World War I Food: Eating in a Trench

World War I Food: Eating in a Trench


“An army marches on its stomach”: these words have been attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte. The famous French general (and, later, emperor) believed that, in order to win a war, feeding troops is as important as training and arming them. His opinion proved right especially during World War 1, when food played a critical role in the balance of power between the warring sides. Let’find out why!

World War I Food: Eating in a Trench (img-01, img-02)


The First World War: a bit of history.

World War I Food: Attack in Sarajevo, 'Domenica del Corriere' (img-03)

The First World War began on 28 July, 1914. The spark that led to the explosion of the conflict was an attack in the city of Sarajevo: a tragic event where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were assassinated by a political extremist. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, considering the Kingdom of Serbia responsible for what happened, began the hostilities. The golden age of Europe, the ‘Belle Epoque’, had to give way to a clash of nations of unprecedented proportions: that’s why it’s still remembered as the ‘Great War’.

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The warring sides.

World War I Food: the warring sides.

A complex system of alliances gradually involved in the hostilities a great number of countries. The two warring sides were:

  • The Central Powers, including (among the others) the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire.
  • The Allies, including (among the others) France, the British Empire, the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Serbia. These were later joined by the Empire of Japan, the Kingdom of Italy, the Kingdom of Romania, the United States and the Kingdom of Greece.

The causes.

It’s important to stress the fact that the attack in Sarajevo was just a triggering event, the final step of a complex situation worsened over the years. The real causes of the war were many, among them:
The desire of the German Empire to play a strong political role on the international stage.
The necessity of the authoritarian regimes to harness the socialist movements threatening their power.

A war of position.

World War I Food: Battle of the Somme, communication trench (img-04)

A quick attack by the German Army to the Netherlands and to Northern France, seemed to decide the outcome of the conflict a few months after its beginning. The Central Powers tried their best to achieve a fast victory, quite aware of the many unknowns associated to a prolonged war effort. Their hopes were shattered by the fierce resistance of the French troops. The advance was stopped during the famous Battle of the Marne. The soldiers of both sides had to take refuge in trenches dug along a never ending frontline: a bloody and grueling war of attrition had just begun.

The lack of food.

World War I Food: British battleship HMS Irresistible (img-05)

Fields were devastated by the fury of battles or abandoned by farmers forced to join the army. This caused a considerable reduction in agricultural production. The resulting food shortages were further aggravated by naval blockades and submarine attacks, preventing any attempt to get supplies. The Central Powers found themselves in serious trouble, even more than the Allied Nations. Their resources were in fact extremely limited and in great part used to support soldiers. In the cities people started to die of hunger: malnutrition killed thousands, causing numerous revolts.

The United States of America enter the war.

The entry of the United States into the conflict marked its turning point: the huge amount of fresh troops and supplies they sent, were crucial to put an end to the war.


The ‘Great War’: a new kind of war.

World War I Food: soldier and machine-gun (img-06)

To understand how much feeding troops tipped the balance of power during the Great War, it’s important to explain first the huge difference between this conflict and the previous ones.
The hostilities broke out in 1914, involving, one after the other, a great number of nations. The almost romantic idea, legacy of the Napoleonic era, of opposing armies fighting each other with honor, vanished almost immediately. When the first charge of heavy cavalry, until then considered the most powerful weapon, was easily annihilated by machine-guns, it became clear to everyone that something was definitely changed and it was thus necessary to completely rethink the way of fighting. After a few attacks of this type, the frontline stabilized.

Troops, desperately seeking refuge from new, deadly weapons, found shelter in the trenches: deep holes in the ground, dug along the margins of the opposing battle lines.
A huge, monstrous serpent, cut Europe in half, from north to south.

World War I Food: Royal Irish Fusiliers in a trench (img-07)


The fundamental importance of food during the Great War.

World War I Food: Royal Irish Fusiliers in a trench (img-08) The commanders of both sides involved in the conflict, initially thought that their troops were going to stay in the trenches just for a brief period: they were wrong. Soldiers had in fact to remain inside of them for many years, killed in great number during frequent attacks to enemy positions: offensives as bloody as useless. What the generals planned as a short confrontation that would ensure a fast and glorious victory, turned into a nightmare: a long and grueling war of attrition. Among other things, it became quite clear that it was necessary to create a reliable system to feed a large number of men.

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Food was usually prepared in field kitchens located in the rear, places sometimes very distant from the endless front line: it was therefore inevitable that, after a long and difficult transport, rations reached their destinations in terrible conditions.
The quantity and quality of these rations, aspects initially underestimated, proved instead to be crucial for the war effort: something that could affect the morale and the performance of soldiers, greatly influencing their combat effectiveness.

It was evident that the faction that could better feed its troops, in the end would probably win the war.

Food acquired a fundamental role, becoming a kind of weapon, perhaps even the most effective. So it’s no coincidence that both sides tried to destroy enemy supplies whenever it was possible.


Different armies, different types of food.

World War I Food: Italian Alpine Troops (img-09)

The quantity and the quality of food provided to troops during the Great War, depended on many factors, including the place where they fought. Battlefields could be very different from each other: nothing to be surprised of, considering that they were scattered across all Europe and outside it. For example, some trenches were on the top of rugged mountains, while others were in the middle of endless plains. That’s why delivering rations, usually prepared in the rear, was often tremendously difficult.
Sometimes soldiers were lucky, thanks to the proximity of a precious supply line. In a few cases, they were stationed in relatively quiet areas and it was possible to hunt or to cultivate small vegetable gardens.
Here follows a general view about the food situation of both the warring factions:

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The Central Powers.

World War I Food: the Central Powers.

The Central Powers (*1) started the war believing it would be short (*2) and would lead to a fast and easy victory. That’s why they were completely unprepared to support a conflict lasting many years. About this, it’s important to remember that the German and the Austro-Hungarian troops received small rations of food since the beginning of the hostilities, something that was even more evident by confronting them to those provided to the enemy soldiers. This difference appeared quite clear also to the generals of the Kaiser: that’s why they tried almost immediately to cut the delivery of supplies to the Allied armies, using the infamous U-boats to sink their merchant ships.

The Allies.

World War I Food: the Allies.

From a nutritional point of view, the Allied troops (*3) were in a better condition than the enemy. This does not mean that the situation was good: soldiers had almost always to fight hunger. The turning point, both in terms of feeding and fighting, was the entry into the war of the AEF, the American Expeditionary Force: starting from 1917, the United States delivered in Europe not only a great number of fresh soldiers, but also a huge amount of supplies. This intervention shattered any attempt of resistance by the Central Powers, causing their ultimate defeat and ending the war.

*1: The ‘Central Powers’ included, among the others, the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire.
*2: Since the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the German generals were fascinated by the idea of a ‘lightning war’, the ‘blitzkrieg’: a method of warfare they successfully used during the Second World War.
3*: The ‘Allies’ included, among the others, France, the British Empire, the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Serbia, the Empire of Japan, the Reign of Italy, the Reign of Romania, the United States of America and the Reign of Greece.


Naval war starves the Central Powers.

Since the beginning of the Great War, each of the warring sides tried to starve the other. To reach this objective, they focused their efforts to destroy the enemy supplies. Great part of them was transported by merchant ships: that’s why the control over the seas became extremely important.

World War I Food: WWI U.S. Navy recruitment poster (img-10)

Even if the sneaky U-Boats caused great destruction, the naval blockades imposed by the Allied forces proved decisive. It has been estimated that in 1915, the German Empire lost almost half of the materials that used to received before.
The loss of fertilizers was particularly serious, causing in a few months a drastic decrease in agricultural production.
The plan organized by Hindenburg (*1) to optimize resources, had no other effect than prolonging the agony. Malnutrition shattered the morale of the troops, lacking the strength needed to fight. The number of victims among the civilians was huge.

*1: Paul von Hindenburg, German military officer, statesman, and politician.

World War I Food: sinking of a ship by a German submarine (img-11)


World War I Food: shrapnels, sawdust and turnips for the German soldier.

The German soldiers, especially near the end of the war, could enjoy many ‘delicacies’. Here follows a couple of examples:

World War I Food: the schrapnellsuppe. World War I Food: the schrapnellsuppe.

The ‘Schrapnellsuppe’.

The ‘Schrapnellsuppe’ (splinters soup), was particularly ‘appreciated’ by the troops of the Kaiser. This preparation was often served almost raw: for this reason peas, its main ingredient, were usually hard like bullet shrapnels, hence the name of the exquisite recipe.

World War I Food: bread, sawdust and turnips. World War I Food: bread, sawdust and turnips.

Bread, sawdust and turnips.

Due to the lack of supplies, the bread eaten by the German soldiers was often made using flour added with sawdust to increase its quantity.
This ‘exquisite’ bread was frequently accompanied by some very ‘tempting’ turnips jam.


World War I Food: ‘Maconochie’ and ‘Bully Beef’ for the British soldiers.

Among the various types of food eaten by British soldiers during the First World War, two are particularly interesting: the ‘Maconochie soup’ and the ‘bully beef’.

World War I Food: WWI mess tin (crt-01) World War I Food: WWI mess tin (crt-01)

The ‘Maconochie soup’.

The Maconochie canned soup was quite ‘famous’ among the British soldiers during the Great War. This does not mean that they loved it, quite the opposite: for them, it was a necessity, certainly not a pleasure. They despised it so much to say that when it was hot, it was barely edible, when it was cold, it could kill a man. The main ingredients of this preparation include beef, potatoes, carrots, onions, beans, flour, lard and salt.

World War I Food: trapezoidal can of corned beef (img-01) World War I Food: trapezoidal can of corned beef (img-01)

The ‘Bully Beef’.

‘Bully Beef’ is the english translation of the French ‘boeuf bouilli’. It’s basically corned beef, finely chopped and soaked in gelatin: it can be eaten spread on a slice of bread or directly from the metallic container.
Thanks to its ease of use, this product remained part of the ration of the British soldiers throughout the Twentieth Century, until its replacement in 2009.

It’s particularly interesting to remember what Harry Patch, one of the last veterans of the First World War, said about the rations he received at that time: “… you were lucky if you got some bully beef and a biscuit …”.

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The most typical specialties, the most traditional restaurants and producers.


World War I Food: different types of rations for the US soldiers.

World War I Food: US 64th regiment celebrate the Armistice (img-12)

During the Great War, the US Army proved to be very well prepared to feed its soldiers: this competence derived from specific studies about the nutrition of troops engaged in combat.
Thanks to these studies, the basic ‘garrison ration’, used since the Revolutionary War, was improved creating solutions designed to suit the needs of different warfare scenarios:

  • The ‘reserve ration’ was carried by every soldier in his backpack. It included canned meat, dried bread, sugar, coffee and salt. It was meant to be used when, for whatever reason, it was not possible to eat the food prepared in the field kitchens.
  • The ‘trench ration’ was designed to feed a certain number of soldiers. It was used when the food prepared in the field kitchens could be delivered. It included corned beef, sardines, salmon, coffee, salt, sugar and even cigarettes.
  • The ’emergency ration’ included highly caloric aliments, such as chocolate. Its most important feature was the great portability. It was also known as ‘armor ration’ or ‘iron ration’, because it was packed in metal containers that could resist to many of the dangers of the combat zones.

World War I Food: U.S. flags on the National Mall (cc-01)


World War I Food: living in a trench.

World War I Food: german trench occupied by British Soldiers (img-13)

At the beginning of the Great War, ‘trenches’ were nothing more than deep holes dug in the ground along the frontlines. Enemy positions were usually at a certain distance, on the other side of the ‘no man’s land’.
Even if many generals had predicted fast advances (and victories), during the conflict these frontlines remained stable for a long time: an unexpected stalemate that forced to transform these simple ditches, initially meant just to protect from artillery fire, into structures complex enough to accommodate thousands of soldiers.

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World War I Food: the trench.

The most common trench was about a meter and a half deep, the side facing the enemy lines was covered with sandbags. For many years, places like this became home to a great number of men. ‘Houses’ offering terrible living conditions. They were cold in winter and incredibly hot during summer. The lack of sewers made them dirty and smelly. When it rained, mud reached the knees. It was almost impossible to wash themselves. Rats and corpses everywhere. Food and water were scarce and awful.
An horrible situation worsened, if possible, by an unstoppable fear to die, shot by the enemy or killed during an assault.


The great use of tin cans.

A few months after the beginning of the First World War, it became very clear how complex it would be to provide supplies to troops living and fighting along an endless frontline. The distribution problems were worsened by frequent enemy attacks. Even in a situation difficult like this, it was still necessary to feed soldiers regularly, so that, if not bullets, they could at least survive hunger.

Canned food proved to be the best instrument to feed soldiers when normal rations could not be provided.

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Tin cans could contain a wide variety of aliments: meat, fish, butter, soups, ham etc. Their metallic coating and hermetic closure, not only ensured long keeping, but also protected the content from dirt and poisoning caused by lethal gas (*1). Thanks to these particular features, they were often the last resource (*2), that’s why sometimes it was necessary the permission of a senior officer to open them.
During the years of conflict, the armies of both sides used a huge number of tin cans: even today, after more than a century, rusty remnants of them can be found scattered around the old battlefields.

*1: Lethal gas was one of the weapons used by the German Army during the Great War.
*2: Soldiers had to carry in their backpack a few tin cans (at least in theory). In some particularly dangerous situations, their life could depend on them.


Napoleon, Appert and canned food.

World War I Food: Nicolas Appert (img-14)

It’s quite possible that tin cans would have been very useful to Napoleon Bonaparte in his war campaigns. So, it’s probably not a coincidence that, in a way, he was responsible for their invention, by organizing a contest to find a new method to preserve food.
The contest was won by the French chef Nicolas Appert: he created a procedure, the ‘appertisation’ (*1), which consisted in boiling food and sealing it in glass jars (*2).

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World War I Food: Philippe de Girard (img-15)

A few years later another Frenchman, the engineer Philippe de Girard (1775-1845), perfected this procedure by using tin containers.
Even if this technique is usually attributed to Peter Durand, many historians think that he was just the first to patent it in the UK and the US (*3).
In 1812 the English company Donkin and Hall paid Durand a thousand pounds for the patent and soon became the first tin can producer in the world.

*1: The procedure invented by Appert was based just on empirical experiments. Some years later, thanks to the research of the French biologist Louis Pasteur, the sterilization process was finally scientifically explained.
*2: The glass containers were usually sealed using pitch.
*3: Durand patented the same procedure twice: the first time in the UK, the second in the United States. In this country the technique was further improved by reducing the time required for its application, from several hours to a few minutes.

World War I Food: Submarine U-14 (img-16)

World War I Food: An army marches on its stomach - Napoleon (img-17)

(Napoleon Bonaparte)


World War I Food: Sir Winston Churchill writes home.

Perhaps not everyone knows that Sir Winston Churchill, the famous British Prime Minister who contributed to defeat Adolf Hitler in the Second World War II, was involved also in the first, as Commander of the Sixth Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers.
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During the conflict, he wrote numerous letters to his wife: these letters are interesting not only because they reveal the human side of the statesman, but also because they show how frequently soldiers and officers asked their families for food. Something they had to do, since their military rations were generally insufficient to survive.
Here follows a brief excerpt from one of his letters:
“… per quanto riguarda il cibo, vado a elencarti ciò che desidero tu mi invii: confezioni grandi di carne in scatola, formaggio Stilton, burro, prosciutto, sardine, frutta secca. Potresti provare a spedirmi una grossa torta di manzo, ma per cortesia evita il pollo in scatola o altre stranezze. I cibi più semplici sono i migliori e i più appetitosi. Considera che qui la nostra razione di carne è dura e priva di sapore, oltretutto non possiamo usare il fuoco quando fa buio. Temo che le mie necessità possano essere per te troppo costose. Ricordati di addebitarmi queste spese tenendole separate da quelle che sostieni per la casa … ”.


World War I Food: the ‘erbswurst’, so much more than a simple sausage.

Before the beginning of the Great War, the Generals of the Kaiser tried to find a way to feed their troops, at the same time ensuring them maximum mobility.
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This was in fact essential for the ‘blitzkrieg’, the ‘lightning war’ they were planning. The ‘Erbswurst’ came up as the answer to their needs: it was a particular type of sausage, made with a mixture of dried bacon and pea powder. This sausage, cut in thick slices, could be rehydrated in hot water, preparing in a few minutes a nutritious and tasty soup. Its inventor was Heinrich Grueneberg: in 1899 he sold the patent to the famous food company Knorr.
The Erbswurst is produced still today.

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The songs of the Great War.

Some of the most famous songs at the time of the First World War are probably the best choice to accompany the reading of this article:

Note: join Spotify and listen to the full song.


World War I Food: Herbert Hoover bets on food.

During the First World War, Herbert Hoover, future President of the United States, directed the U.S. Food Administration. Understanding the great importance of soldiers’ nutrition, he worked very hard to support the war effort by optimizing food production in the United States. Among his many initiatives, the ‘victory gardens’: every American citizen was invited to grow one using his backyard. This way he could help the troops fighting in Europe.


World War I Food: hardtacks in the soldier’s pockets.

The ‘hardtack’ is an incredibly simple type of biscuit, made just with flour, water and sometimes a little bit of salt (*1).
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Its origins are very ancient: it was already known to the Egyptians. The Romans called it ‘buccellum’.
The great success of this food is due to its long keeping: if kept away from water and humidity, it can remain edible for many years. Thanks to this useful feature, it has always been part of the rations of soldiers and sailors.
The French call it ‘galet’ (small stone), the Italians ‘galletta’, the Germans ‘schiffszwieback’.

*1: No yeast is used to make hardtacks.

World War I Food: French flag.


World War I Food: ‘Monkey meat’ for the French soldiers.

French soldiers gave ironic nicknames to the food they ate every day in the trenches. A few examples:
Canned meat was surnamed ‘monkey meat’ because it was usually branded ‘Madagascar’.
Beans and peas were surnamed ‘schrapnells’ (*1), because they were often served raw and hard.
Lentils were surnamed ‘punaises’ (bugs) for their aspect.

*1: German word meaning ‘bullet splinters’


Hungry soldiers raid enemy’s food.

In March 1918, a great number of German troops, taking advantage of the defeat of the Russian Empire, started to fight on the Western Front. Soon after, thanks the ‘Spring Offensive’, they broke through the British lines. The soldiers of the Kaiser, driven by hunger, raided the enemy food storages: it seems that they particularly appreciated canned meat, also known as ‘bully beef’.


The use of alcohol in the trenches.

During the Great War, alcohol was not allowed in the trenches, at least officially. In particular situations, when an extra dose of courage was needed, a few exceptions were tolerated: for example, before an assault, some ‘grappa’ (an alcoholic beverage) was distributed to the Italian soldiers.


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The images bearing the logo ‘webfoodculture’ are copyrighted.

The following images are public domain:

img-01 (*) – Trapezoidal can of corned beef, McNeill & Libby of Chicago, 1898 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-02 (*) – King George V and a group of officials, 1917 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-03 (*) – “Domenica del Corriere”, attack in Sarajevo, A.Beltrame, 1914 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-04 (*) – Battle of the Somme, trench, 1916 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-05 (*) – HMS Irresistible abandoned, 1915 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-06 (*) – Robert Antoine Pinchon (left) during World War I, 1914 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-07 (*) – Gallipoli, Soldiers in the trenches, Ernest Brooks, 1915 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-08 (*) – Royal Irish fusiliers in a trench, 1916 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-09 (*) – Italian alpine troops during WWI, Agence Rol, 1915 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-10 (*) – ‘Only the Navy Can Stop This’, WWI Recruitment poster, 1917 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-11 (*) – Sinking of a ship by a German submarine, 1917, Willy Stöwer (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-12 (*) – US 64th regiment celebrate the Armistice (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-13 (*) – British soldier in a captured German trench, 1916 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-14 (*) – Portrait of Nicolas Appert, 1841 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-15 (*) – Portrait of French inventor Philippe de Girard (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-16 (*) – German Submarine U-14, 1910/1915 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-17 (*) – Napoleon Bonaparte, 1812, di J.L. David, Nat.Gall. of Art (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-18 (*) – Winston Churchill with the Royal Scots Fusiliers, 1916 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-19 (*) – Herbert Hoover photo portrait, 1917 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-20 (*) – World War I era US poster by James Montgomery Flagg (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-21 (**) – 19th Century civil war hardtack, 2007, photo by D. Farr (Wikipedia Link)
img-22 (*) – Canadian WW1 recruiting poster, 1914/1918 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-23 (*) – Army Service Corps recruiting poster, 1915 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-24 (*) – British Lewis gun team, Battle of Hazebrouck, 1918, E.W.Greene (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-25 (*) – U.S. Army, propaganda poster, 1917, H.R.Hopps (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}

These images are made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0):

cc-01 – U.S. flags on the National Mall, 2007, image owner: Lipton sale (Wikipedia Link)
cc-02 – Erbswurst, image owner: Zenz (Wikipedia Link)

The following images are published courtesy of:

crt-01 – Images published courtesy of Mr. Alessandro Dal Ponte.

The header image is pubblic domain:

img-02 (*) – Robert Antoine Pinchon (left) during World War I, 1914 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}

(*) The copyright of this image has expired.
(**) Image released in public domain by its author.