This article was first published in the December 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine
On the morning of Saturday 1 July 1916, Siegfried Sassoon sat on Crawley Ridge and watched the attack on Fricourt by the 10th West Yorks and 7th Green Howards taking place below, a scene he described as “a sunlit picture of Hell”. As he noted the noise and colour of the explosions, the men filing through the trenches in preparation for going “over the top”, he also added: “Have just eaten my last orange.” It is a subject to which he returned a few days later when he bemoaned the fact that his batman (personal servant), Private Flook, was not available to source further oranges because he had been called up to help carry ammunition boxes forward. The juxtaposition of eating with a battle that was to shape British culture and on a day when the British army lost more than 19,000 men seems incongruous, but men needed to eat, and even the fear induced by frontline service only dimmed that hunger temporarily.
In the summer of 1916, the British army faced a huge logistical challenge in the feeding of the tens of thousands of men massing in northern France. Lessons had been learned at the start of the war when supply lines had broken down in the 1914 Retreat from Mons and soldiers had to rely on whatever they could scrounge locally. Since then, the largely static nature of the conflict had facilitated the establishment of a complex provisioning system that began each day with trains packed with food leaving the base supply depots on the French coast and ended with the sacks of bully beef and biscuits carried on the back of the ration parties to those at the front.
A fighting man was supposed to receive 4,193 calories a day – a figure on a par with the current British army’s scale – and the official regulations described a varied daily diet. The core of the ration was one pound each of meat and bread, and to this was added a range of foodstuffs including bacon, cheese, vegetables, margarine, tea, sugar and condiments. On paper it read very well, but the reality was often very different: the variety was not available and the calories were all too frequently delivered in the form of the much despised tinned bully and hardtack biscuits.
What soldiers in the British army ate was determined by rank, and for the most part officers with more money, separate messes, batmen and cooks dined in superior style – Sassoon’s lack of oranges seems a world away from the worries of the rank and file soldiers where the shortages of fresh bread was a more fundamental concern. Enhanced food privileges were overwritten by operational matters, however, and the movement of tonnes of ordnance to the Somme front in June had disrupted the supply of provisions and the preparation for action limited the opportunities for batmen to source alternatives, as Sassoon had discovered.
The conditions of battle meant that even relatively senior officers like Major J L Jack were presented with a breakfast of just tea, bread and butter on the morning of 1 July, “the more solid of our mess rations having been lost during shelling on the way up the previous night”. The availability of food depended upon numerous factors, so some soldiers did better than Jack and received the traditional battle prelude of bacon and rum, although such largesse was always tinged with the unappetising realisation that the main act was looming on the horizon.
Rum was a much appreciated part of the frontline ration, certainly by the men, although some commanders refused to distribute it on the grounds that alcohol had no place in the rational, professional ethos of the British army. Problems of rum supply often had more to do with over-indulgence further up the distribution chain than they did logistical failures, and the ‘S.R.D.’ (Supply Reserve Depot) with which the jars were stamped was popularly interpreted as ‘Seldom Reaches Destination’ or ‘Soon Runs Dry’.
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Drink of any kind was a problem in the first few days of the battle as the weather – which had been wet and overcast in the last week of June, delaying the start of the offensive – warmed up and the soldiers became desperately thirsty in the heat. Water is heavy and difficult to transport, which meant that frontline supplies were rarely plentiful – a problem compounded by the use of petrol cans, which resulted in much of it being tainted with gasoline. Equally unpalatable was the chloride of lime, a bleaching substance used to purify water from suspect sources: it may have killed bacteria but it had the side effect of making it virtually undrinkable. Shortages of drink and food meant that men took what they could from the corpses around them; George Coppard, remembering his Somme experiences years later, wrote “it seems pretty low-down to plunder a dead man’s belongings, but needs must, and we soon got over the guilty feeling”.
Problems of supply persisted and AE Perriman recalled that on 7 July “For 52 of us I was allocated one and a half loaves of bread, a piece of boiled bacon weighing about 16 ounces after the mud had been removed, a small quantity of [hardtack] biscuits, some currants and sultanas, and a petrol tin of tea”. By August things had improved for Coppard, as he and his unit had taken up residence in ‘Whizz-Bang Villa’, which despite having lost its roof still had three usable bedrooms and a well-equipped kitchen. The men put the facilities to good use and produced hot meals – rissoles were popular: three big ones each “made of bully and potatoes fried in swimming bacon fat”. The orchard in which the house sat provided plenty of fruit to be eaten fresh or stewed, although care was required and even scrumping by night could be dangerous, as Coppard found when he was “caught in a tree red-handed. Jerry put up a flare and pasted the orchard”.
Whenever possible, the army tried to get hot food to its men, as the powerful impact that a bowl of decent stew had on morale was widely recognised. Travelling cookers, which could be pushed up closer to the frontline, had been developed to increase the range of supply, and their contents were usually appreciated. As it did throughout the theatre of war, eating and drinking on the Somme varied depending on a range of factors, and the skills of those charged with food preparation were key. A great deal of humour has been derived from the (limited) abilities of army cooks, but many of them took their responsibilities very seriously and their efforts were undermined by the limitations of the army’s own recipes, such as that for ‘fish cakes’, which began by mixing equal quantities of tinned herrings and bully beef.
Food was a constant in army life: wherever they were and whatever the battle conditions, men had to eat, even under the relentless barrages of the Somme and even among the bodies of the recently dead. Whether it was Sassoon’s lack of oranges or Coppard’s enthusiasm for his rissoles, life went on and the soldiers’ references to eating offer glimpses into a world where their individual needs collided with the extraordinary events of the First World War.
Dr Rachel Duffett from the University of Essex specialises in the military, social and cultural impact of warfare in the 20th century and is involved in the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded Everyday Lives in War Engagement Centre. She is the author of The Stomach for Fighting: Food and the Soldiers of the Great War (Manchester University Press, 2012).