunch, would usually be a tin full of stew or thick soup. In good times the soup contained a good amount of meat and was dense enough to stand a spoon up in, but by the Normandy campaign food shortages had made it a much thinner fare.
To get as much energy and nutrition into soldiers as possible, German cooks scavenged relentlessly. Late in the war the basic meal was soup made from boiled bones, often from a dead carthorse.
Bone broth is nutritious, but it’s not exactly filling, so cooks and soldiers bulked it out with anything they could find. Greens (including nettles), wheat or barley, even crushed stale bread would be added to the soup to make a more satisfying meal.
Bully Beef Rissoles
When British troops had access to a field kitchen they ate hot meals made from 14-man ration packs; the rest of the time, their diet was monotonous in the extreme. They got tinned corned beef and hardtack biscuits, and that was pretty much it.
The beef contained plenty protein and the hardtack was a solid slab of carbohydrates, so it was effective enough at keeping soldiers going for a few days, but it was nauseatingly dull. Dull food isn’t just boring; soldiers will get so fed up of it they’ll eat as little as possible, and that affects their fitness.
To make the rations more edible, soldiers got creative. They would crush and soak the biscuits, mash in the beef and add any vegetables they could find – chopped onions were popular, but chopped field greens would do as well. The mixture was formed into patties the size of a large burger, then fried in fat saved from the beef.
Related: How To Preserve Beef in Glass Jars
Proper porridge is made from oats and eaten by Scotsmen, but the basic idea has been used throughout history – crushed or shopped grains, cooked in milk or water. Soldiers on all sides ate it during the Normandy campaign, because it was an easy way to supplement their rations.
Sometimes, especially later in the campaign, soldiers would find a field of ripe wheat or barley that could be plundered for grain. Other times they resorted to collecting grass seeds.
These are a lot smaller than wheat grains, but if you can collect enough (and even in a campaign as brutal as Normandy, soldiers spent a lot of time sitting around waiting for something to happen) you can make a nutritious porridge out of them. Wherever possible soldiers would flavor the porridge with items from their rations – jelly, sugar, milk powder or even just salt.
Although Normandy was an agricultural region, few crops were ready to harvest when the hardest battles were fought. That didn’t mean there was nothing to harvest, though. Soldiers scavenged any edible plants they could find, from dandelion leaves to birch bark, and added them to improvised stews made from tinned ration meat. Often these stews were thickened with crushed hardtack or ration crackers.
Unlike the truly horrific battles on the Eastern Front, like Stalingrad or Leningrad, soldiers in the Normandy campaign were never really in danger of starving to death. Even the Germans managed to deliver enough rations to keep their men fighting.
Those rations could be pretty thin at times though, and soldiers did supplement them any way they could. The methods they used are just as useful for supplementing your own emergency food reserves in an emergency.
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