British and Empire troops were often undernourished or starving as they fought in the Near East, their letters reveal. Rhys David explains the role played by parcels from home, indigestion tablets, and cigarettes to supress their appetites in the brutal conditions.
Above: Passengers on this liner threw supplies overboard for troops to swim out to collect in the Suez Canal
By Rhys David (Worcester, 1962)
Nowadays we are barely aware that we are often eating food grown in Egypt – oranges and lemons, onions and potatoes – air-freighted to Britain and on supermarket shelves within days of being picked. One hundred years ago the situation was reversed.
Hundreds of thousands of British and Empire troops were based in, or passing through, Egypt on their way to the Middle East theatres of war - or en route from Australia, New Zealand and India to the Western Front. All had to be fed almost entirely with supplies sent out from Britain, without the aid of the modern logistics that give us our wide choice of fresh food. The supplies had to be carried in shipping under constant attack from German submarines in the Mediterranean.
We know from letters and other contemporary accounts just how difficult it was to feed the Army across the Channel and, indeed, how much British soldiers in France and Belgium disliked the food that they were offered – endless tins of Fray Bentos bully beef, Maconochie stewed meat from Aberdeen, hard biscuits from Huntley & Palmer in Reading, and Thos. Tickler’s marmalade, tasting of turpentine, from Grimsby (right). We also know how the rations of bread, meat, tea and other essentials were meant to add up to 3,574 calories for fighting men but that, as Britain itself suffered shortages, reductions necessarily took place.
Much less is known about the food that soldiers more than 2,000 miles away in the Near East, on Gallipoli, and later in Egypt, Palestine or Mesopotamia had to rely on. Letters that I have transcribed, now available on my website, cast light on the plight of men condemned to four years of relentlessly boring, dietarily inadequate and sometimes plain unhealthy, provisions. They also indicate the extent to which often starving British soldiers were kept going by parcels from home, not just from parents but from aunts and uncles, churches and chapels, and neighbours and workplaces as well.
Filled with enthusiasm for the war – and no doubt influenced by the exhortations of his admired fellow-countryman, David Lloyd George – Dewi David signed up with the Royal Engineers as a 17-year-old on his birthday on St. David’s Day in 1915. It was to take him from Gallipoli to Egypt to guard the Suez Canal, and through Sinai and Palestine to the capture of Jerusalem with General Allenby in 1917. In the copious letters that he wrote home, totalling more than 120,000 words, his eagerly awaited food and parcels are a constant topic. But we don’t have to rely only on his descriptions of what he received. His father, whom he had followed into work at the General Post Office in Cardiff, kept a meticulous record of what was sent in each parcel, the branch that it was sent from, and the date and time of day.
Above: Dewi David of the 53rd Welsh Division pictured in Cairo in the First World War
One of Dewi’s pet hates was hard biscuit, made from salt, flour and water, and tasting like dog biscuits. He draws a sharp distinction between Huntley & Palmer, then the world’s biggest biscuit maker, which had won the Government supply contract, and rival manufacturer, Crawford, whose products were sent over by his parents. He writes in February 1918 from Palestine: 'That box of 18 carat biscuits ... just melted clean away as soon as you shoved your teeth into ’em and they beat those we get as rations into a blessed cocked hat. ... Good old Crawford – I back him against those shameful old rascals H & P any day of the week after jerking those toothsome dainties back.'
Army issue biscuits were notoriously hard on the teeth as he explains, also offering an insight into dental standards among young men at the time. 'We sure have had our fair share of them hateful H & Ps. Jolly glad I got a decent lot of ivories to tackle ’em cos fellers with false ones don’t half cop out, blooming near starve and got to break ’em up with pliers to nibble at ’em.'
At other times it seems the men were on even shorter commons. At first on landing at Suvla Bay on Gallipoli he had decided the food was not too bad, but he still had to be sparing with bread, managing on alternate days on biscuits: 'Today, for instance we had one loaf between six men to last all day. Jam is plentiful and syrup, which goes O.K. with rice at dinner.' During the infamous storms of late November 1915 that eventually persuaded the authorities to withdraw from Gallipoli, it had proved impossible to land food: 'We have not much choice in the matter of eating and drinking and just at present bread is a great luxury. It does get monotonous chewing biscuits for five days out of six,' he reports.
Above: In the extreme winter of 1915 at Gallipoli it was impossible to land any fresh food for the men
Once in Egypt the Army was again unable to cope. On arriving in January 1916 the men were sent to a dispersal camp, or as Dewi puts it: 'We have been dumped in the desert among the camels and the Arabs and get bread and dates for dinner… We were in a desperate condition a few days ago, no brass, no parcels, only bare rations.… If the fags hadn’t lasted out I don’t think many would have survived.' The Army supplied men with cigarettes, the widely disliked and poor quality Tabs, perhaps well aware that smoking would suppress appetite.
There were the flies, too, which meant the men had to wave their bread and marmalade around before putting it in their mouths to avoid the creatures covering the entire surface. Daydreaming about a visit to the pub on his return, Dewi writes: 'It’ll be some change for me after bread and marmalade and tea full of flies every day for dinner.' Meat was in short supply. Tins of corned beef and Maconochie did find their way out to the Near East. However, much of the time, the men had to rely on skilly – meat-flavoured broth. On one occasion, whether jokingly or not, Dewi also swears he was eating camel.
The food parcels sent from home helped to fill the calorie and protein gap but arrived sporadically, sometimes not turning up for months or several at the same time, or preceding others sent earlier. Fresh fruit and vegetables were largely missing from the diet until the men reached Palestine when they could find oranges on the route of their march.
Dewi’s requests, usually as a P.S. at the end of his letters, began almost immediately on landing at Gallipoli and continued throughout his service. The items that he requested from home included chocolate, sweets, Rowntree’s Fruit Gums, Spearmint chewing gum, malted milk tablets, cocoa, tea, tinned and preserved fruits, cake and biscuits, and even lobster, (tinned, of course), saccharine tablets and - unsurprisingly, Pepsin indigestion tablets.
Above: The Army supplied cigarettes, perhaps aware that smoking would suppress appetite
Sometimes the instructions are very specific, as in a letter from the Suez Canal in the summer of 1916. 'As regards tinned stuff, any sort of fruit or meat will be O.K. but fish is no good in this hot weather. Send plenty of chocolate, big chunks, you know, and toffee from the market, something to chew. A box of Abdullas [cigarettes] would not go bad either, Virginias, y’know, nothing Gippo for me, thanks. Beef paté, like Aunt Janet once sent is the goods (another tip). … Lemon cheese is another excellent commodity and I thoroughly recommend St. Ivel’s cheese, while tinned sausages are a treat.'
There were other small comforts the men needed that it seems could only be supplied from Blighty. Dewi's post scripts mentioned a 1916 diary, money, watch, safety razor, indelible [pencil] leads, writing paper and envelopes, books, (particularly Dickens and Walter Scott), magazines (London Opinions and Weekly Telegraphs), soap, a sponge, toothpaste, candles, socks, shirts, Khaki handkerchiefs, a Balaclava helmet for the winter in Gallipoli - and Keating’s flea powder.
The requests are repeated at regular intervals throughout his four-year service. His father’s list shows all were dutifully acknowledged, though it appears that one consignment was lost to a submarine attack on SS Maloja, which sank in the English Channel in February 1916 after striking a German mine.
Above: Dewi requested powder from home in Cardiff to kill off uncomfortable fleas
Such food as the Army could get to the men serving in the Near East would be served in temporary or semi-permanent messes. The men – such as those operating in small companies guarding the Suez Canal in 1916 - also developed their own messes where they could cook up some of the ingredients from home, or bought in the local canteen (supply stores) in their ‘Dixies’ - stew-pots improvised from tins that had contained biscuits or other products.
The soldiers’ needs also provided an opportunity for Greek traders, though they were far from popular. At Salonika before they left for Egypt following withdrawal from Gallipoli, Dewi wrote: 'One thing I like in this camp, there’s a few canteens, run by Greeks, you know, therefore you can take it from me the prices are pretty salty. You get quite a lot of stuff from them, if you have the money, of course, but I have no money at present – in fact I am absobloominglutely stoney.' The Greeks crop up again as traders in Egypt where they were one of the large expatriate populations then inhabiting Cairo and Alexandria.
Above: P&O's SS Maloja, sunk in 1916, with the loss of 155 lives and carrying supplies for troops in the Near East
Dewi would not experience the home cooking he yearned for repeatedly in his letters until March 1919, but he was to enjoy his best meal for four years at a celebratory Christmas dinner at the Grand Hotel, Alexandria on Christmas Day 1918. The Divisional Signals Company of the 53rd Welsh Division to which he belonged sat down at the Grand Hotel to a meal of Oxtail Soup, Filet de Poisson Lutèce, Choufleur Polonaise, Roast Turkey, Potatoes, Salade Romaine, Plum Pudding, Scotch Woodcock and Dessert.
It was one blissful Christmas Day lunch to make up for years of nothing more than bread and Tickler’s marmalade covered with flies.
Rhys David (Worcester, 1962) is the author of Tell Mum Not to Worry: A Welsh Soldier’s War in the Near East 1915-1919. Deffro, £11.99, recounting the campaigns of the 53rd (Welsh) Division. A full version of the letters is published in Tell Mum Not to Worry: The Letters. Deffro, £9.99
Images courtesy of Rhys David