Food in the trenches of the First World War was scarce. Rations were measly, meals repetitive, and hunger often the companion of fear and fatigue. With energy-sapping battles to be fought, what exactly was the staple fare of Tommies in the trenches?
At the start of the war, British soldiers at the front were allowed 10oz of meat and 8oz of vegetables per day, a luxury compared to what would be provided in the years to come. Parcels from home loaded with chocolate, tins of sardines, and sweet biscuits would be a welcome but irregular source of extra nourishment. For day-to-day meals, soldiers’ options were limited.
The size of the British Army and the efficiency of the German submarine blockade grew in tandem, with doubly bad results for the state of British Army rations. By 1916, the meat ration was down to 6oz a day, and later, meat was only provided once every nine days. Things were getting worse, and Tommies were beginning to fend for themselves. There are reports of vegetable patches being established in reserve trenches, and of men going hunting and fishing while not in the front-line, both to pass the time and to supplement their meagre rations.
The winter of 1916 saw a major shortage of flour. It was replaced by dried, ground-up turnips which produced unappetising, diarrhoea-inducing bread. At this time, the staple food of the British soldier was pea-soup with horse-meat chunks. The hard-working kitchen teams were having to source local vegetables as best they could, and when that was not an option, weeds, nettles, and leaves would be used to whip up soups and stews.
Each battalion was assigned two industrial-sized vats for food preparation. The problem was that every type of meal was readied within these containers, and so, over time, everything started to taste the same. As a result, pea-and-horse flavoured tea was something the soldiers had to get used to.
Food transportation was also an issue. By the time it reached the front, bread and biscuits had turned stale and other produce had gone off. In order to combat this, soldiers crumbled the hard food that arrived and added potatoes, sultanas, and onions to soften the mixture up. This concoction would then be boiled in a sandbag and eaten as a sandy, stale soup.
Soldiers and kitchen staff were forced to carry soups and stews through the communication trenches in cooking pans, petrol cans, and jars. Upon arrival at the front-line, the food would be cold or spilled. In an effort to rectify this, field kitchens were relocated further forward, but they were never able to get close enough to provide hot food for the men. Some were lucky enough to obtain small camping stoves from town shops, but with fuel in such high demand, this was never much of an advantage, and the stoves also had to be carried.
One widely-used and equally widely-disliked ration was the canned soup, Maconochie. A thin, watery broth containing sliced turnips and carrots, Maconochie was tolerated by famished soldiers, and detested by all. One soldier summed up the army’s attitude towards the stuff by saying, ‘Warmed in the tin, Machonochie was edible; cold it was a man-killer.’
Of course, to allow the Germans to get wind of this desperate food situation would never do. The British Army had to be portrayed as a content, well-fed, determined body whose morale was unwavering. An army announcement that British soldiers were being given two hot meals a day, however, caused widespread outrage among soldiers. The army subsequently received over 200,000 angry letters demanding that the dire truth be made known.
Normally prepared in a dug-out or reserve trench, in a modern kitchen Maconochie stew should not be difficult to make. Here’s how:
340g beef (or one can of corned beef)
140g waxy potatoes
30g beans, cooked (white beans such as navy or great northern)
60ml beef stock or water
15ml fat (lard or rendered beef fat)
Salt to taste
1. If using fresh beef, cut into ½ inch to 1 inch pieces.
2. Thinly slice potatoes, onions, and carrots.
3. Steam or boil the beef, potatoes, carrots, and onions until tender.
4. Heat the fat in a pan.
5. Add cooked potatoes, carrots, onions, beans, and beef over medium heat.
6. Make a batter of the beef stock or water with flour.
7. Add batter to the stew.
8. Cook until thickened.
9. Salt to taste.