What is Corned Beef?

Doing a workshop with year 6 pupils on life in World War 1 provided some interesting points of discussion and as usual led to more questions and revelations.

Fortuitously, in the days before the workshop, transcribing the Pike Report into medical conditions in East Africa, I came across the minimum rations prescribed for the different groups of people campaigning in the theatre (Section 9).
– European and Cape Coloured Corps
– Indian Troops and Followers and local Indians
– African Troops, Arab Company and Gun Porters and Stretcher Bearers
– Carriers
– Cape Boys
– Gold Coast, Nigerian, other West African Troops
– West India Regiment
– East Africa Forces:
o Europeans, West Indians, British West India Regiment, Cape Corps, Indian Christians, Goanese Clerks
o Indian Troops, Followers and Local Indians
o Cape Boys, Somalis
o Chinese
o East African Troops, Followers, Porters
o Arabs
o Gold Coast, Nigerian, other West African Troops (European rations to Native Dressers, Telegraph Operators, Linesmen)
o Prisoners of War (manual labour, children)
o Animals
Despite the contents and amounts having been scientifically worked out, the men were lucky if they got the full quantity on a daily basis, and if they did, able to cook it. Most frustratingly, when India improved the dietetics for those in Mesopotamia, the Indian Government neglected to pass the information onto East Africa which resulted in unnecessary illness due to poor food intake.

Back to Year 6. They were going to get a taste of African food as prepared during World War 1 – without palm oil or ghee. This meant boiling yams, sweet potatoes and beans. The women preparing the food started cooking at 7 am the morning of the workshop, to be ready to serve at 1.30/2pm. They just managed it including about 30 minutes to travel to the venue and 30 minutes to set up. Their cooking had been done on modern appliances. How much longer would they have needed on an open fire? They were catering for about 40 people and only a taster as these young British people had not likely tasted food like this before.

The reactions ranged from ‘this is disgusting’ to ‘is there more?’ The flavour was rather bland – boiled food without spice. Personally, these were the best yams I’ve ever eaten so not sure what it says about me. But it also became apparent while thinking about it that boiling yams and potatoes would help purify water for drinking – not all that tasty at the best of times but it would have retained some of the nutrients usually cooked out of vegetables. Although cooking maize meal to a runny porridge state would have been quicker than to stodge form for fufu or ugali, spoons would have been required – finding spoons would be another challenge as the war progressed. Having the maize meal stiff meant it could be eaten more easily with fingers. If the men were lucky enough to have leftovers, some forms of maize meal would safely last a few days.

One of the featured meat items was corned beef (preserved). This led to the questions: What is it? What corn is mixed with it? We’ve had it for years but not thought until now what it is.

Surprisingly, the corn is salt – large grained rock salt, known as ‘corns’ of salt. It’s the introduction of nitrates which results in the meat turning pink, reducing the risk of botulism. Potassium nitrate – also referred to as salt peter (Source: Amazing Ribs, wikipedia)

Bully/corned beef could be eaten cold if you could get the tin open, it could be cooked, mashed and added to yams, rice etc to make a more filling meal and to provide variation – that is, providing supplies got through.

Love it or hate it, it’s over 100 years old

It’s common knowledge that you either love Marmite or hate it and that if you like Marmite, you won’t like Bovril or Vegemite and vice versa. I’m not too fussed about Marmite or Bovril although I tend to prefer Bovril – Vegemite though is a completely different story.

I was rather surprised a little while ago to see a policy paper in The National Archives discussing whether there was a substitute for Marmite which would have the same medicinal impact (alas, I did not make a note of the reference!).

As if this wasn’t enough, Bovril then made an appearance in a Christmas Hamper article

This same article makes reference to Sunlight soap – another item over 100 years old and still produced by Lever Brothers. This company was already settled in Africa by the outbreak of war, offering to help Spicer-Simson and his Lake Tanganyika Expedition out with supplies if needed and eventually took over Goldie’s Royal Niger Company.

Hampers were not only a Christmas feature. Some lucky soldiers, or rather officers, had Fortnum and Mason hampers sent across. Whilst young privates relied on family members to send favourite foods as young Grahame Munro mentioned in his travels through German South West Africa. He specifically mentioned Oxo.

On the drinks front, there was Nestles and Roses Lime juice, the latter used to help combat scurvy, whilst the former was usually condensed milk – ideal for a sugary sweet additive to coffee or as a stand alone.

On the travel side, P&O Liners initially known as The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company which included the British India Steam Company which services the East African coastline. Another long-standing name is that of Thomas Cook, which was also involved in the ill-fated Gordon Relief expedition of Khartoum pre-1900. During World War 1, the company, along with P&O, Cunnard line and others, continued to offer public services while in 1919, Thomas Cook offered ‘scenic flights’ over the battlefields of Europe.

This year in October 2015, Kenyan aviation celebrates 100 years of service, whilst flight in South West Africa is a few months older – the Germans were flying sorties in January/February 1915. More commonly known is the existence of Ford and Rolls Royce, both of whom supplied vehicles during the war, as did Leyland and Vauxhall. A summary of road transport during the war has been compiled by the Road Haulage Association while DJ Sutton provides a more global perspective in Wait for the Waggon (1998).

On the financial front, there was Standard Bank and De Beers, while socially, there were various clubs such as the Mombasa and Muthaiga in Kenya, as well as the Norfolk Hotel. In addition, the YMCA provided much welcomed relief and rest bases in all the theatres of war.

There are no doubt many other products, companies and organisations which are over 100 years old and with a history in Africa, but these were the big few which have caught my attention.

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.