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Food and Rationing in WW1
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Getting food to the font line was often a problem.
The British Army employed 300,000 field workers to cook and supply the food. When troops were away from the front, the food they ate was probably better than many of them got at home, especially if they came from poorer families. When at the front, however, it was a very challenging task to get food to the soldiers in good condition.
3,240,948 tons of food was sent from Britain to the soldiers fighting in France and Belgium during the First World War. As the size of the army grew, and more food supplies were blockaded, rations were cut to 6 ounces of meat a day. Later, troops not in the front line only received meat on nine days out of every thirty.
Most of the diet in the trenches was bully-beef (canned corned beef), bread and biscuits or Maconochie stew. By 1916, flour was in such short supply that bread was being made with dried, ground turnips.
A few years into the war, the main food was a pea-soup with a few lumps of horsemeat. When vegetables ran out, weeds such as nettles were used in soups and stews.
Special iron rations were carried when advancing into enemy territory.
The two-part sealed tin ( Emergency Ration), which could only be consumed by express permission of an officer, contained cocoa paste and beef paste (which could be spooned onto hard tack biscuits or mixed with boiled water and drunk - as hot cocoa or bovril).
Troops always complained of being hungry and the diet in the front line was monotonous and not very balanced (although still often as good as or better than many of the poor were used to). Out of the line, troops were much better fed.
British soldiers and sailors smoked 1,000 tonnes of cigarettes and 700 tonnes of pipe tobacco in 1915
Officers Mess in the Trenches
Around 1916 Germany started using its U-boats in order to sink ships - many of which were American which were bringing food to the country and starve Britain into surrender. In about two years, Britain had just six weeks' food left and, therefore, had to ration its food supplies.
As 1917 drew to a close people began to fear that food would run out. Panic buying caused shortages and when malnutrition was found in many poor people, the Ministry of Food introduced rationing. In January 1918, sugar was rationed, then later butchers' meat. More foods were added to the list as the year went on.
The 'Defence Of the Realm Act' (DORA) let the government take over land when it needed to. Rationing food and other measures taken were successful and (according to official sources) most people obtained the food they needed.
Any area that could grow food was converted to do so - gardens were turned into allotments, and chickens etc. were kept in back gardens. Potatoes, sugar and butchers' meat were the hardest goods to obtain.
Ration cards were issued and everyone had to register with a butcher and grocer. Rationing was a clear indication to the British public that all was not well, but it did work. The malnutrition that had been identified in the poorer communities disappeared and as in World War Two, no one actually starved in Britain during the war.
The things that were rationed at home at the height of rationing were:
Bacon and Ham 4oz
Milk 2-3 pints
Houshehold milk 1 packet every four weeks
Jam 1lb every two months
Eggs 1 fresh each week, if possible usually every two
Dried eggs 1 packet every 4 weeks
Sweets 12oz every 4 weeks
BABY'S HEAD - Meat pudding
DOG AND MAGGOT - Bread and Cheese
GUNFIRE - Strong tea, usually with rum
POZZY - Jam, usually tinned plum and apple
JAPAN - Bread, from the French word 'pain'
Beaumont Hemel - The Somme France
Aerial view clearly showing the trench lines
Photo courtesy Mike Insall © 1999
First Aid Nursing Yeoman
Serving trays of food outside their hut in Calais
THE OWL by EDWARD THOMAS
Downhill I came, hungry, and yet not starved;
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the North wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.
Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl's cry, a most melancholy cry
Shaken out long and clear upon the hill,
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.
And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird's voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.
'This item is from The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford (www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit); © [Copyright notice]'.
WW1 Ration Book
British Soldier's Daily Ration - 1914
20 oz. Fresh or frozen meat, or 16 oz. preserved or salt meat
20 oz. bread, or 16 oz. biscuit or flour
4 oz. bacon
3 oz. cheese
5/8 oz. tea
4 oz. jam
3 oz. sugar
1/2 oz. salt
1/36 oz. pepper
1/20 oz. mustard
8 oz. fresh or 2 oz. dried vegetables
1/10 gill lime juice if vegetable not issued (for scurvey)
1/2 gill rum (at discretion of commanding general)
not to exceed 20 oz. tobacco per week
The most important nourishment of the day was the tot of rum which gave them the courage for going over the top....
4 oz. oatmeal or rice instead bread
1/3 oz. chocolate instead of tea.
1 pint porter instead of rum
4 oz. dried fruit instead of jam
4 oz. butter, lard, or margarine, or 1/2 gill oil instead of bacon
Transporting rations from headquarters behind the lines was a risky business and the troops often cooked up their own meals in the trenches.
German Soldier's Daily Ration - 1914
26 1/2 oz. bread or 17 1/2 oz. field biscuit, or 14 oz. egg biscuit
13 oz. fresh or frozen meat, or 7 oz. preserved meat
53 oz. potatoes, or 4 1/2 oz. vegetables, or 2 oz. dried vegetables, or 21 oz. mixed potatoes and dried vegetables
9/10 oz. coffee, or 1/10 oz. tea
7/10 oz. sugar
9/10 oz. salt
2 cigars and 2 cigarettes, or 1 oz. pipe tobacco, or 9/10 oz. plug tobacco, or 1/5 oz. snuff (at discretion of commanding officer)
0.17 pint spirits
0.44 pint wine
0.88 pint beer
Book published 1917
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