Rations and consolations

British army biscuit photo frame © IWM (EPH 1513)

At breaks for breakfast, dinner and tea, men would have their basic ration in the trenches: fresh, frozen or tinned meat, bread or hard biscuit, bacon, cheese, tea, jam and dried or fresh vegetables, along with salt, pepper and mustard. The British army biscuits were so hard that they were often carved into souvenirs like the framed photo shown here.

Maconochie tin © IWM (EPH 4379)

Maconochie tin © IWM (EPH 4379)

By late in the war, rations were being reduced as food became scarce. Soldiers were issued bully beef (corned beef) and tins of maconochie – a stew made of turnips, potatoes, carrots and fatty meat – with hard biscuits.

They often cooked for themselves and sometimes field kitchens were sometimes set up behind the lines, but during battles this would have been impossible and the men had their rations cold.

The daily ration of thick, dark rum (alcohol content a whopping 54%) was introduced to help soldiers cope with the cold in the first winter of trench warfare. The rum ration was usually issued each morning but sometimes more often, for instance before an attack or raid or if heavy casualties had decreased demand. Teetotallers were sometimes known to rub it on their feet. It arrived in stoneware gallon jars, enough for 64 men, stamped with S.R.D. This stood for Service Rations Depot, but soldiers had other interpretations: Seldom Reaches Destination, Soon Runs Dry and Services Rum Diluted were a few. Soldiers could also receive two ounces of pipe tobacco or cigarettes each week, at the discretion of the commanding general.

Service Reserve Depot rum bottle © Centre for Battlefield Archaeology

Service Reserve Depot rum bottle © Centre for Battlefield Archaeology

Troops serving on the Western Front wore the 1902 Pattern Service Dress tunic and trousers, of thick wool dyed knaki green, with a woollen collarless shirt, puttees and cap. The uniforms offered poor protection against freezing and wet conditions. Some men also had woollen greatcoats, although these were not standard issue.

The Government and regimental associations went to great lengths to prop up soldiers’ morale by providing comforts and news from home. A relay system of lorries, trains and ships transported about 19,000 sacks of mail each week (increasing to 500,000 over Christmas 1917), with letters and parcels taking only two days to reach the Front. Sitting in his dugout in France or Flanders, a soldier might enjoy an apple picked in his own garden in Scotland a few days earlier.

As the war ground on and casualties mounted, many soldiers developed a strong sense of fatalism as a way of coping with the conflict’s random cruelty. Some found refuge in their religious beliefs or developed complex superstitions. For example, it was considered unlucky to strike a match three times to light a cigarette, because it would attract sniper fire.