A total of 3,240,948 tons of food was sent from Britain to the soldiers fighting in France and Belgium during the First World War. The British Army employed 300,000 field workers to cook and supply the food. At the beginning of the war British soldiers were given 10 ounces of meat and 8 ounces of vegetables a day. As the size of the army grew and the German blockade became more effective, the army could not maintain these rations and by 1916 this had been cut to 6 ounces of meat a day. Later troops not in the front-line only received meat on nine out of every thirty days. The daily bread ration was also cut in April 1917. The British Army attempted to give the soldiers the 3,574 calories a day that dieticians said they needed. However, others argued that soldiers during wartime need much more than this.
Soldiers in the Western Front were very critical of the quantity and the quality of food they received. The bulk of their diet in the trenches was bully beef (caned corned beef), bread and biscuits. By the winter of 1916 flour was in such short supply that bread was being made with dried ground turnips. The main food was now a pea-soup with a few lumps of horsemeat. Kitchen staff became more and more dependent on local vegetables and also had to use weeds such as nettles in soups and stews.
The battalion's kitchen staff had just two large vats, in which everything was prepared. As a result, everything the men ate tasted of something else. For example, soldiers often complained that their tea tasted of vegetables. Providing fresh food was also very difficult. It has been estimated that it took up to eight days before bread reached the front-line and so it was invariably stale. So also were the biscuits and the soldiers attempted to solve this problem by breaking them up, adding potatoes, onions, sultanas or whatever was available, and boiling the mixture up in a sandbag.
The catering staff put the food in dixies (cooking pots), petrol cans or old jam jars and carried it up the communication trenches in straw-lined boxes. By the time the food reached the front-line it was always cold. Eventually the army moved the field kitchens closer to the front-line but they were never able to get close enough to provide regular hot food for the men. Sometimes a small group of soldiers managed to buy a small primus stove between them. When they could obtain the fuel, which was always in short supply, they could heat their food and brew some tea.
General John Monash pointed out: "It takes a couple of thousand men and horses with hundreds of wagons, and 118 huge motor lorries, to supply the daily wants of my population of 20,000. With reference to food we also have to see that all the men in the front lines regularly get hot food - coffee, oxo, porridge, stews."
On 18th March 1915 Harold Chapin wrote to his mother: "We are fed on Bully Beef (ordinary Fray Bentos, you know the brand) and lovely hard biscuits which I adore. Last night I added to my menu a bloater and some bread and marmalade, duff and coffee".
Food was often supplied in cans. Maconochie contained sliced turnips and carrots in a thin soup. As one soldier said: "Warmed in the tin, Maconochie was edible; cold it was a mankiller." The British Army tried to hide this food shortage from the enemy. However, when they announced that British soldiers were being supplied with two hot meals a day, they received over 200,000 letters from angry soldiers pointing out the truth of the situation. Men claimed that although the officers were well-fed the men in the trenches were treated appallingly.
Harry Patch later reported: "Our rations - you were lucky if you got some bully beef and a biscuit. You couldn't get your teeth into it. Sometimes if they shelled the supply lines you didn't get anything for days on end. There were five in a machine-gun team, and everything we had was shared amongst us. I used to get a parcel from home. My mother knew the grocer pretty well."
Food supply was a major problem when soldiers advanced into enemy territory. All men carried emergency food called iron rations. This was a can of bully beef, a few biscuits and a sealed tin of tea and sugar. These iron rations could only be opened with the permission of an officer. This food did not last very long and if the kitchen staff were unable to provide food to the soldiers they might be forced to retreat from land they had won from the enemy.