Wartime troops yearned for home cooking

TRENCH WARFARE: The men of Durham Light Infantry in World War One. Below, Sharon Vincent, who will give a talk on feeding an army.
TRENCH WARFARE: The men of Durham Light Infantry in World War One. Below, Sharon Vincent, who will give a talk on feeding an army.
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LETTERS sent from the trenches by Wearside soldiers pleading for extra rations will form the focus of a Great War talk.

Local historian Sharon Vincent plans to use messages published in the Echo from local troops to illustrate the complexities of feeding an army during conflict.

Sharon Vincent.

Sharon Vincent.

“It was a huge operation, especially as food often had to be cooked under shell fire and in primitive conditions. Basic, but filling, meals were the order of the day,” she said.

“I’ll be looking at the types of food our soldiers ate, the emergency rations they carried and the foods they missed most – like cake, biscuits, pies and Sunday dinners.

“Obviously, an army marches on its stomach and the men were given enough to eat. But, looking at the letters sent from the trenches, they all missed home cooking.”

The war years saw the Echo publish scores of letters from soldiers each week – some messages detailing the brutality of trench life, others full of battlefield bravery.

But what many of the notes had in common, from both fighting troops and prisoners-of-war, was a yearning for home-cooked food – and a plea for some to be sent across the Channel.

One such letter, sent by Trooper A. Neville of Siege Battery RGA to his mother at The Barracks in Sunderland, featured a festive request for help on December 2, 1914.

“Well, I don’t think we will be home for Christmas now. Could you manage to send me out a small cake? It would be worth its weight in gold here,” he wrote.

Prisoner-of-war Rifleman P. O’Brien, of the 1st King’s Royal Rifles, made a plea for tea when writing to his aunt – Mrs Bainbridge, of Huddlestone Street – in 1914.

“I’m in the best of health. We’re not getting treated so badly, for we get porridge for breakfast, soup for dinner and porridge for tea – but we don’t get any tea to drink.” Other messages, such as one from Private J. Tindall of the Coldstream Guards, begged for sweet treats, while another soldier asked his mother to bake him a ‘Sunday pie’.

“Soldiers would often write to wives, girlfriends and parents and describe the meals they had in the trenches, which is a valuable source of information,” said Sharon.

“But it was quite common to see requests for bars of chocolate or food from home alongside lengthy descriptions of fighting tactics and casualty details in letters.

“It is not surprising that the men craved a change in diet.

“Each had to carry tea, army biscuits and tinned corned beef as emergency rations – and the beef could get boring.

“Some soldiers were lucky enough never to need the rations, but others ate the beef on a such a regular basic that they became completely, and utterly, fed up with it.

“Indeed, it wasn’t uncommon to find tins of beef being used to prop up deck boards in muddy trenches – or just given or thrown away – as there was so much of it around.”

Also in plentiful supply were army biscuits, said to be the consistency of dog biscuits today, which needed to be soaked in gravy or condensed milk before being eaten.

Condensed milk was used to flavour and sweeten cups of tea too – giving the drink an almost toffee-ish consistency, and providing the men with small energy boosts.

“I will be looking at all these foods, and more, during my talk. I’ll also be looking at the cooking methods used – some ingenious – to make battlefield meals,” said Sharon. “For instance, the cooks used to dig a small trench and build a fire inside it. The sides protected the flames, kept much of the smoke from view and made for easy cooking.

“It was no easy task feeding hundreds of soldiers, especially when at risk of attack as well. But it’s a fascinating topic, and I hope people come along to find out more.”

l Sharon’s talk on Feeding the Army during World War One will be hosted by Hendon History Group at Villette Road Library on October 30 from 6.30pm.