Most of the US new is passing over the World War I centennial, but for Britain, it was such a powerful force in their history, their papers are covering it in somewhat continuous detail.
They say an army marches on its stomach, so feeding the two million men who were in the trenches at the height of the First World War was some task. It was a great achievement that in the entire conflict not one British soldier starved to death.
Yet no one should think that the Tommies enjoyed the food that was served up by the military. According to the wags on the frontline, the biggest threat to life was not German bullets but the appalling rations.
Most despised was Maconochie, named after the company in Aberdeen that made this concoction of barely recognisable chunks of fatty meat and vegetables in thin gravy.
When served hot, as per the instructions on the tin, it was said to be barely edible. Eaten cold for days on end in the trenches, where a warm meal was usually no more than a fantasy, it was said to be disgusting.
It was the stated aim of the British Army that each soldier should consume 4,000 calories a day. At the frontline, where conditions were frequently appalling, daily rations comprised 9oz of tinned meat (today it would be known as corned beef but during the First World War it was called bully beef) or the hated Maconochie.
Additionally the men received biscuits (made from salt, flour and water and likened by the long-suffering troops to dog biscuits). They were produced under government contract by Huntley & Palmers, which in 1914 was the world’s largest biscuit manufacturer. The notoriously hard biscuits could crack teeth if they were not first soaked in tea or water.
Simply adding tinned beef that could be issued to individuals was something of a major advance in ration technology. On the other hand, the Brits have never been famous for their cuisine, and such a limited menu would quickly become very monotonous. Coupled with the difficulties in heating the food, it’s not hard to see why the average Tommy was disappointed with his rations.
When we think of a military ration today, the MRE springs to mind. In fact, the term ration is a technical one, meaning all the food intended for one soldier, for one complete day. Back in the days before the MRE, the C-Ration or the K-Ration, when the Quartermaster delivered food to a troop unit, it was fresh or canned food in bulk. How much food to deliver was computed by multiplying the daily ration for, say, beef, by the number of troops in a given unit. For instance, if the ration called for 1-1/4 pounds of fresh meat per day, per soldier, and a rifle company had 150 troops, the Quartermaster knew to deliver 187.5 pounds of meat.
As the article notes, how the troops might be expected to cook such a ration was their problem, not the Quartermaster’s. Obviously, that changed over the course of the war. The US Army faced many of the same challenges in feeding its troops in World War I. As a result of the dissatisfaction with field feeding in the Great War, a truly massive effort was put into improving the Army’s field feeding in World War II, resulting not just in the aforementioned C-Ration and K-Ration, but improved methods of transporting fresh and frozen foods, a much improved Army wide methodology of procuring rations, increased numbers of cooks, vastly improved field kitchens, and means of transporting hot foods forward.