An army of mouths: Feeding the CEF in World War I

An estaminet near Mericourt, France. [no date]. A.S. English Fonds. Collections CCGW/CCGG.
An estaminet near Mericourt, France. [no date]. A.S. English Fonds. Collections CCGW/CCGG.
Most diaries and memoirs from the Great War acknowledge that the food on the Front was not great, if not downright inedible. Soldiers’ marching songs recounted the boring military diet with lines like “ we poor blokes| We only get-| Apple and plum” (When the Bloody War is Over, 84), in reference to the apple and plum jam given to the front line troops, and many men years later remembered receiving maconochie meat stew in tins.

Even if it was monotonous, feeding an army remained one of the most difficult tasks of the war; it was said that men marched on their bellies and if soldiers were not kept at least somewhat satisfied, their performance dipped accordingly.

For the majority of the war, as a member of the British Empire, the CEF received rations similar to those of their counterparts in the BEF. Salted or canned meat, hardtack biscuit, bacon to be fried in the morning, cheese, tea, jam, sugar and perhaps most importantly, army issued tobacco and rum. All of these were weighed out and distributed to each soldier from general stores.

Those on the front lines had to be resupplied by rations parties, which meant that during heavy action many companies went un-fed as the carrying parties presented prime shelling targets. At the Battle of Courcelette, the 22nd Battalion went without a resupply of food or water for four days while holding the village; while lengthy, their experience was probably typical of most battalions during battle.

Soldiers supplemented their diet through a variety of ways; those lucky enough to have family at home frequently received care packages and charities frequently collected money and goods to send to men on the front. When received, these were usually split amongst friends or even an entire company if there was enough. Soldiers also practised “scrounging” or foraging, a euphemism for what in some cases amounted to petty theft.

French farmers in the occupied areas on both sides of the front often found themselves less a pig or a few chickens, though they were permitted to file claims with the local military authority to receive reimbursement. When at rest behind the lines, soldiers could also use their pay to buy meals at local estaminets, small impromptu restaurants usually begun by French women in their houses to earn extra money. The estaminets were expensive and a private soldier could easily spend their entire pay packet in a night if they were on a bender.

Today, with the modern military’s high-tech approach to food, it’s hard to believe that so many people could live for so long on such a poor diet. However, the First World War was one of the first large-scale conflicts during which armies ensured a largely regular supply of food for their men. Looking at the British Empire alone, which supplied food to millions of men on several fronts, the organisation and resources required were enormous. Bland though it might have been, the average Empire soldier could count on at least one square meal a day.

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