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

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The Great War: food in the trenches (second 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, crt-01)


The First World War.

World War 1 rations: Attack in Sarajevo, 'Domenica del Corriere' (img-02)

The First World War began on 28 July, 1914. The spark that led to the explosion of the conflict was an attack in the city of Sarajevo: a tragic event where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were assassinated by a political extremist. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, considering the Kingdom of Serbia responsible for what happened, began the hostilities. The golden age of Europe, the ‘Belle Epoque’, had to give way to a clash of nations of unprecedented proportions: that’s why it’s still remembered as the ‘Great War’.

Two sides fighting each other.

World War 1 rations: The Great War, two sides fighting each other.

A complex system of alliances gradually involved in the hostilities a great number of countries. The two warring sides were:
The Central Powers, including (among the others) the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire.
The Allies, including (among the others) France, the British Empire, the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Serbia. These were later joined by the Empire of Japan, the Kingdom of Italy, the Kingdom of Romania, the United States and the Kingdom of Greece.

The causes.

It’s important to stress the fact that the attack in Sarajevo was just a triggering event, the final step of a complex situation worsened over the years. The real causes of the war were many, among them:
The desire of the German Empire to play a strong political role on the international stage.
The necessity of the authoritarian regimes to harness the socialist movements threatening their power.

A war of position.

World War 1 rations: Battle of the Somme, communication trench (img-13)

A quick attack by the German Army to the Netherlands and to Northern France, seemed to decide the outcome of the conflict a few months after its beginning. The Central Powers tried their best to achieve a fast victory, quite aware of the many unknowns associated to a prolonged war effort. Their hopes were shattered by the fierce resistance of the French troops. The advance was stopped during the famous Battle of the Marne. The soldiers of both sides had to take refuge in trenches dug along a never ending frontline: a bloody and grueling war of attrition had just begun.

The lack of food.

World War 1 rations: British battleship HMS Irresistible (img-01)

Fields were devastated by the fury of battles or abandoned by farmers forced to join the army. This caused a considerable reduction in agricultural production. The resulting food shortages were further aggravated by naval blockades and submarine attacks, preventing any attempt to get supplies. The Central Powers found themselves in serious trouble, even more than the Allied Nations. Their resources were in fact extremely limited and in great part used to support soldiers. In the cities people started to die of hunger: malnutrition killed thousands, causing numerous revolts.

The United States of America enter the war.

The entry of the United States into the conflict marked its turning point: the huge amount of fresh troops and supplies they sent, were crucial to put an end to the war.


Naval war starves the Central Powers.

Since the beginning of the Great War, each of the warring sides tried to starve the other. To reach this objective, they focused their efforts to destroy the enemy supplies. Great part of them was transported by merchant ships: that’s why the control over the seas became extremely important.

World War 1 rations: WWI U.S. Navy recruitment poster (img-04)

Even if the sneaky U-Boats caused great destruction, the naval blockades imposed by the Allied forces proved decisive. It has been estimated that in 1915, the German Empire lost almost half of the materials that used to received before.
The loss of fertilizers was particularly serious, causing in a few months a drastic decrease in agricultural production.
The plan organized by Hindenburg (*1) to optimize resources, had no other effect than prolonging the agony. Malnutrition shattered the morale of the troops, lacking the strength needed to fight. The number of victims among the civilians was huge.

*1: Paul von Hindenburg, German military officer, statesman, and politician.

World War 1 rations: Sinking of a ship by a German submarine (img-03)


World War 1 rations: ‘Maconochie’ and ‘Bully Beef’ for the British soldiers.

Among the various types of food eaten by British soldiers during the First World War, two are particularly interesting: the ‘Maconochie soup’ and the ‘bully beef’.

World War 1 rations: WWI mess tin (crt-01) World War 1 rations: WWI mess tin (crt-01)

The ‘Maconochie soup’.

The Maconochie canned soup was quite ‘famous’ among the British soldiers during the Great War. This does not mean that they loved it, quite the opposite: for them, it was a necessity, certainly not a pleasure. They despised it so much to say that when it was hot, it was barely edible, when it was cold, it could kill a man. The main ingredients of this preparation include beef, potatoes, carrots, onions, beans, flour, lard and salt.

World War 1 rations: trapezoidal can of corned beef (img-05) World War 1 rations: trapezoidal can of corned beef (img-05)

The ‘Bully Beef’.

‘Bully Beef’ is the english translation of the French ‘boeuf bouilli’. It’s basically corned beef, finely chopped and soaked in gelatin: it can be eaten spread on a slice of bread or directly from the metallic container.
Thanks to its ease of use, this product remained part of the ration of the British soldiers throughout the Twentieth Century, until its replacement in 2009.

It’s particularly interesting to remember what Harry Patch, one of the last veterans of the First World War, said about the rations he received at that time: “… you were lucky if you got some bully beef and a biscuit …”.

World War 1 rations: Submarine U-14 (img-12)


World War 1 rations: different types of rations for the American soldiers.

During the Great War, the US Army proved to be very well prepared to feed its soldiers: this competence derived from specific studies about the nutrition of troops engaged in combat.
Thanks to these studies, the basic ‘garrison ration’, used since the Revolutionary War, was improved creating solutions designed to suit the needs of different warfare scenarios:

The ‘reserve ration’ was carried by every soldier in his backpack. It included canned meat, dried bread, sugar, coffee and salt. It was meant to be used when, for whatever reason, it was not possible to eat the food prepared in the field kitchens.
The ‘trench ration’ was designed to feed a certain number of soldiers. It was used when the food prepared in the field kitchens could be delivered. It included corned beef, sardines, salmon, coffee, salt, sugar and even cigarettes.
The ’emergency ration’ included highly caloric aliments, such as chocolate. Its most important feature was the great portability. It was also known as ‘armor ration’ or ‘iron ration’, because it was packed in metal containers that could resist to many of the dangers of the combat zones.


World War 1 rations: specific military corps support the war effort.

Many of the armies of the First World War, had military corps specifically prepared to manage supplies. Food was a fundamental part of these supplies: once collected, it had to be stored, shipped, prepared and distributed to the troops. A task of huge responsibility, considering that from it depended the survival of thousands of soldiers and the outcome of the war itself.
The British ASC and the US Quartermaster Corps were two of the most important organizations of this type.

ASC: Army Service Corp.

The British soldiers fighting the Great War, were more than five millions. The primary duty of the ASC, the Army Service Corp, was to take care of them. It was an impressive organization, counting on 300.000 members, both military and civilians.

U.S. Quartermaster Corp.

The Quartermaster Corp became part of the US Army in 1775. During the First World War, this military corp distinguished itself for great efficiency. For example, thanks to its mobile ‘field bakeries’, the American soldiers fighting near the frontline, were the only ones that could eat fresh bread.

To understand the spirit of these special military corps, it’s really important to read the ‘Quartermaster Creed’:

World War 1 rations: Soldier. World War 1 rations: Soldier.

“I am Quartermaster. My story is enfolded in the history of this nation. Sustainer of Armies… (…) Since 1862, I have sought our fallen brothers from Private to President. In war or peace I bring them home and lay them gently down in fields of honor. Provisioner, transporter. (…) In 1918, soldier… like you. Pearl Harbor, too. Mine was the first blood spilled that day. I jumped in darkness into Normandy, D-Day. In Desert Storm, I was there when we crossed the border into Iraq…sustaining combat and paying the ultimate sacrifice as we liberated Kuwait. I AM QUARTERMASTER. I can shape the course of combat, change the outcome of battle. Look to me: Sustainer of Armies…Since 1775. I AM QUARTERMASTER. I AM PROUD.”

World War 1 rations: Food will win the war (img-07)


World War 1 rations: the US President bets on food.

During the First World War, Herbert Hoover, future President of the United States, directed the U.S. Food Administration. Understanding the great importance of soldiers’ nutrition, he worked very hard to support the war effort by optimizing food production in the United States. Among his many initiatives, the ‘victory gardens’: every American citizen was invited to grow one using his backyard. This way he could help the troops fighting in Europe.


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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 rations: Sir Winston Churchill (img-09)


World War 1 rations: Sir Winston Churchill writes home.

Perhaps not everyone knows that Sir Winston Churchill, the famous British Prime Minister who contributed to defeat Adolf Hitler in the Second World War II, was involved also in the first, as Commander of the Sixth Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. During the conflict, he wrote numerous letters to his wife: these letters are interesting not only because they reveal the human side of the statesman, but also because they show how frequently soldiers and officers asked their families for food. Something they had to do, since their military rations were generally insufficient to survive.

Below, a brief excerpt from one of his letters:

“About food, the sort of things I want you to send me are these: large slabs of corned beef, stilton cheeses, cream, hams, sardines, dried fruits. You might almost try a big beef steak pie but not tinned grouse or fancy tinned things. The simpler the better and substantial too, for our ration meat is tough and tasteless, and here we cannot use a fire by daylight. I fear you find me very expensive to keep. Mind you bill me for all these apart from your housekeeping …”.


World War 1 rations: hungry soldiers raid enemy’s food.

In March 1918, a great number of German troops, taking advantage of the defeat of the Russian Empire, started to fight on the Western Front. Soon after, thanks the ‘Spring Offensive’, they broke through the British lines. The soldiers of the Kaiser, driven by hunger, raided the enemy food storages: it seems that they particularly appreciated canned meat, also known as ‘bully beef’.


In the first part:

A new kind of war.
The importance of food during war.
Food for the soldiers.
Living in a trench.
Shrapnels, sawdust and turnips for the German soldier.
Tin cans during the war.
Napoleon, Appert and canned food.


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The images bearing the logo ‘webfoodculture’ are copyrighted.

The following images are public domain:

img-01 (*) – HMS Irresistible abandoned, 1915 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-02 (*) – “Domenica del Corriere”, attack in Sarajevo, A.Beltrame, 1914 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-03 (*) – Sinking of a ship by a German submarine, 1917, Willy Stöwer (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-04 (*) – ‘Only the Navy Can Stop This’, WWI Recruitment poster, 1917 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-05 (*) – Trapezoidal can of corned beef, McNeill & Libby of Chicago, 1898 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-06 (*) – Army Service Corps recruiting poster, 1915 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-07 (*) – Herbert Hoover photo portrait, 1917 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-08 (*) – British Lewis gun team, Battle of Hazebrouck, 1918, E.W.Greene (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-09 (*) – Winston Churchill in Downing Street, 1943 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-10 (*) – Winston Churchill with the Royal Scots Fusiliers, 1916 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-11 (*) – World War I era US poster by James Montgomery Flagg (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-12 (*) – German Submarine U-14, 1910/1915 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-13 (*) – Battle of the Somme, trench, 1916 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-14 (*) – Soldiers in the trenches, Gallipoli, 1915, Ernest Brooks (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}

The following images are published courtesy of:

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

The header image is pubblic domain:

img-08 (*) – British Lewis gun team, Battle of Hazebrouck, 1918, E.W.Greene (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}

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