The Great War: Food in the Trenches (First Part)

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The Great War: food in the trenches (first part)


“An army marches on its stomach”: these words are attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte. The famous French general believed that, during a conflict, feeding troops is as important as training and arming them. His thought proved right especially during the World War 1, when food played a critical role in the balance of power between the two warring sides.

The Great War: food in the trenches (img-14, img-15)

World War 1 food: a new kind of war.

World War 1 food: soldier and machine-gun (img-02)

To understand how much feeding troops tipped the balance of power during the Great War, it’s important to explain first the huge difference between this conflict and the previous ones.

The hostilities broke out in 1914, involving, one after the other, a great number of nations. The almost romantic idea, legacy of the Napoleonic era, of opposing armies fighting each other with honor, vanished almost immediately. When the first charge of heavy cavalry, until then considered the most powerful weapon, was easily annihilated by machine-guns, it became clear to everyone that something was definitely changed and it was thus necessary to completely rethink the way of fighting. After a few attacks of this type, the frontline stabilized.

Troops, desperately seeking refuge from new, deadly weapons, found shelter in the trenches: deep holes in the ground, dug along the margins of the opposing battle lines.
A huge, monstrous serpent, cut Europe in half, from north to south.

World War 1 food: Royal Irish Fusiliers in a trench (img-03)

World War 1 food: the huge importance of nutrition during the war.

World War 1 food: Prussian helmet.

The commanders of both sides involved in the conflict, initially thought that their troops were going to stay in the trenches just for a brief period: they were wrong.
Soldiers had in fact to remain inside of them for many years, killed in great number during frequent attacks to enemy positions: offensives as bloody as useless.
What the generals planned as a short confrontation that would ensure a fast and glorious victory, turned into a nightmare: a long and grueling war of attrition.

World War 1 food: Royal Irish Fusiliers in a trench (img-04)

Among other things, it became quite clear that it was necessary to create a reliable system to feed a large number of men.
Food was usually prepared in field kitchens located in the rear, places sometimes very distant from the endless front line: it was therefore inevitable that, after a long and difficult transport, rations reached their destinations in terrible conditions.
The quantity and quality of these rations, aspects initially underestimated, proved instead to be crucial for the war effort: something that could affect the morale and the performance of soldiers, greatly influencing their combat effectiveness.

It was evident that the faction that could better feed its troops, in the end would probably win the war.

Food acquired a fundamental role, becoming a kind of weapon, perhaps even the most effective. So it’s no coincidence that both sides tried to destroy enemy supplies whenever it was possible.

World War 1 food: different types of rations for the armies.

World War 1 food: Italian Alpine troops (img-05)

The quantity and the quality of food provided to troops during the Great War, depended on many factors, including the place where they fought. Battlefields could be very different from each other: nothing to be surprised of, considering that they were scattered across all Europe and outside it. For example, some trenches were on the top of rugged mountains, while others were in the middle of endless plains. That’s why delivering rations, usually prepared in the rear, was often tremendously difficult.
Sometimes soldiers were lucky, thanks to the proximity of a precious supply line. In a few cases, they were stationed in relatively quiet areas and it was possible to hunt or to cultivate small vegetable gardens.

Here follows a general view about the food situation of both the warring factions:

The Central Powers.

World War 1 food: the Central Powers.

The Central Powers (*1) started the war believing it would be short (*2) and would lead to a fast and easy victory. That’s why they were completely unprepared to support a conflict lasting many years. About this, it’s important to remember that the German and the Austro-Hungarian troops received small rations of food since the beginning of the hostilities, something that was even more evident by confronting them to those provided to the enemy soldiers. This difference appeared quite clear also to the generals of the Kaiser: that’s why they tried almost immediately to cut the delivery of supplies to the Allied armies, using the infamous U-boats to sink their merchant ships.

The Allies.

World War 1 food: the Allies.

From a nutritional point of view, the Allied troops (*3) were in a better condition than the enemy. This does not mean that the situation was good: soldiers had almost always to fight hunger. The turning point, both in terms of feeding and fighting, was the entry into the war of the AEF, the American Expeditionary Force: starting from 1917, the United States delivered in Europe not only a great number of fresh soldiers, but also a huge amount of supplies. This intervention shattered any attempt of resistance by the Central Powers, causing their ultimate defeat and ending the war.

*1: The ‘Central Powers’ included, among the others, the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire.
*2: Since the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the German generals were fascinated by the idea of a ‘lightning war’, the ‘blitzkrieg’: a method of warfare they successfully used during the Second World War.
3*: The ‘Allies’ included, among the others, France, the British Empire, the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Serbia, the Empire of Japan, the Reign of Italy, the Reign of Romania, the United States of America and the Reign of Greece.

World War 1 food: living in a trench.

World War 1 food: german trench occupied by British Soldiers (img-10)

At the beginning of the Great War, ‘trenches’ were nothing more than deep holes dug in the ground along the frontlines. Enemy positions were usually at a certain distance, on the other side of the ‘no man’s land’.
Even if many generals had predicted fast advances (and victories), during the conflict these frontlines remained stable for a long time: an unexpected stalemate that forced to transform these simple ditches, initially meant just to protect from artillery fire, into structures complex enough to accommodate thousands of soldiers.

World War 1 food: the trench.

The most common trench was about a meter and a half deep, the side facing the enemy lines was covered with sandbags. For many years, places like this became home to a great number of men. ‘Houses’ offering terrible living conditions. They were cold in winter and incredibly hot during summer. The lack of sewers made them dirty and smelly. When it rained, mud reached the knees. It was almost impossible to wash themselves. Rats and corpses everywhere. Food and water were scarce and awful.
An horrible situation worsened, if possible, by an unstoppable fear to die, shot by the enemy or killed during an assault.

World War 1 food: shrapnels, sawdust and turnips for the German soldier.

The German soldiers, especially near the end of the war, could enjoy many ‘delicacies’. Here follows a couple of examples:

World War 1 food: the schrapnellsuppe. World War 1 food: the schrapnellsuppe.

The ‘Schrapnellsuppe’.

The ‘Schrapnellsuppe’ (splinters soup), was particularly ‘appreciated’ by the troops of the Kaiser. This preparation was often served almost raw: for this reason peas, its main ingredient, were usually hard like bullet shrapnels, hence the name of the exquisite recipe.

World War 1 food: bread, sawdust and turnips. World War 1 food: bread, sawdust and turnips.

Bread, sawdust and turnips.

Due to the lack of supplies, the bread eaten by the German soldiers was often made using flour added with sawdust to increase its quantity.
This ‘exquisite’ bread was frequently accompanied by some very ‘tempting’ turnips jam.

World War 1 food: the great use of tin cans.

A few months after the beginning of the First World War, it became very clear how complex it would be to provide supplies to troops living and fighting along an endless frontline. The distribution problems were worsened by frequent enemy attacks. Even in a situation difficult like this, it was still necessary to feed soldiers regularly, so that, if not bullets, they could at least survive hunger.

Canned food proved to be the best instrument to feed soldiers when normal rations could not be provided.

Tin cans could contain a wide variety of aliments: meat, fish, butter, soups, ham etc. Their metallic coating and hermetic closure, not only ensured long keeping, but also protected the content from dirt and poisoning caused by lethal gas (*1). Thanks to these particular features, they were often the last resource (*2), that’s why sometimes it was necessary the permission of a senior officer to open them.

During the years of conflict, the armies of both sides used a huge number of tin cans: even today, after more than a century, rusty remnants of them can be found scattered around the old battlefields.

*1: Lethal gas was one of the weapons used by the German Army during the Great War.
*2: Soldiers had to carry in their backpack a few tin cans (at least in theory). In some particularly dangerous situations, their life could depend on them.

Napoleon, Appert and canned food.

World War 1 food: Nicolas Appert (img-13)

It’s quite possible that tin cans would have been very useful to Napoleon Bonaparte in his war campaigns. So, it’s probably not a coincidence that, in a way, he was responsible for their invention, by organizing a contest to find a new method to preserve food.
The contest was won by the French chef Nicolas Appert: he created a procedure, the ‘appertisation’ (*1), which consisted in boiling food and sealing it in glass jars (*2).

World War 1 food: Philippe de Girard (img-01)

A few years later another Frenchman, the engineer Philippe de Girard (1775-1845), perfected this procedure by using tin containers.
Even if this technique is usually attributed to Peter Durand, many historians think that he was just the first to patent it in the UK and the US (*3).
In 1812 the English company Donkin and Hall paid Durand a thousand pounds for the patent and soon became the first tin can producer in the world.

*1: The procedure invented by Appert was based just on empirical experiments. Some years later, thanks to the research of the French biologist Louis Pasteur, the sterilization process was finally scientifically explained.
*2: The glass containers were usually sealed using pitch.
*3: Durand patented the same procedure twice: the first time in the UK, the second in the United States. In this country the technique was further improved by reducing the time required for its application, from several hours to a few minutes.

An army marches on its stomach (img-07)


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World War 1 food: the ‘erbswurst’, so much more than a sausage.

Before the beginning of the Great War, the Generals of the Kaiser tried to find a way to feed their troops, ensuring them at the same time maximum mobility: it was something of great importance for the ‘blitzkrieg’, the ‘lightning war’ they were planning.
The ‘Erbswurst’ was the answer to their needs: it was a particular type of sausage, made with a mixture of dried bacon and pea powder. This sausage, cut in thick slices, could be rehydrated in hot water, preparing in a few minutes a nutritious and tasty soup. Its inventor was Heinrich Grueneberg: in 1899 he sold the patent to the famous food company Knorr.
The Erbswurst is produced still today.

Music during the First World War.

Some of the most famous songs during the First World War to accompany the reading of this article:

Note: join Spotify and listen to the full song.

World War 1 food: hardtacks in soldier’s pockets.

The ‘hardtack’ is an incredibly simple type of biscuit, made just with flour, water and sometimes a little bit of salt (*1). Its origins are very ancient: it was already known to the Egyptians. The Romans called it ‘buccellum’.
The great success of this food is due to its long keeping: if kept away from water and humidity, it can remain edible for many years. Thanks to this useful feature, it has always been part of the rations of soldiers and sailors.
The French call it ‘galet’ (small stone), the Italians ‘galletta’, the Germans ‘schiffszwieback’.

*1: No yeast is used to make hardtacks.

World War 1 food: French flag.

World War 1 food: ‘monkey meat’ for the French soldiers.

French soldiers gave ironic nicknames to the food they ate every day in the trenches. A few examples:
Canned meat was surnamed ‘monkey meat’ because it was usually branded ‘Madagascar’.
Beans and peas were surnamed ‘schrapnells’ (*1), because they were often served raw and hard.
Lentils were surnamed ‘punaises’ (bugs) for their aspect.

*1: German word meaning ‘bullet splinters’

World War 1 food: the ‘hunger blockade’.

The naval blockade imposed by the Allies to the Central Powers during the Great War proved to be very effective, preventing any type of supply by sea and thwarting their efforts to feed their soldiers. For this reason, it was surnamed the ‘hunger blockade’.

World War 1 food: alcohol in the trenches.

During the Great War, alcohol was not allowed in the trenches, at least officially. In particular situations, when an extra dose of courage was needed, a few exceptions were tolerated: for example, before an assault, some ‘grappa’ (an alcoholic beverage) was distributed to the Italian soldiers.

In the second part:

The First World War.
The naval war causes the Central Powers to starve.
‘Maconochie’ and ‘Bully Beef’ for the British soldiers.
The rations of the American soldiers.
Specific military corps support the war effort.


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The images bearing the logo ‘webfoodculture’ are copyrighted.

The following images are public domain:

img-01 (*) – Portrait of French inventor Philippe de Girard (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-02 (*) – Robert Antoine Pinchon (left) during World War I, 1914 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-03 (*) – Gallipoli, Soldiers in the trenches, Ernest Brooks, 1915 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-04 (*) – Royal Irish fusiliers in a trench, 1916 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-05 (*) – Italian alpine troops during WWI, Agence Rol, 1915 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-06 (*) – U.S. Army, propaganda poster, 1917, H.R.Hopps (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-07 (*) – Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries, 1812, di J.L. David (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-08 (**) – 19th Century civil war hardtack, 2007, photo by D. Farr (Wikipedia Link)
img-09 (*) – German battleship squadron, 1917 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-10 (*) – British soldier in a captured German trench, 1916 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-11 (*) – “Domenica del Corriere”, attack in Sarajevo, A.Beltrame, 1914 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-12 (*) – Canadian WW1 recruiting poster, 1914/1918 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-13 (*) – Portrait of Nicolas Appert, 1841 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-14 (*) – Trapezoidal can of corned beef, 1898, A.C. Cunningham (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-15 (*) – King George V and a group of officials, 1917 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}

These images are made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0):

cc-01 – Erbswurst, image owner Zenz (Wikipedia Link)

The following images are published courtesy of:

crt-01 – Images published courtesy of Mr. Alessandro Dal Ponte.

The header image is pubblic domain:

img-02 (*) – Robert Antoine Pinchon (left) during World War I, 1914 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}

(*) The copyright of this image has expired.
(**) Image released in public domain by its author.