Rations and rashers: Great War nosh

Both at home and on the front, portions varied considerably throughout the years of World War One, depending on the efficiency of food production and supply chains, and on the government policy of the moment. If yesterday’s Guardian is to be believed, the German populace must have thought that Christmas had come early in the spring of 1915, when the imperial government ordered the mass slaughter of 9 million pigs. Hurrah, bacon and sausages for every table!

However, the government wasn’t being generous. It had taken the advice of physiologist Nathan Zuntz, who had raised concerns that pigs were competing with the German people for supplies of grain and potatoes, two key sources of nutrition, and that one or other would have to go hungry in the end. He himself had already lost weight due to the wartime dietary restrictions caused by blockades and import bans, and he pointed out that it was more efficient to consume the calories at their source, rather than further down the food chain in the form of meat.

The article concludes that the policy was ultimately a failure, as after the temporary pork glut the call for the tasty meat stayed high, while supplies inevitably declined, pushing prices sky-high. The remaining pigs, meanwhile, were fed ever-larger portions to fatten them up. Furthermore, in the run-up to World War Two Nazi sympathisers spread rumours that the slaughter had been masterminded by Jews keen to disrupt the country’s agricultural output and starve the people. What a load of hogwash! Read more here: http://www.theguardian.com/world/the-h-word/2014/jul/07/saving-the-bacon-during-the-first-world-war.

In fairness to the German government, the fact that Germany was losing the food war does seem to be supported by figures of allocated troop rations of various nations given in Mark Adkin’s The Western Front Companion. Here’s what the troops were theoretically entitled to:


Meat- (fresh or frozen) 1 ¼ lb; or preserved (tinned) 1lb (cut to 1 lb and 12oz respectively by 1915)

Bread- 1 ¼ lb (cut to 1lb in Jan 1917), or biscuit or flour, 12 oz.

Bacon- 4 oz

Cheese- 3 oz (2 oz by Jan 1917)

Vegetables- 8 oz fresh or 2 oz dried

Jam- 4 oz (usually Tickler’s plum & apple)

Sugar- 3 oz

Tea- just over ½ oz

Pickles- 1 oz/week

Oatmeal 3x/week

Small amounts mustard and pepper

1 tin condensed milk/20 men

Butter (extra only, and none from 1 July 1917)

Daily tot rum

The book tots the full ration up as 4,193 calories per day. The Germans, in comparison, got more bread and vegetables but less meat (perhaps due to the sudden shortage of pigs), so they were entitled to just 4,083 calories (the US troops got a comparitively generous 4,714 calories, with more vegetables and meat on offer). Unlike the Brits they were given no tea, only mineral water, and a tot of spirits or a sip of wine was only allowed if deemed medically necessary.

All rations were, of course, theoretical. Supplies came from thousands of miles away, so even if it arrived promptly, food could be dirty, wet or spoiled. It might be cooked behind the front line and delivered forwards by fatigue parties at night, so that it arrived cold or lukewarm at best. Sometimes the couriers were attacked or tripped over, so that the food landed in the mud. If food was cooked at the front fuel was often hard to obtain, and wood from the trenches was sometimes pressed into action, undermining the condition of these structures. When supply lines were shelled, often troops on both sides had nothing but emergency rations to eat for several days, except emergency rations if, and only if, given orders to do so by an officer. When the fighting was fierce, nobody had time to sleep, let alone eat. 

Horses, meanwhile, fared worse than the men. Although they were at the time critical to a functioning army, it was sometimes impossible to import the sheer quantities of oats, hay and water needed to keep them healthy. The condition of an army’s supply chain could be fairly judged by looking at the condition of their animals. Perhaps the pigs back in Germany were lucky, after all, to have been dispatched quickly and spared the indignity of a slow starvation as supplies dwindled.


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