Bread like chaff and putrid rations: How WW1 troops obsessed over food

Many of us will be making Anzac biscuits this Anzac Day, paying homage to an apocryphal story of soldiers in the first world war and the comfort afforded by these gifts sent from home. While the provenance of this most iconic of war food is debatable, we can learn a lot about what soldiers really ate by reading their letters and diaries. These sources reveal that food was a vital part of daily life, with emotional, cultural and practical facets.

Bully beef (brined and boiled beef in a can) and biscuits were the notoriously dull cornerstones of rations for both Australian and British soldiers in the first world war.

While the rations commonly included other items such as tea, jam, sugar, bacon, peas, beans or cheese, “B.B.B.” were symbolic of the inadequacy of the soldier’s diet.

Am living quite a terrible life! No rations or. than B.B.B. How cheerful. – Leonard V. Bartlett, Alexandria, December 1915.

The shortcomings of the rations weren’t just a lack of vitamin C and other essential nutrients. Lack of variety and taste in food took an emotional toll on the servicemen, and in the soldiers’ letters and diaries we can see a veritable obsession with food.


The diary of Lieut. Bartlett, a signaller who served in Egypt and Gallipoli, pithily conveys how his emotions fluctuated depending on the food available. Thus on 9 July, 1915 he rejoices:

Salmon for Brekker, what joy, my luck is really in today.

Nine days later, while suffering from one of his regular bouts of dysentery, he declares:

Feelg. rotten all day & existed on dried biscuits & tea.

For Bartlett and others serving in the Middle East, the harsh conditions made mealtimes a trial; he declared the rations “putrid”. One history describes mealtimes in the Jordan Valley in May 1918 as unbearably hot, humid and plagued by “venomous creatures” of various kinds, these miseries exacerbated by the food:

Rations reached the lines […] in a condition which would have revolted any men but soldiers on active service. The bread was dry and unpalatable as chaff; the beef, heated and reheated in its tins, came out like so much string and oil.

Supplements to the army ration were therefore intensely welcome. One letter to Mrs Hugh Venables Vernon thanking her for her contribution to the Australian Comforts Funds describes the soldiers in receipt of her gifts as “like kiddies at a picnic”.

Comfort packages – while probably not containing actual Anzac biscuits – did distribute items redolent of home and civilian life. The “Christmas billies” for the Australian Light Horse in Sinai and Palestine in 1916 included “Christmas puddings, tins of milk, packets of chocolates and similar dainties”.

Soldiers also took advantage of opportunities to scrounge, buy or commandeer supplementary foodstuffs from local populations, including “eggs and camel whey” from a Bedouin encampment in Palestine.

It’s worth noting that conditions behind the lines in France were very different to the Middle East. Sapper Vasco, a caricature artist and draftsman, wrote letters to his wife from “Somewhere in France” as though on a grand tour, and food featured prominently in his rhapsodic prose:

Precious One […] Ever since I landed in France life has been perfect. […] This is our country. If I’ve ever made up my mind about anything it’s to get you over here ‘Apres la guerre’. […] More violent contrasts, more delicious food, wine, exquisite country, music, more café life and true ‘bohemianism’ on a Sunday or any week day than England ever dreamt of in a lifetime. […] Sunshine as mellow as Brisbane’s shines day after day on La Belle France. […] The pastry cook shops make our pastry cakes taste like piffle. You couldn’t believe there was a war on here.

During the war giving or exchanging food – often across cultural divides – was a potent act of caring, and relationships between soldiers were cemented over food. Bartlett writes of having “a pleasant little feed” with his friend Monty, and of a visit from a fellow soldier called Merrivale, who shared cake with him.

Bartlett was involved in a lively network of exchange and barter among soldiers, and regularly visited the “Indian Camp” for “chapadies” or curry. Meanwhile in Cairo, General Rosenthal enjoyed “a sumptuous dinner of about 15 courses, all exquisitely cooked. The table was set out in faultless British style, but the foods were prepared in Egyptian style.”

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Even across enemy lines, intercultural culinary encounters occurred, such as during the famous 1914 “Christmas truce” when German and British soldiers entered into no-man’s land to exchange gifts of rations, cigarettes and chocolate.

Australian prisoners of war experienced particularly poignant acts of generosity from civilians as they were marched by German soldiers through occupied France. Corporal Claude Corderoy Benson describes French women attempting to smuggle bread, biscuits and sweets to the POWs, often at great personal cost:

I felt I would rather have died from starvation than see these women so ill treated, and wished the poor creatures would not try and help us.

Bensen describes the deprivation of the prisoners, which makes for harrowing reading:

…very often the German guard would offer us half a loaf of bread for a watch, and I have seen gold watches and rings go for less than a loaf of bread, anything to satisfy our hunger.

In the long and arduous campaigns of WWI, food – and the lack of it – was paramount. Major battles were fought to control supply lines, and hunger was a brutalising and dehumanising tool of war. In looking at food and its exchange, we see how the conflict produced both the best and the worst of human behaviour.

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Why meat is important in the global battle against food insecurity

The increase in the world’s population has led to challenges in maintaining a balanced diet in both the developed and the developing world. More than two billion people worldwide suffer from “hidden hunger” or micronutrient deficiency.

The inadequate intake of essential micro-nutrients is detrimental to the mental and physical development of children and reduces the productivity and work capacity of adults.

Over the last two decades, there has been a significant reduction in food insecurity with the number of hungry or undernourished people decreasing from 18.7% to 11.3%. But globally food insecurity continues to be a daunting challenge. The prevalence and severity of food insecurity varies at regional, national and household levels. At least two-thirds of the food insecure households in the world are found in developing countries.

The current food security threats go beyond insufficient food quality. Nutritional value, safety and the distribution of the available foods all have an impact. In addition, outbreaks of food-borne illnesses and mass food contamination have been frequently reported as threats to food safety – a consequence of the rising pressure to rapidly increase food production.

Good quality meat has the potential to reduce food insecurity and poverty. It should be considered a tool to eliminate “hidden hunger”. This would require making sure it is evenly distributed across the world.

But there are several limitations that may contribute to the slow progress of using meat to conquer food insecurity worldwide.

A bad side to eating meat?

Science has shown that lean meat is good for you. This is because it contains properties that positively moderate lipid profiles in the body. This in turn has a positive impact on long-term health by producing polyunsaturated fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Some polyunsaturated fatty acids can help reduce bad cholesterol levels in the blood and can lower the risk of heart disease, stroke and breast cancer. Linoleic acid contains fat fighting, insulin lowering properties which suppress the development of cancer in different areas of the body. This is the case even at relatively low dietary levels.

This is true of lean, unprocessed meat. Processed meat is a different story. A recent report by the World Health Organisation classifies processed meat as a carcinogen in the same category as plutonium and alcohol. It cautions that eating 50g of processed meat a day, which is the equivalent of up to two slices of bacon, increases the chance of developing colo-rectal cancer by 18%.

The same report acknowledges that meat is a rich source of nutrients and that eating meat and meat products also has health benefits. The moderation of meat consumption rather than eliminating it from one’s diet remains the most reasonable recommendation.

The poor can’t afford meat

The biggest problems around the consumption of meat relate to, on the one hand eating too much, and on the other cost and distribution.

South Africa provides an interesting case study. As living standards have improved, people’s diets have got better. This includes more meat and fruit and vegetable consumption. The increase in the amount of meat being eaten is linked to an increase in average income over the last two decades.

The increased demand for meat has led had two consequences: an increase in meat-related health threats such as cardiovascular diseases among the wealthy; and a rise in prices, making it less affordable for the poor.

South Africa, as a nation of fervent meat eaters, ranks 11 out of 15 top meat eating countries in the world, with over 50.7 kg of meat being consumed per capita each year. At the same time, most South Africans are not eating the food-based dietary recommendations of 80g to 90g lean cooked meat per day. This is because just over half the South African population is categorised as food insecure or vulnerable to food insecurity and cannot achieve the recommended intake.

Other factors influence meat consumption

Despite its contribution as a complete nutrient source, meat has a bad reputation. Although scientific research has shown its multiple health benefits, consumers still question its safety.

And a large proportion of the worlds’ population adheres to religions with strong traditions around food consumption, especially meat. Consumption is often limited by intrinsic factors or lack of adherence to specific production, slaughter and processing methods.

In addition, organisations have been set up to speak against meat consumption in the name of animal protection, declaring it more a luxury than a need.

It is critical to consider these perspectives in the discourse on global food security.

The consumption guide

It is important for consumers to pay attention to the quality and quantity of the meat they consume. And how they prepare it. Setting personal health goals, such as consuming just enough to meet the average nutrient requirements, is key.

Chicken as a meat source can be viewed as a short term stepping stone. Chicken consumption has increased dramatically over the years, mostly due to its health qualities and lower cost.

Misconceptions about meat and its affect on health need to be tackled head on. Human beings were born omnivores. Meat has been part of their diet through the ages. This is one of the reasons it should be considered as part of any diet, as well as part of the solution to food insecurity.

The Conversation

Voster Muchenje, Professor of Meat Science, University of Fort Hare and Yonela Njisane, PhD student in the Department of Livestock and Pasture , University of Fort Hare

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Feeding the troops: the emotional meaning of food in wartime

“Can an egg save a soldier?” So asked a full-page advertisement for Sunny Queen Farms in the The Age’s Sunday Life magazine last month. A young returned serviceman, a veteran of Afghanistan, looks straight into the camera. He is pictured next to a toast “soldier” dipped in a soft-boiled egg, an image replete with childhood nostalgia for many Australians, and one that speaks strongly of mothering.

The soldier, we are told, “knows how tough returning to civilian life can be for veterans suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”. We can now see that, though his white T-shirt reveals a strong physique, the soldier’s eyes are vulnerable. This is a young man in need of care and Sunny Queen Farms promises to support returned soldiers with a modest donation for each pack of its “eggs for soldiers” sold.


World War I advertising similarly drew on maternal feeling. Clarke & Sherwell Ltd, Ministry of Food/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY


This advertisement draws not just on the power of maternal feeling, and the nostalgia around childhood food memories, but on the heightened emotional significance of food in wartime. Food is central to experiences of war, and not just for the soldiers for whom it is a daily preoccupation. On the home front, too, food gains heightened emotional, social and political meaning.

The website for Walking Wounded, the organisation supported by the Eggs for Soldiers campaign, draws heavily on ANZAC imagery, and in these centenary years, World War One looms large in the national imagination. Yet we are just beginning to understand the role played by food in the emotional battles of WWI.

The ANZAC biscuit epitomises the link between food and WWI in national remembrance, and it is yet another expression of maternal care, having reportedly been devised to withstand the long journey to the front in “comfort packages”.

In WWI food was the most potent means for mothers to convey their love to sons at the front. On their return, Australian soldiers were welcomed with a hot meal at ANZAC buffets and sometimes another kind of female affection, as this iconic photograph (below) shows.


A wounded AIF soldier receives an affectionate welcome home at the Anzac Buffet in The Domain in Sydney. As men started returning from the front, the Anzac Buffet became the place where men were welcomed home. Australian War Memorial, Author provided


The frisson between the wounded soldier and the young woman are central to this image, but the face of the older woman at left conveys a complex mixture of maternal feelings; delight at the soldier’s return, dismay for what he has endured.

In The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War, (2010) Michael Roper writes that British soldiers’ families were effectively “an adjunct to the army, helping to ensure that the soldier stayed clothed, well-fed and healthy”. In Germany, where the British blockade quickly led to mass hunger on the home front, coping with food scarcity for her family was a mother’s contribution to the war effort.

Food is central to ideas of national and cultural belonging, something that can be used to bolster wartime patriotism, but it also gives a pungent flavour to cultural difference. Food therefore also provides powerful imagery for propaganda, such as in a 1915 Australian newspaper report that equates German food with hatred and bloodlust:

Blood sausage. Brain Sausage. Decaying cabbage pickled in vinegar … only a few of the cheery dishes in which the German rejoices, the delicacies upon which he feeds his hatred.”

In the Central Powers countries it did not take long for hunger to take a toll on home front patriotism. Existing cultural fault lines—between major cities and rural areas, between different nations and ethnic and religious groups—were brought into stark relief.

Scholars such as Hans-Georg Hofer and Maureen Healy have argued that tensions around food supply and distribution contributed in part to the collapse of the double monarchy of Austria–Hungary.

In Germany, rumours of Jewish machinations in food distribution ran rife, and resentment emerged over immigrants from the East placing pressure on scarce resources.

When we look at experiences of wartime through the prism of food we are constantly reminded of its power to to divide us, but also to bring people together. So famously a “weapon” of WWI, food can also occupy a central role in the bridging of national, ethnic and religious divides.


Australian officers having breakfast in a shell hole in Sausage Valley, Pozieres, 1916. Australian War Memorial


Australian soldier Leonard V. Bartlett writes in his Gallipoli diary of frequent visits to the “Indian Camp” for “a feed of curry & chapadies”. During the informal Christmas truce of 1914 German soldiers entered no-man’s land and offered chocolate to soldiers serving in the British army, an event that was made into feature film Joyeux Noel (2005).

In historian Craig Gibson’s Behind the Front (2014), a recent study of British soldiers’ encounters with French civilians, the most touching anecdotes centre upon the exchange of food: a warm cup of coffee offered to an exhausted soldier, or much-needed army rations donated to hungry children.

Historian Rachel Duffett, in her book The Stomach for Fighting (2012), describes how, along the Western Front, soldiers of the belligerent armies were cared for—often tenderly—in billets. In 1922, the German lieutenant Ernst Jünger wrote of the hospitality of one French couple with whom he shared meals and many cups of tea, during which they discussed “the difficult question […] of why men must make war”.

In the article “Fighting a Kosher War” (2011), researcher Steven Schouten describes how Jewish soldiers serving on the Eastern Front with the advancing Imperial German Army were often welcomed into Jewish homes for a kosher meal.

And when the war during which so many had died of hunger ended, Hofer’s research demonstrates, food also became a tool of peace. Food aid flowed into Austria, and one fifth of Austrian children were nourished by families abroad.

In wartime, when cultural differences are amplified, food can be a potent reminder of shared humanity and reinforce a sense of belonging. Feeding is also a powerful act of love.


Indian cavalry troopers preparing a meal Estrée Blanche, France, 1915. British Library/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY


Scholars have recently begun to examine the significance of food in wartime as an aspect that provides a tangible emotional connection to people from earlier times. As we approach the centenary of the end of the Great War it is timely to consider how food helped to heal some of the wounds of this scarifying conflict.

The Conversation

Heather Merle Benbow, Senior lecturer in German and European Studies, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.