Barnsley's wartime bantams and hungry times on battlefront and at home

A poster advertising Maconochie's field rations,. famously unpopular with troops
A poster advertising Maconochie's field rations,. famously unpopular with troops
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I had hoped to provide some examples of food eaten by the army in the First World War at the launch of my book Great Sacrifice at Barnsley’s History Day tomorrow (Sunday March 20).

Unfortunately, regulations for Barnsley Town Hall prevented me from doing this, so I wrote an article instead.

A quartermaster doling out field rations

A quartermaster doling out field rations

When war broke out in August 1914, one of the concerns about recruiting volunteers was their stature and fitness because of the poor diet among the population. The promise of regular, nutritious meals encouraged many men to enlist.

When Barnsley wanted to recruit a second Pals battalion in December 1914, the issue of malnutrition stunting growth had became apparent.

One councillor asked if the height measurement could be reduced from 5ft 3ins to 5ft 2ins as “there were a lot of little men in Barnsley who were quite as good for fighting as big men”. This was agreed at about the same time as the Bantam Battalions were formed in Cheshire for fit men up to 5ft tall.

Although the need for a fit army to have a healthy, varied diet was well known – the phrase ‘an army marches on its stomach’ is attributed to both Napoleon Bonaparte and Frederick the Great – prior to the establishment of the Army School of Cookery in 1885 there was no training for army cooks.

It is easy to forget how labour-intensive life in a kitchen was 100 years ago but this was many times harder for soldiers in wartime, who were regularly on the move and often at a distance from a water supply.

Instructions for preparing a new iron pot required a handful of sweet hay or grass to be boiled in it before being scrubbed with sand and soap, after which water had to be boiled up for 30 minutes.

In the early days of war, each soldier received 10oz meat plus 8oz vegetables every day. These were often fresh while training at home, but the logistics of transporting and maintaining fresh food overseas resulted in an increasing use of tinned or dried products, notably bully (corned) beef, Maconochie and regulation biscuits.

They also had a little cheese, jam and occasionally bacon, with plenty of tea and condensed milk, plus a regular tot of rum, watered down.

The very hard army biscuits made by Huntley and Palmer were compared to dog biscuits and needed to be soaked in tea or water before being eaten.

Among the stringent medical tests on enlistment was an inspection of the recruit’s teeth. In 1914, local newspapers reported that the rule, whereby a man could be rejected on the basis of having any bad teeth, had been relaxed provided the “general condition of mouth is such that they could masticate the tough foods served out in the field”.

Maconochie was tinned meat with carrots, turnips and potatoes in a thin gravy, named after the Aberdeen company that manufactured it from its introduction in the Boer War.

It was disliked by many soldiers when served hot according to instructions, but it was often eaten cold for days while in the trenches, when it was said to be disgusting.

The Defence of the Realm Act 1914 (DORA) was passed within four days of the outbreak of war, introducing powers to “secure public safety”.

In addition to press censorship, powers to requisition land and buildings and an aim to prevent food shortages, it controlled the use of alcohol and banned feeding bread to chickens or horses.

The navy blockaded enemy ports to starve them into submission but Germany developed submarine warfare to destroy supply ships.

The Ministry of Food was set up in 1916 to make Britain more self-reliant. The Women’s Land Army was created and rationing introduced of dairy products, meat, sugar and other items in short supply.

With the increased number of troops to feed, meat was reduced to 6oz per day, and they often felt hungry, although the propaganda machine made those at home and the enemy believe that they were well fed.

Letters home were full of comments or complaints about the inadequate, boring and usually cold food as men asked family and friends for extra items – often chocolate and sweet stuff – to be sent to them in parcels along with other necessary items and cigarettes.

The soldiers’ pay was often used to supplement their meagre diet by purchasing eggs from French farmers, who were happy to exploit the situation, in addition to wine or beer at local estaminets.

Mary Clarissa (May) Byron was a poet and writer of biographies, best known for her abridgements of the J M Barrie Peter Pan novels.

In 1915, May produced two cookery books with recipes designed to cope with rationing.

Some of her suggestions for making ‘the best of a bad job’ are unappetising by modern standards, for example bullock’s heart, calf’s feet or stuffed head, cow heel and tripe pie, while others are surprising in their cosmopolitan variety, from curry to Spanish dolmas to Jamaica fritters.

May’s trench pudding, comprising boiled rice, cocoa butter, dried egg with a few chopped dates and a little sugar, bears no resemblance to the modern trench cake recipe I found on the internet. That substitutes vinegar and baking soda for eggs to make the cake rise.

n Barnsley History Day is at the Town Hall tomorrow, Sunday, from 11am to 3pm and entry is free. It features free family activities, pop-up shops, film shows, exhibition stalls, object handling, tours, talks and more.

A quartermaster doling out rations in the battlefield; below, an illustration of what was rationed at home

A poster for Maconochie’s world-famous rations – hated by soldiers at the front