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.
Thirty-two countries of the world were called to arms in the first world war, or what has been historically referred to as THE GREAT WAR. The fighting cost the earth over 16 million of her citizens. Its hard to believe that something of this magnitude could have happened so recently and we often forget the costs.
For multiple nations to battle with giant warring, trench fighting armies these massive armies had to be fed. Soldiers did not stand a chance if they were not being fed on a regular basis. The struggle to pull this off in a war zone was no simple feat. The battalion kitchen carried a huge responsibility and John Monash lays it out best in his explanation of their service.
John Monash pointed out: “It takes a couple of thousand men and horses with hundreds of wagons, and 118 huge motor lorries, to supply the daily wants of my population of 20,000. With reference to food we also have to see that all the men in the front lines regularly get hot food – coffee, oxo, porridge, stews.” (Source)
Two Large Vats
The battalion kitchen was a terrifyingly simple layout that had to be ready to move with the battles. If these areas were shelled than it would be days or weeks before the fighting force would get sustenance. This was an alarming reality of cooking in this trench style warfare.
All the cooking was done in two large vats. These vats were cleaned on the go and often cooked multiple items per day as well as boiling water for tea. That meant many of the soldiers would have to deal with tea that tasted like vegetables.
This also meant that cross contamination and food borne illness were common. Forget about accommodating allergens, in these camps dysentery was a common occurrence that soldiers just learned to deal with.
The food borne illness and sanitation issues in the trenches are well documented within soldier diaries. Whether they knew it or not much of the illness was brought on by the lack of food safety and personal hygiene in these battalion kitchens.
So what types of foods did these wartime survivors eat and make during The Great War?
Egg biscuits would not be the fluffy, flaky baked biscuits with an egg omelet that you are thinking of. These were British biscuits which meant they were more like a cookie or cracker. Because of the tightening of resources, I must believe that sugar was used sparsely, and these were probably only a step up from the hard tack eaten by our civil war soldiers.
This canned corned beef was part of the soldiers’ military ration and was universally despised by the soldiers. When the kitchen battalions were attacked, deliveries delayed or if other wartime situations affected food delivery it forced the soldiers to break into their rations.
These were not allowed to be opened until the military commander declared it. Sometimes they would eat only these rations for days at a time.
Soldiers also got creative in the trenches. Bread would arrive days or weeks late and be too stale to eat. Rather than toss the bread at the enemy, the soldiers took matters into their own hands. They would take potatoes, onions, sultanas and boil them in a sandbag to create a chewy, sandy trench stew.
By 1916 there was a flour shortage that greatly affected the menu for the WWI Trench Fighter. The food for soldiers went from bad to worse and sometimes they didn’t eat at all.
Dried Ground Turnip Bread
This dried turnip bread was made from the flour of ground up dried turnip roots. This bread is so archaic I struggled to even find a recipe for it. I am sure it was hardly a substitute for flour based bread.
To me this addition is a reminder to preppers about the importance of storing those base ingredients as well as being able to adapt if you run out.
Stinging Nettles Soup
There were times when ingredient shipments did not make it to the battalion kitchen in time. This caused the soldiers who operated these kitchens to act on their feet and find ways to create meals from the food growing in the forests nearby.
One popular dish was the stinging nettle soup. For those of you who practice foraging, you know that the stinging nettle or 7-minute itch can be a big problem if you grab some of it when its raw. When it is cooked, however, you have a fibrous green vegetable that is packed with nutrition.
Pea Soup And Horsemeat
Dried peas and chunks of horsemeat must have been a serious low point for the soldiers after a day of battling opposing forces. While writing myself I considered the source of the horsemeat and thought about horses from enemy factions.
This stew was made of turnips, carrots, potatoes and large chunks of beef. The soldiers despised this soup and in the popular quote by an unknown soldier the stew was summed up perfectly.
“Warm in the tin, Maconochie was edible; cold it was a mankiller.”
There was little to no understanding of things like nutrition and food borne illness. Personal hygiene practices were not a concern and would be nearly impossible in a battalion kitchen. This meant that the quality of the food suffered, therefore, the health of the solider did as well.
Of the 16 million who lost there lives in The Great War I can’t help but wonder how many died from poor food preparation and eating spoiled foods. This is not to knock on the performance of the battalion kitchens. These soldiers were up against impossible odds.
This is a reminder to the prepper and survivalist that health and nutrition, as well as quality, food doesn’t change just because you’re fighting for your life.
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