On December 14, 1914 the Times of India (ToI) carried a report from the northern French town of Boulogne. The writer was there to follow the war that had started a few months earlier and here was an unexpected side of it: “a flock of sheep and blunt-faced herd goats driven through a French boulevard by Punjabi Musulmans.” In true village style one of them shouted at a startled old French lady who was in the way: “Budhi Budhi nikal jao!” (Old lady, get out of the way!)
The Punjabis were soldiers, just a few of the thousands of Indians who would serve in World War 1 and their presence, and that of the goats, was a sign of how different this war would be. Before 1914 Europe had enjoyed a long era of relative peace, which meant that when war finally came their armies weren’t prepared for the profound changes that had taken place.
Battle for Food
As the Crimean, Boer and American Civil Wars had shown, new technologies like railways and machine guns had reset all rules of war and the great tragedy of WW1 was that it took the leaders so long, and so many lives lost, before they realised this. But the grim truth was they also had more lives to lose – 19th century industrialisation had driven people from villages to towns where they could be signed up faster, and Britain and France now had large colonies from where they could call up reserves, like those Punjabis in Boulogne.
Deployment on this scale meant huge logistical challenges, especially in feeding the men. Armies in history had generally combined some advance provisioning with looting the countryside for food, but the latter was not allowed by the French, who were effectively hosting the war (the Germans did loot) and in any case would not have been effective given the scale of supplies needed. A lot of army activity in the early stages of the war went into solving this problem.
Andrew Robertshaw, in his book Feeding Tommy (British soldiers were called Tommies), writes that the British army did better than it has been given credit for. Soldiers wrote home complaining about the food, and it was alleged that more fodder for horses was sent than food for men. But as Robertshaw points out, motorized transport was still not total and horses pulled everything from wagons to guns; this was perhaps the last war where oats were like petrol!
Soldiers did complain, but Robertshaw suggests that this was more about the boredom of the food. The core of British military rations was canned meat, called bully beef (from the French for boeuf bouilli or boiled beef) and hard baked biscuits and in the early stages that was what they got. In time rations improved. An army cooking school in Aldershot was reopened and new recruits persuaded to sign up. Few wanted to be cooks, since it was seen as unheroic, yet risky – smoke from the kitchens made them an easy target for enemy gunners.
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One Man’s Meat…
Despite these problems, medical records show that most conscripts did better in the Army than at home. War forced the government to acknowledge what it ignored in peacetime – the bad health of the poor in crowded industrial cities. Robert shaw writes that during the Second Boer war (1899-1902) “it was found that almost half the men who attempted to enlist for the army were physically unfit for military service.” One result was a campaign to tackle malnourishment by feeding children – our mid-day meal schemes may have originated from such war-related fears.
Indian troops posed a particular problem. The British saw colonial troops as a crucial support, but also had fears about them. The Rising of 1857 had left a permanent fear of mutiny and European conditions would be hard for Indian troops. Hindus would have fears of losing caste by travelling overseas while Muslims might be unwilling to fight their fellow Muslims in the Turkish Army. Some soldiers did refuse to fight, while others went over to the Turkish side after the disastrous British surrender at Kut-al-Amara in 1916 during the Mesopotamia campaign.
That more Indian troops did not mutiny is probably due to the extra care the British took to keep them happy, and food played a key role. Vegetarians were given dhal, gur and milk instead of meat. In fact, the real problem involved meat. The British all knew how the Rising was said to have been partly triggered by beef and pork grease on cartridges and the last thing they wanted was to make such a mistake again. So not only was bully beef kept far from the Indians, they arranged for mutton and, as far as possible, killed on the spot – hence those sheep and goats in Boulogne.
ToI reported that the army tried frozen meat, but when the subedars were asked if it would be acceptable to the soldiers they responded with all seriousness, “Sahib, they will have no objection whatever, provided one of them may be permitted each day to see the animal frozen alive.” A major concern was that the slaughter be done the right way – halal (throat slitting) for Muslims, jatka (decapitation) for Sikhs and Hindus. Separate slaughtering spots were set up, though at least once even this caused problems when one group angrily alleged that flies from the other side were contaminating their meat.
The British were pleased when some soldiers became more relaxed about caste concerns, but it could never be admitted openly for fear of problems back home. In 1915 when some newspapers ran stories on how the Gurkhas were much liked by the British because they were willing to consume beef and beer, Sir O’Moore Craig, retired Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, wrote a letter admonishing them for unthinkingly causing problems: “All who know anything of the importance attached by the Indian soldier to his caste and religious customs will at once recognise how vitally necessary it is, not only to his content and discipline, but also to his valour in the field, that the Government of India should, as it does, provide for strict adherence to their customs.”
Indian troops may actually have eaten better than Europeans. David Omissi’s fascinating new book Indian Voices of the Great War, a collection of letters sent home by the troops, has a picture of goats being separately slaughtered by Hindus and Muslims. Curious British troops are looking on, and some of them must compared their bully beef tins with the fresh meat the Indians were about to get. But in one area Indian obduracy over rations may have helped the Tommies and that was over the hard salted biscuits issued when bread from army base ovens could not be provided.
No one liked the biscuits, and cooks had to find ingenious ways to soak or crumble them into some more edible form. But Indians simply asked for atta to make fresh rotis themselves. In Omissi’s book a letter from Bir Singh, a Sikh soldier of the 55th Rifles, tells of their modest triumph: “People told us there was no atta in this country, and we should have to eat biscuits; but, where there are inhabitants, there atta must be obtainable. Besides, there are plenty of mills.” Soon, Indian troops were getting an atta ration, and a ToI report from Jan 4, 1915 of a visit of King George V to the front writes of “his Majesty tasting a chapati which had just been cooked.”
Perhaps this Royal endorsement helped some quartermaster realise that this Indian solution was more widely applicable. Robertshaw’s book gives several recipes taken from the notes of army cooks including one from Private A.E.Purssell for chapatis. It is among recipes meant to be cooked in the mess tins that every soldier ate from, and also cooked in when they didn’t have access to field kitchens.