The Stomach for Fighting – Food on the Somme

In this guest blog, Dr Rachel Duffett from the University of Essex and the AHRC Funded Everyday Lives in War Engagement Centre, writes about the Food Facts faced by troops posted to the Somme.  Dr Duffett is also the author of ‘The Stomach for Fighting: Food and the Soldiers of the Great War’

Sherwood Foresters - Cooking Bacon & Beans in 'Dixies'. Nov 1916. nr St Pierre Divion. (c) IWM (Imperial War Museums)
Sherwood Foresters – Cooking Bacon & Beans in ‘Dixies’. Nov 1916. nr St Pierre Divion. (c) IWM (Imperial War Museums)

At 4.30 a.m. on July 1st 1916, after a sleepless night in the trenches of the Somme,  Major J.L. Jack breakfasted rather meagrely on tea, bread and butter, ‘the more solid of our mess rations having been lost during shelling on the way up the previous night’ – it doesn’t seem much to prepare the stomach or the spirit for the assault that was to follow.[1] Traditionally, soldiers in the British army expected a heartier meal before an attack, rum and bacon being the preferred combination, although the appearance of ‘extras’ always bore with it the unappetising concern that something dangerous was on the horizon. Lieutenant W.J. White was grateful for the bacon he consumed in the his battalion HQ dug-out on the same morning, even if he did have to fry it over a candle and Lance Corporal W. Disney enjoyed the hot coffee laced with rum that found its way to his trench, despite it being flavoured with the petrol from the can in which it had been transported.[2]

Men of a Pioneer Battalion drawing a dinner ration outside their billets before proceeding to the trenches, for the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, 14th July 1916.
Men of a Pioneer Battalion drawing a dinner ration outside their billets before proceeding to the trenches, for the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, 14th July 1916. (c) IWM (Imperial War Museum)

In the main, officers ate better than their men: they were less reliant on army rations because of their greater income and mobility. An officer also had the service of a batman one of whose duties was to ensure the appearance of regular meals, something that could require considerable time and effort. The sparse breakfast available to Jack on 1st July is demonstrative of the priorities of an army on active service; the movement of artillery and ammunition always took precedence and the forage for the mules and horses that hauled the material also ranked above the men’s rations.

German troops preparing their dinner in the trenches.
German troops preparing their dinner in the trenches. (c) IWM (Imperial War Museum)

The provisioning systems of the British army on the Western Front worked relatively successfully throughout the First World War. The static nature of the conflict allowed for the establishment of reliable supply systems which, after the Retreat from Mons in the late summer of 1914, only really broke down again during the German army’s Spring Offensives in 1918.  There were always parts of the line that were less accessible to ration parties than others, the Ypres Salient for example, which meant that the overall positivity of the picture tended to conceal relatively small yet persistent supply problems at the front which were never wholly resolved.

Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) having a dinner in a dugout in a trench at Contalmaison
Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) having a dinner in a dugout in a trench at Contalmaison (c) IWM (Imperial War Museum)

The regular supply of the rations didn’t necessarily satisfy the soldiers, however, because the army’s main focus was on the calorific value of the food delivered and that often meant a diet of relentless monotony: bully beef and hardtack biscuit everyday. The level of c4,000 calories a day set for frontline troops is close to that used by the current British army, but there’s little  similarity in the calculation of the optimum diet to provide the energy required to perform military duties.

Troops of the 6th Battalion, Queen's Royal Regiment (West Surrey) eating dinner in the trenches. Arras, March 1917. (Courtesy of the IWM (Imperial War Museum)
Troops of the 6th Battalion, Queen’s Royal Regiment (West Surrey) eating dinner in the trenches. Arras, March 1917. (Courtesy of the IWM (Imperial War Museum)

The development of nutritional understanding over the century has resulted in a far more complex approach to feeding which recognises the digestive difficulties inherent in a high protein diet and the psychological factors associated with eating. The modern term ‘menu fatigue’ is not one that would have been recognised in the First World War, but the soldiers certainly experienced it and in their boredom, longed for the familiar foods of civilian life. The huge logistical issues of feeding hundreds of thousands of men meant that the more easily stored and transported hardtack and bully was, for the army command, always preferable to fresh bread and meat even though the latter had a far higher morale dividend.

Supplying the men on the Somme was difficult as the munitions for the hungry guns clogged the trenches. Jack’s diary recorded that ‘only snatches of food’ were available during the first few days of the fighting. Of course, battle acted as an appetite suppressant for many, but his reflections emphasised the importance of the restorative powers of food once in reserve when he wrote on July 7th ‘healthy young soldiers recover with remarkable rapidity from the most gruelling experiences when they have a good sleep and a square meal’.[3]

[1] John Terraine (ed.), General Jack’s Diary: War on the Western Front 1914-1918 (London, 2003), p. 144.

[2] Martin Middlebrook, The First Day of the Somme (London, 1971), p. 113.

[3] Terraine, General Jack, p.152.

 

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