Food for war

A recent blog or two drew my attention to the importance of food. One of the standard complaints about the East Africa campaign of WW1 was that supply lines were so stretched on occasion that men suffered starvation, often on 1/4 rations for days or weeks. Linked with starvation was malnutrition and susceptibility to infection and other illnesses.

The significance of food to young men was brought home whilst reading Kathleen Satchwell’s recent publication Your Loving Son, Yum: The letters of Grahame Alexander Munro to his family 1915-1916 (2014). His letters regularly mention food – generally reassuring his mother that he is well-fed but on occasion ‘lately we eat every bit of it, & could eat even more’ (this was whilst still in South Africa waiting to go to German South West in January 1915). He also notes the generosity of the local people: ‘the people from the College bring the guards coffee & sandwiches and sometimes soup.’ (Jan 1915 in SA) and later in East Africa shortly before his death in December 1916:

‘the natives bring us eggs & milk & in return we go out shooting for them. … To show you how well we are living here I will tell give [sic] you what we had for each meal. For breakfast porridge with milk & sugar, fried eggs & bacon followed by bread & jam & butter & coffee. For dinner bowled guinea fowls, bread & butter & a jam tart (made by Morley of PE) which was A1. Supper a boiled leg of venison stuffed with bacon, boiled rice bread butter & jam & coffee. Not bad is it?’

Morley is not the only one to bake, Munro himself sets out a recipe for a cake he made.

Yet, he also notes their being on short rations, in both South West and East Africa. In South West, March 1915, he notes: ‘On several occasions we have been on short rations only having a short piece of meat about half a pound in weight to last us the whole day.’ And, on another occasion, they expected to be on short rations, but they turned up at the last minute. Commandeering of sheep for suppmenting rations was also mentioned. On route to East Africa he noted that the ‘food is something dreadful. … The only good thing we do get is bread. One day they dished bully out & we lived like fighting cocks.’ On two occasions, whilst in EA he asked his parents to let the press know how poorly they were being fed compared to the men at base. This complaint was similar to that recorded by the commander of 9SAI who laid an official complaint against Smuts’ command of East Africa and which led to an official enquiry; the report of which can be found at The National Archives, London (CO 551/101).

He’s also conscious of his horse in South West Africa not having enough to eat: ‘Once the horses were three days without anything to eat except a little grass which they managed to pick up.’

Other accounts which mention food, include Arthur Beagle in Alan Rutherford’s Kaputala: the diary of Arthur Beagle and the East Africa Campaign, 1916-1918. Arthur compains of never getting any vegetables. Corporal Haussmann takes a slightly different view of food, using jam time to make homemade handgrenades.

But it wasn’t just the allied forces talking about food. Lettow Vorbeck in his Reminiscences of East Africa talks about how everyone feeds (p53-54) and that they had to hunt for food (pp54-55). On one occasion they killed an elephant for food (p65).

Much more can be said about food and the supply of it in the African theatres, the dietary requirements of the different Indian and Arab contingents which were seldom met, the assumption that black troops and labourers/porters, irrespective of where they came from, had the same diet (the Seychelles Labour Contingent suffered greatly from this as will be revealed in a forthcoming publication). Not least, hinted at in the quote, is the impact of obtaining food from the local populations. Areas were deprived of all foodstuffs leading to the local populations suffering incredible hardships, yet others seemed to have worked with the armed forces to the benefit of both sides. It is becoming clearer by the source that the issue of food is far more complex than the general statements which to date tend to describe the conditions in the African theatres.

6 thoughts on “Food for war

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