Trench Food

A total of 3,240,948 tons of food was sent from Britain to the soldiers fighting in France and Belgium during the First World War. The British Army employed 300,000 field workers to cook and supply the fot it took up to eight days before bread reached the front-line and so it was invariably stale. So also were the biscuits and the soldiers attempted to solve this problem by breaking them up, adding potatoes, onions, sultanas or whatever was available, and boiling the mixture up in a sandbag.

Gilbert Rogers painted this picture of twostretcher-bearers trying to prepare hot food.
Gilbert Rogers painted this picture of two
stretcher-bearers trying to prepare hot food.

The catering staff put the food in dixies (cooking pots), petrol cans or old jam jars and carried it up the communication trenches in straw-lined boxes. By the time the food reached the front-line it was always cold. Eventually the army moved the field kitchens closer to the front-line but they were never able to get close enough to provide regular hot food for the men. Sometimes a small group of soldiers managed to buy a small primus stove between them. When they could obtain the fuel, which was always in short supply, they could heat their food and brew some tea.

General John Monash pointed out: "It takes a couple of thousand men and horses with hundreds of wagons, and 118 huge motor lorries, to supply the daily wants of my population of 20,000. With reference to food we also have to see that all the men in the front lines regularly get hot food - coffee, oxo, porridge, stews."

On 18th March 1915 Harold Chapin wrote to his mother: "We are fed on Bully Beef (ordinary Fray Bentos, you know the brand) and lovely hard biscuits which I adore. Last night I added to my menu a bloater and some bread and marmalade, duff and coffee".

Food was often supplied in cans. Maconochie contained sliced turnips and carrots in a thin soup. As one soldier said: "Warmed in the tin, Maconochie was edible; cold it was a mankiller." The British Army tried to hide this food shortage from the enemy. However, when they announced that British soldiers were being supplied with two hot meals a day, they received over 200,000 letters from angry soldiers pointing out the truth of the situation. Men claimed that although the officers were well-fed the men in the trenches were treated appallingly.

Harry Patch later reported: "Our rations - you were lucky if you got some bully beef and a biscuit. You couldn't get your teeth into it. Sometimes if they shelled the supply lines you didn't get anything for days on end. There were five in a machine-gun team, and everything we had was shared amongst us. I used to get a parcel from home. My mother knew the grocer pretty well."

Food supply was a major problem when soldiers advanced into enemy territory. All men carried emergency food called iron rations. This was a can of bully beef, a few biscuits and a sealed tin of tea and sugar. These iron rations could only be opened with the permission of an officer. This food did not last very long and if the kitchen staff were unable to provide food to the soldiers they might be forced to retreat from land they had won from the enemy.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) 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.

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.

(2) Richard Beasley was interviewed in 1993 about his experiences during the First World War.

In training the food was just about eatable but in France we were starving. All we lived on was tea and dog biscuits. If we got meat once a week we were lucky, but imagine trying to eat standing in a trench full of water with the smell of dead bodies nearby.

(3) Harold Chapin, letter to Calypso Chapin (29th November 1914)

We are getting if possible busier and busier. A Brigade Order arriving last night fairly late involved getting breakfast for all troops at 7.30 instead Of 7.45 and 8 (two batches) which meant up before 5 and out in the rain (it was pouring) by 5.30 all the wood sopping: the fire trench half full of water and the carts and waggons being loaded and got out all over the shop.

We are being sorted into jobs. I fancy I shall stay on cooking. This is good because it is as useful a job as is going and one that demands conscientious hard work still it does not involve going into the actual firing line - a thing I have no ambition to do. Stray shell fire and epidemics are all I want to face thank you, let those who like the firing line have all the bullets they want.

(4) 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. However, if you like to send us an occasional luxury it would be very welcome.

(5) Robert Graves wrote about his experiences of the First World War in his autobiography, Goodbye to all That. This passage refers to an attack where the battalion suffered very heavy casualties. Only three junior officers, Choate, Henry and Hill survived.

Hill told me the story. The Colonel and Adjutant were sitting down to a meat pie when Hill arrived. Henry said: "Come to report, sir. Ourselves and about ninety men of all companies."

They looked up. "So you have survived, have you?" the Colonel said. "Well all the rest are dead. I suppose Mr. Choate had better command what's left of 'A'. The bombing officer (he had not gone over, but remained at headquarters) will command what's left of 'B'. Mr. Henry goes to 'C' Company. Mr. Hill to 'D'. Let me know where to find you if you are needed. Good night."

Not having being offered a piece of meat pie or a drink of whisky, they saluted and went miserably out. The Adjutant called them back, Mr. Hill, Mr. Henry."

Hill said he expected a change of mind of mind as to the propriety with which hospitality could be offered by a regular Colonel and Adjutant to a temporary second lieutenant in distress. But it was only: "Mr. Hill, Mr. Henry, I saw some men in the trench just now with their shoulder-straps unbuttoned. See that this does not occur in future."

(6) Private Harold Horne, Northumberland Fusiliers, interviewed 1978.

Ration parties from each company in the line went to carry back the rations which were tied in sandbags and consisted, usually, of bread, hard biscuits, tinned meat (bully) in 12 oz. tins, tinned jam, tinned butter, sugar and tea, pork and beans (baked beans with a piece of pork fat on top), cigarettes and tobacco. Sometimes we got Manconochie Rations. This was a sort of Irish stew in tins which could be quickly heated over a charcoal brazier. When it was possible to have a cookhouse within easy reach of trenches, fresh meat, bacon, vegetables, flour, etc. would be sent up and the cooks could produce reasonably good meals. Food and tea was sent along in 'dixies' (large iron containers the lid of which could be used as a frying pan).

(7) General John Monash, letter (11th January 1917)

The big question is, of course, the food and ammunition supply, the former term covering meat, bread, groceries, hay, straw, oats, wood, coal, paraffin and candles, the latter comprising cartridges, shells, shrapnel, bombs, grenades, flares, and rockets. It takes a couple of thousand men and horses with hundreds of wagons, and 118 huge motor lorries, to supply the daily wants of my population of 20,000.

With reference to food we also have to see that all the men in the front lines regularly get hot food - coffee, oxo, porridge, stews. They cannot cook it themselves, for at the least sign of the smoke of a fire the spot is instantly shelled. And they must get it regularly or they would perish of cold or frostbite, or get 'trench feet,' which occasionally means amputation.

(8) General Sixt von Armin, report published by the German Army during the First World War.

It is necessary that fresh troops going into the line, when the precise state of the battle is uncertain, should be supplied with the 3rd iron ration. All troops were unanimous in their request for increased supplies of bread, rusks, sausage, tinned sausages, tinned fat, bacon, tinned and smoked meat, and tobacco, in addition. There was also urgent need for solidified alcohol for the preparation of hot meals.

In various quarters, the necessity for a plentiful supply of liquid refreshments of all kinds, such as coffee, tea, cocoa, mineral waters, etc., is emphasized still more. On the other hand, the supply of salt herrings, which increase the thirst, was found to be, as a general rule, very undesirable. There is no necessity for an issue of alcoholic drink in warm and dry weather.

(9) Harold Chapin, letter to Calypso Chapin (18th March 1915)

We are fed on Bully Beef (ordinary Fray Bentos, you know the brand) and lovely hard biscuits which I adore. Last night I added to my menu a bloater and some bread and marmalade, "duff" and coffee - having scraped an acquaintance with some of the engine room artificers who invited me to sup in the fo'castle. It was very hot in there but we supped in low neck. Great fun!

(10) Harry Patch, Last Post (2005)

Our rations - you were lucky if you got some bully beef and a biscuit. You couldn't get your teeth into it. Sometimes if they shelled the supply lines you didn't get anything for days on end. There were five in a machine-gun team, and everything we had was shared amongst us. I used to get a parcel from home. My mother knew the grocer pretty well. There was always an ounce of tobacco and two packets of twenty cigarettes. That was handed to Number One to share out. That ounce of tobacco - Number Three was a pipe-smoker, same as I was - was cut in half. He had half and I had half. The cigarettes - thirteen each for the others and they took it in turns to have the odd one. And if you got a pair of socks, and somebody else had a pair with holes in, they'd chuck them away and they'd have the new ones. That was the life we lived because we never knew from one moment to the next when something would come over with our number on...

Drink was either weak tea or water drunk from old petrol cans. As for food, we had Crosse & Blackwell's plum and apple jam and dog biscuits. The biscuits were so hard we used to throw them away. One day I looked through the metal aperture that we used to fire through, and two dogs were out there fighting over one of our biscuits. They were fighting over which one should have it. Their owners had probably been killed by shell fire. They were simply strays. They were fighting over a biscuit to keep alive. I thought to myself, "Well, I don't know, there's two animals out there fighting for their lives, and here we are, two highly civilised nations, and what are we fighting over?"