Exactly one hundred years ago the British army was preparing for the start of a battle that was to define the experience of the Great War not just for those who fought in it and the families waiting at home, but for generations of Britons to follow. In the face of the suffering - 19,000 British dead on the first day - the mundane issues of logistics and supply pale, but the story of the feeding of the huge armies massed in northern France is one of which the army was proud. The official statistics for the war state that the provisioning challenge was well met, any shortages were temporary and the 4,193 calories specified in the Field Ration were delivered almost without fail to the waiting troops. Yet many of the men on, or even in, the ground had a different perspective and that was especially so when this mainly static war of attrition shifted to one of movement, whether that be a retreat as in Mons in 1914 or a major push forward such as that which began on 1st July 1916.
The crisis caused by a shortage of shells in 1915 had taught the army that it was better for men to go hungry rather than starve the guns of ammunition, this meant that the huge logistical movements before and during the battle privileged the supply of ordnance over that of food. A.E. Perriman fought on the Somme and recalled the rations for the 7th July 1916: 'For 52 of us I was allocated one and a half loaves of bread, a piece of boiled bacon weighing about 16 ounces after the mud had been removed, a small quantity of [hardtack] biscuits, some currants and sultanas, and a petrol tin of tea.' Hardly the daily pound of meat and pound of bread that the regulations stated each man could expect.
Feeding men on the move was difficult, but hot food was important to morale and the army did its best to get the travelling cookers within reach of as many as possible. The vats invariably contained stew, and while the army cookbooks listed many different recipes, the one favoured by hard-pressed army cooks was an amalgam of pretty much anything that was going. In his account Twelve Days on the Somme, Lieutenant Sidney Rogerson praised those stews, writing that they 'usually tasted good, even if, as sometimes happened, a kipper or two had found their way among the meat, vegetables and biscuits'. His enthusiasm may have been fuelled by the fact that he rarely ate it; officers generally made their own eating arrangements and were far less dependent on the army's offerings than the rank and file soldiers.
If food was in short supply, compensation was sometimes offered in the form of a double rum ration. The rum helped to keep the cold out in the wet and muddy trenches and, of course, it also served to fire the soldiers up for what was to come - 'going over the top' was marginally more palatable when a man had just had his shot of spirit. Double rations might also be given before a major offensive such as the Somme, but all too often - as the postcard suggests - the supplies ran out before they reached their destination. British army rum jars were stamped 'S.R.D.' for Supply Reserve Depot, but the men reckoned it stood for 'Seldom Reaches Destination' or 'Soon Runs Dry' and many of their songs, such as 'Never Mind', reflected that cynicism:
If the sergeant drinks your rum, never mind.
And your face may lose its smile, never mind
He's entitled to a tot but not the bleeding lot
If the sergeant drinks your rum, never mind
Whatever food or drink was available it had to be consumed in a world where the likelihood of enjoying any future meals was determined by factors that extended way beyond mere issues of supply. As one of Perriman's hungry soldiers said to him on receiving the miniscule rations for that day in July, 'Say, Sarge, the buggers don't intend us to die on a full stomach, do they?'
Dr Rachel Duffett is based at the University of Essex and also the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded Everyday Lives in War Engagement Centre at the University of Hertfordshire. She is also the author of "The Stomach for Fighting: Food and the Soldiers of the Great War", which was published in 2012.
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