During the Great War, New Zealand troops fought as a part of British Empire forces, as such they tended to eat the same food or “rations” as the British. For the most part this consisted of staples: “bully” or tinned corn beef, tinned meat & vegetable stew, army biscuits, bacon, jam, bread, sugar and tea. Occasionally the troops would receive such items as butter, fruit, chocolate, fresh/dried vegetables, cheese & fresh meat usually in base areas. The food was commonly transported to the trenches in a burlap sandbag and often arrived broken, mixed together and full of mud.
Australian soldiers enjoying a hot meal in the trenches. To carry the hot stew and tea, petrol tins and hot food containers were used, France 1917.
Officers tended to eat better than enlisted men, partially because they provided supplement food for themselves as “mess” rations. Fortunum and Mason, Harrods and Selfridge’s partially made their names by supplying food in “hamper” form to the frontline officer messes. Such exotic delicacies as potted hare/tinned ham/foie gras/jellied eels/candied fruit as well as wine and port were staple items sent out from “Blighty”.
Major Graham wrote a letter to his family about the food supplied to soldiers on the Western Front.
“I am sorry you should have the wrong impression about the food; we always had more than enough, both to eat and drink. I give you a day’s menu at random: Breakfast – bacon and tomatoes, bread, jam, and cocoa. Lunch – shepherd’s pie, potted meat, potatoes, bread and jam. Tea – bread and jam. Supper – ox-tail soup, roast beef, whisky and soda, leeks, rice pudding, coffee. We have provided stores of groceries and Harrods have been ordered to send us out a weekly parcel….” Arthur, Max. (2002). Forgotten Voices of the Great War: A New History of WWI in the Words of the Men and Women Who Were There. London:Ebury books.
The diet was also supplemented with food items sent from home. A parcel sent from London would arrive in France in only 3 days, those from Australia and New Zealand took up to 6 weeks. Cakes, biscuits & loaves were common items: think ANZAC biscuits & heavy fruit cake. Estaminets, or small local cafes, also provided extra food for troops on leave, the classic “frites et ouvres” (chips and eggs) cost the equvilant of one days pay for an enlisted soldier.
Obviously, getting fresh hot food from a field kitchen to the front lines was impossible when a battle was raging. Soldiers lucky enough to have a small stove, or even candles, would boil up any available food including stale biscuits or add these to the canned food provided.
There is a very informative article in the Listener for the week of April 19-25th 2014 which discusses the rations New Zealand troops ate and how they affected their battle performance.
Below is a recipe you can try for yourself; known simply as Trench Stew it utilises common ingredients the front line troops would have to hand.
Trench Stew Preparation Time: 5 minutes
Cooking Time: 15 minutes
Number of servings: 3 – 4
Serving suggestions: For authenticity, allow to cool and serve with a cup of stewed tea (mud and flies optional)
- 1 turnip (or parsnip/potatoe)
- 2 carrots
- ½ tin corned beef
- ¼ stock cube
- one or two biscuits (optional)*
- 1 pint of water
- Put the water on to boil
- Slice up the turnip and carrot
- Add to the boiling water
- Add the stock and stir then leave for 10 minutes
- Mash up corned beef and add to the mixture
- Add the biscuits and stir (optional)
Give it a try!
* In a letter to his parents, Private Pressey of the Royal Artillery described the quality of the food men were receiving on the Western Front. Here he is talking about the notorious Army biscuit:
“The biscuits are so hard that you had to put them on a firm surface and smash them with a stone or something. I’ve held one in my hand and hit the sharp corner of a brick wall and only hurt my hand. Sometimes we soaked the smashed fragments in water for several days. Then we would heat and drain, pour condensed milk over a dishful of the stuff and get it down.” Arthur, Max. (2002). Forgotten Voices of the Great War: A New History of WWI in the Words of the Men and Women Who Were There. London: Ebury books.