Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Food, glorious food!

After recent blog entries above the Western Front, it's perhaps time to get my feet on the ground once more, with something close to the heart of every soldier.

The provision of good food for the troops was regarded as an essential. Unit commanders had to ensure that men received three meals a day. The morning meal was to consist of coffee and bread, and if possible a hot dish prepared the night before and kept warm. A second meal was to be served at midday. The main meal was that served in the evening, commanders were enjoined to try and ensure that this meal was well-prepared and nourishing. If it proved impossible to provide such a meal, because of circumstances or the late hour, then a cold collation or something rapidly prepared should be served instead.

At the start of the war, food was prepared by half-sections, one man doing the cooking for three more of his chums. The food would be supplied by the quartermaster, supplemented by whatever food, particularly vegetables, could be found locally. Every regiment had a small sum of money, the ordinaire, which could be used of this purpose. Later in the war, this system was replaced by appointing battalion cooks, who prepared the rations, supplemented by whatever was purchased through the ordinaire.

The daily ration per man was:
bread 700g
meat, fresh or cooked 700g
meat, canned 600g
dried vegetables or rice 60g
pasta 60g
potatoes 450g
fresh vegetables 60g
tinned vegetables 75g
salt 20g
sugar 32g
coffee 24g
bacon 30g
lard 25g
portable soup 50g

Where extra nutrition was required, because of the unit's duties, the carbohydrate and sugar rations were all increased: the dried vegetable / rice ration and the pasta ration to 100g each, the potato ration to 750g, the sugar ration to 48g, the coffee to 36g and the lard to 30g.

Trying to supplement his rations with local purchases in October 1915, Germain Cuzacq (234th Infantry) was horrified: 'Here [Bouxières (Meurthe-et-Moselle)] you're paying double the peacetime price for everything. They're all shopkeepers and they're all really greedy.' Raoul Battarel agreed: 'You talk about high prices ... it's an absolute disgrace. The farmers and shopkeepers are just a bunch of pigs. One egg, five sous; sausages, eight francs a kilo ...'

The book the cooks relied on was the Livre de cuisine militaire aux manoeuvres et en campagne, which has been digitised on Gallica. The May 1915 edition of this worthy tome includes fourteen recipes for 'soups' (this was a catch-all word that included stews as well as soups proper), six recipes for meat, six vegetable recipes (beans, potatoes and rice only), pancakes, dumplings, doughnuts ('even tastier with a dusting of sugar' - how true!), flatbread, coffee and (more unexpectedly) tea, as well as advice on keeping food warm for long periods.

Despite the best efforts of transport units like the Wachkyries of RVF B70, fresh meat was not always available, so 'rata', a vegetable stew, was often served instead, much to the soldiers' disgust. The Army's official newspaper, the Bulletin des Armées, provided further recipes during the course of the war, including, for example, fern shoots ('eat with a vinaigrette, like asparagus, or a white sauce, like chard or salsify; exquisite in an omelette'). In March 1916, the regimental newspaper of the 401st Infantry, Boum! Voila!, punctured such gastronomic pretence with a recipe for rat: simmer for three days, then serve over ice with finely chopped orange rind and strawberries. 'Better than "monkey" [tinned ration meat]', it claimed.

Readers of my book They shall not pass will know how much such instructions were a council of perfection, and how the reality was somewhat different. According to Jacques Mayer of the 329th Infantry, 'soup' consisted of 'poor quality meat, forming a rubbery magma with pasta or rice, or perhaps beans, more or less cooked, or potatoes, more or less peeled, [all] in a sort of thin gruel, so justifying its name, even though it was covered with a thick layer of solidified fat. There was no question then of vitamins or green vegetables.' At the Front the 'mid-day meal' became the 10am meal, but as André Pézard (46th Infantry) commented, 'we adopted the old habit of eating whenever we were able in case we couldn't eat when we wanted to.'

And, faced with the dubious cuisine sometimes served up by the battalion cooks, soldiers often demanded, and received, food from their home regions. One soldier from the Cévennes, serving with 81st Infantry, asked his wife to send him 5kg of the region's famous chestnuts. Maurice Faget (129th Infantry) received parcels from his home in Agen (Lot-et-Garonne) whose contents were 'a real inventory of Gascon cuisine, foie gras, confits, civets, rice and brains, poultry cooked in several different ways, gateaux pastis, crêpes, merveilles, etc.'

However, the smoke from fires or cookers always made the cooks a target. At Verdun, Jean Thaias and his chums from 64th Infantry had been complaining about not getting their rations: 'at the relief we understood why ... the shelters had collapsed, beneath them were bodies with limbs sticking out; mobile cookers, drivers, horses, wagons, carts were lying every which way.'

One unexpected effect of the war was the disappearance of emmental cheese from the nation's shops. This was not because it had a German-sounding name, but rather it was because it took 1,000 litres of milk to make a whole wheel of the cheese. In contrast, to make a whole camembert needed only one litre. So camembert, and camembert-alikes, spread out from its native Normandy to all over the country. Another cheese to benefit was cancoillotte, from the Jura. One clever manufacturer came up with a way of sealing the cheese in a tin to keep it fresh, and so it could be sent to homesick soldiers from the Franche Comté.

And just a nod towards French Aviation, in line with my current project, which infantryman wouldn't have been happy to eat like Marcel Brindejonc de Moulinais, a pilot with N23 in 1915: 'Yesterday I ate wild duck. Today it will be partridge for lunch and probably pheasant this evening. I got up at half past eight this morning and I've just breakfasted on a big bowl of milk, two fried eggs and a duck breast.'

But when you were truly hungry ... Arriving back in their billets, cold and wet, Leopold Noé and his chums (281st Infantry) were often disappointed in their meal: 'The soup or rata was often full of earth; we couldn't see it, but felt it between our teeth; nevertheless,' he admitted, 'we cleaned out the pot to the last drop.'

Pictures: cooks bringing up the rations, a novel cover and the field bakery, from Gallica; brewing coffee, from an old postcard; the cartoon by Pierre Danthoine from CRID1418.org