Tommy, p.37Richard Holmes
Exhaustion or inattention in these situations could have serious consequences. Unsupervised troops might remove the dixies and light the burners, turning the cooker into a large open-air radiator. On one occasion a soldier tethered horses to a London Scottish ration limber. They pulled the rations off it, and ‘scoffed the whole of the bread and biscuit rations, and so we had nothing to eat for the whole day’. Company cookers also produced food when battalions were out of the line, although their menus could be more varied. However, a particular favourite remained bacon fat. George Coppard remembered how the cooks would shout ‘roll up for your dip’ and produce dixie lids full of bacon fat into which men would dip their bread. And: ‘Sometimes the cooks poured an extra tin of condensed milk into the big dixies of tea. The toffee-like brew seemed delicious to my young palate.’152
The tommy cooker, a small tin holding a chunk of solid fuel or a pot of meths on which a mess tin full of water or tinned food was heated, came in several varieties, but was not widely available at the start of the war. A company’s officers might club together to buy a field canteen like that described by Gerald Burgoyne in April 1915: ‘Our scoff box arrived last week and we brought it up to the trenches with us; a box fitted with plates, cups, coffee pot, etc, for six. A “joy for ever” is the primus stove with which I have been playing, blackening my dugout with smuts.’153 The dextrous and inventive (and there were many such) improvised. Sidney Rogerson’s corporal, Robinson, would soak four-by-two flannelette cloths (issued for cleaning rifles) in whale oil (issued to rub into the feet) in a small tin in order to brew a cup of tea: his scale of operations widened when he obtained an empty German ammunition box. Rogerson remembered him:
His lean face lit by the faint flickering of the whale-oil lamp on which mug by mug he brewed us hot drink, talking to himself the while in his curious mixed slang. ‘Tray bonn, ma peach! Now the doo lay! Where’s the paree! Bonn for the troops! This and a little drop of “Tom Thumb” will go down grand.’154
Frank Hawkings wrote from Wulverghem in January 1915: ‘Just made some Oxo. Heating apparatus – one tin of Vaseline and a piece of four-by-two.’ Seven months later he proudly declared that such grubby improvisation was a thing of the past: ‘Some of us have invested in a baby primus stove for cooking purposes when we are in the line.’155
Larger-scale cookers were available. Lieutenant Roe remembered that, early on in the war:
We were issued with charcoal braziers and a regular bag of charcoal … The only utensils were our own individual mess tin and its lid, an enamelled mug, and a knife, fork and spoon. For quite a long time my platoon of sixty men was issued with one solitary loaf of bread a week, the rest of the ration being made up with biscuits. The usual procedure was to fill a mess tin with the very, very scarce drinking water, bring it to the boil on the brazier, and then add the very hard biscuits. When there was a nice porridgy consistency we stabbed open a tin of Tickler’s jam, called ‘pozzy’, and mixed it all together. This was eaten with a spoon and was usually accompanied by some cold slices of corned (bully) beef. For some reason we preferred the meat cold at that time.156
Braziers were a mixed blessing because when issued fuel ran out men were inclined to burn almost anything flammable to cook and keep warm. C. P. Blacker observed that:
Trench braziers were improvised and the demand for fuel grew. The wooden crosspieces of the duckboards and the boarding of the hurdles burned well, and once the discovery was made that these materials could be prised off, they quickly disappeared. Little could be done to stop these depredations to which blind eyes were turned. No one would admit responsibility. It was worst in severe frosts. ‘You won’t suffer for this as long as the cold spell lasts,’ people would be told, ‘but after the next thaw these trenches will be impassable and you will have casualties on the top.’ And so they did. But not necessarily those who despoiled the revetments.157
It was futile to warn men of the dangers of using braziers in unventilated dugouts or cubbyholes. In April 1918 Captain James Dunn was told by an orderly that there was ‘something wrong’ with his men, and found them in a fume-filled cellar.
Sergeant Jones, ‘Ol’ Bill’, was blue and stertorous; his assistant and ’37 Jones, my servant – a faithful little fellow, were dead: they slept nearer the floor level and in the far end of the cellar. Wrapped in blankets, and laid in the open with a fresh wind blowing over him, Jones came-to in a couple of hours and fell asleep. On waking he said he feared he would not get such a good job again if he went to hospital, so I kept him; he was almost himself again in a week.158
Bully beef, its very name deriving from the boeuf bouilli developed by the Napoleonic French army, had been issued by the British army for at least half a century. Soldiers carried a tin of bully beef and another of biscuits as iron rations (many found the phrase very expressive) which could only be eaten if no other food was available: unauthorised consumption of iron rations was an offence, and they were inspected regularly. Private George Fortune ate his on the way to the front by rail in 1917 when feeding arrangements broke down completely.
We did not have a biscuit between us, as we had lost our rations when we changed trains. Someone had forgotten to take them off, and the train went off while we were being lined up for counting. We were about three days without grub. I ate my iron rations which consisted of a small tin of corned beef and biscuit which you were not allowed to touch until you had permission from an officer.159
Harry Ogle remembered a ration distribution in a barn in 1915 as his battalion went up the line, at which one of the corporals produced some new biscuits to replace any iron rations that had become damaged.
The two corporals lay out the platoon’s rations on a groundsheet, dividing them into four parts, one for each section, and the lance corporals take one each to divide between their men. ‘What sort of pozzy is it, Freddie?’ ‘Plum-and-apple as per bloody usual.’ There are tins of butter and jam to open, loaves to cut, cigarettes, pipe tobacco, matches and mail to distribute, and soon everybody is occupied and there is comparative quiet till Corporal Middleton come in with a big, shiny square tin. ‘There’s a tin of hard tack here. Make up your iron rations from it, anything that’s spoiled. Iron rations only, mind, and in case any of you lot start trading your bully tins for love or anything else you fancy, there’s a kit inspection in the near future.’160
Corporal Middleton’s warning was entirely appropriate, for rations were sometimes sold or bartered. Edward Spears maintained that a British soldier ‘wishing to enjoy the favours of a young lady’ would open his proposition with a tin of jam and the words ‘Mademoiselle, confiture?’ This remains wholly uncorroborated but, if true, would represent a remarkable triumph for a product often derided by the men to whom it was issued. ‘When the ‘ell is it going to be strawberry?’ snorted Bruce Bairnsfather’s cartoon character Old Bill.But there was something comforting even about plum and apple, its praises sung in a ditty rapped out in the best Gilbert and Sullivan staccato:
Tickler’s Jam,Tickler’s Jam
How I love old Tickler’s Jam,
Plum and Apple in a one-pound pot
Sent from Blighty in a ten-ton lot.
Bully could be eaten cold with bread or hardtack biscuits, fried with onions (and sometimes crumbled biscuits) to make a hash, or, reinforced by whatever vegetables were available, it could form the basis for the all-in stew which the soldiers of all armies know so well. It was soon supplemented by tinned meat and vegetables, generically known, from the manufacturer of the most common brand, as Maconochie’s. It was a welcome addition for Lieutenant Roe, who affirmed that ‘previously we had subsisted on cold slices of bully, bully rissoles, fried bully and bully stew’, and for Private Herbert Boorer of the Grenadiers, who told his wife in 1915 that: ‘They feed us on corned beef and dog biscuits. The biscuits are alright, although a trifle hard.’161
The chief complaints about Maconochie’s were its monotony and unreliability. A good tin, solidly fil
Bully was often so common in the trenches that men would not eat it out of the line if there was any alternative. Captain Gerald Burgoyne complained that:
The wastage in rations is terrible. Going round the place [Kemmel, behind the Ypres salient] this morning, I saw enough tins of Bully thrown away, or simply left in their boxes, to feed a Battalion. The men really get far too much, far more than they can eat, and extra rations like tinned salmon are counted extra and the same amount of Bully is issued to the men. The same with the biscuits. Men prefer to buy bread, and tins after tins of biscuits are lying about everywhere …163
Burgoyne is the only officer I have encountered whose memoirs repeatedly criticise the men he commanded, and it is hard to know quite what this dyspeptic officer would have made of an artillery headquarters where the tent floors and paths were composed entirely of full tins of bully used as paving stones. ‘I saw whole cheeses thrown to the pigs,’ remembered Corporal Ronald Ginns of the Royal Engineers, ‘and paths made of bully beef tins unopened, while many a good fire was obtained from army biscuits. But it was the sameness that caused us to spend our pay on French food.’164
Captain Joseph Maclean reported from a front-line trench in March 1918 that:
This morning breakfast was café au lait, (tinned) bacon and sausage, bread and marmalade, which is pretty good going in a place like this. Breakfast is the best meal of the day. For dinner we have to fall back on bully beef, while tea is generally tea, bread and jam, or cheese, perhaps with sardines or something like that. Of course everything is more or less filthy. During the night the men get stew and tea, which is brought up for them in ‘hot food containers’, and also rum, and I take a share of each – and the last is not the least.165
Corporal Frederick Hodges of 10/Lancashire Fusiliers reckoned that:
Our rations were adequate, provided they reached us. There was bread, cheese, jam, margarine, tea and sometimes Maconochie’s, a meat and vegetable ration we called M and V. Water, which was carried up in two-gallon petrol cans, was usually flavoured with petrol and sometimes also with chloride of lime, presumably when the source of supply was suspect.
The bread ration varied; four or five men to a loaf when we had recently received a new draft to replace casualties, or three to a loaf when we had recently suffered casualties but still received their rations. As the ration party came in sight, the first question we asked was ‘How many to a bun?’ …
The issue of a tin of Fray Bentos was always greeted with great delight because it was the best brand, and also because bully beef was usually put directly into a stew with dried vegetables. The latter were quite a novelty; I had never seen them before and wondered what was in the two heavy sandbags I carried up one night slung across my shoulder. They were full of varicoloured small, hard pieces that swelled into larger pieces of vegetables when soaked by the cook. We liked our tea strong, sergeant-major’s, we called it, especially with condensed milk. Sometimes we had porridge, always knows as burghu [more usually burgoo], which was one of the Indian names we had picked up from old soldiers who had served in India.166
If Fray Bentos was well regarded, W. H. Davies’s bully was not. Lieutenant Edmund Blunden befriended a stray terrier in the trenches, but made the mistake of giving him this unpopular brand, ‘so he may have thought me a danger’ and ran away.167
Officers often ate better, even in the line, as Bernard Martin acknowledged.
In fact we did supplement rations when we could, extras like sardines and tinned fruits – pears, apricots, peaches, pineapple chunks. Otherwise we ate exactly the same rations as the men, brought up usually at night by a Ration Party. Of course they didn’t always reach the front line. I remember once living for nearly three weeks on bully beef and biscuits (hard square half-inch thick, as sold for very large dogs) and jam (always plum and apple in the army).168
Taking supplementary rations into the line was not confined to officers, though the consequences were not always happy. Sapper Arthur Sambrook was living in a dugout behind the Loos front in 1916 when another soldier produced:
a Camembert cheese he had bought into Number 3 Section dug-out and proclaiming that it was an ‘epicure’s dream’, but his comrades did not agree, so it was decided to drop the delicacy into the stove-pipe sticking through the roof of Section 4’s dug-out … Our stoves were homemade affairs consisting of a large paint drum, with a pipe (made of biscuit tins hammered round a pole) let into the top, and leading straight up through the surface of the ground. Anything dropped down this pipe dropped into the fire below. After dark we scouted the position, and finding no one about the cheese was dropped down the pipe, with a turf put over the chimney-top so that the inmates below would get the full benefit of the aroma! The resulting stench and smoke compelled the Section 4 men to put their gas-helmets on!169
Requests for food, often linked to complaints about the monotony of rations and the exorbitant prices charged in shops in the rear areas, feature prominently in letters home. Private George Adams told his parents that: ‘We get plenty of tuck out here, bread, cheese and bacon and a butter issue twice a week and stew for dinner. It is a bit monotonous.’ He had to pay: ‘3d for a cake like those you send me and 2 francs (1/8d) for a tin of ham like you get at home for about 4½d and 10d for a 2½d tin of sardines.’ He thanked his mother for the cake she had sent, but asked her to wrap future cakes separately from the soap ‘as it spoils the taste’.170 In the winter of 1914 Second Lieutenant John Reith was receiving parcels of one sort or another every two or three days, including:
chocolates and sweets of all sorts. There was a large consignment for distribution among the men. And one evening a splendid box of candy arrived from a girl of whom I had never heard; others followed from her at regular intervals. It was not until the spring when, being invited to tea at my home, she explained the mystery to my parents. Shortly after we had gone overseas a photograph of the officers was published in a Glasgow newspaper. This young lady and some of her friends allocated us out among themselves with this highly satisfactory result. I never met her.171
Unknown well-wishers did not just confine themselves to sending food. In January 1916 Gerald Burgoyne’s sergeant major was putting on a new pair of socks when he found a packet of cigarettes in the toe with a note which read:
Soon these socks will be worn out. When you want another pair, write to
Miss Meta Kerr
A Merry Christmas and a safe return.
Bernard Livermore received: ‘Cake from my old dairyman, dainties from my people and friends; all were shared out among the members of my section.’ An enormous pair of socks were christened Toulouse and Toulong, but stitched together they made a passable body belt. And a helpful aunt appended a patriotic verse written by her clergyman husband, which had found favour with
Fling out the Flag!! Fling out the Flag!!
And fight for all that we revere.
Fling out the Flag!! Fling out the Flag!!
Battle for all that we hold dear.
Fling out the Flag!! Fling out the Flag!! (etc., etc.)
He gratefully replied that what she termed ‘those brave heroes, the colleagues in the trenches’ had discovered that the verses could be set to the tune of Fight the Good Fight. But he did not add that the heroes had tinkered with the words:
Fling out the Flag!! Fling out the Flag!!
Fling the Old Man orf’ is—Nag!!173
Pooling the contents of food parcels was the rule for officers and men alike. ‘In the early days,’ wrote Lieutenant Roe,
many members of one’s family sent out food parcels regularly. They were always pooled and rationed out with the greatest impartiality. Messrs Fortnum and Mason must have flourished exceedingly thereby. Their food parcels were of excellent quality and extremely well packed, for they arrived at company headquarters quite intact and unspoiled by the long transit from Piccadilly to French Flanders.174
Stuart Dolden came out of the line at Loos in 1915 to find that:
The Battalion parcel post had been kept back while we had been in action [at Hulluch], but this was now served out and amounted to seventy mail bags. I received thirteen parcels, and for days I hardly touched any rations. A new draft from Rouen was in the billet when we arrived from the trenches, and as they had been on short rations, the rest of us made a dump of unopened parcels on the floor and told the newcomers to sail into them. They thought we were the kindest fellows in the world, and never was a reputation so easily gained.175
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