“I feel one can say with some conviction that no man should willingly leave his home to fight, wound, maim or kill other men about whom he knows little and whom he certainly does not hate. When all men refuse to commit such follies the foundations of a true civilisation will have only just started to be laid.”
- Sam Sutcliffe, circa 1974 (extracted from his Memoir)

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Retrospective 3 – Sam on WW1 Army grub, front-line, onboard ships… with a POW menu thrown in: so, food, not so glorious food… or Definitely Not Masterchef!

Sam’s Memoir(1)– paperback and e-book – and the e-excerpts from it are now available in their third and final editions with added Endnotes and, in the Memoir, added documentation.

For details of how to buy the Memoir or Gallipoli Somme & Arras 1918/POW etc mini-e-books click here plus see reader reviews here and here  and reviews from the Western Front Association and the Gallipoli Association hereFor AUDIO excerpts click Here  Join Foot Soldier Sam on Facebook Here

The war’s over at last – but Sam’s blog, Facebook page and tweets will continue until his Memoir concludes with the Centenary of the July 19, 1919, Peace parade in London…

All proceeds from all versions of Sam’s Memoir will always go to the British Red Cross – and the current running donations total as of February 1, 2019, is £3,979.66 (I can't update it in the Donations box below because the "edit" tool has vanished!)

Dear all

A hundred years ago this week, in the aftermath of the Armistice… The Paris Peace Conference proceeded with not much news emerging, but both President Wilson and PM Lloyd George returned to the table during the week, suggesting that something significant might be occurring…
    However, in the UK the most immediate events were riots by servicemen. The Kinmel Park Mutiny at Bodelwydden, north Wales (March 4-5) saw many of the 15,000 Canadian soldiers confined to this massive military complex rioting because they were restricted to half-rations, had no coal to heat their barracks, and had received no pay for a month. In part, the shortfalls arose from dock strikes. Eventually 25 men were convicted of mutiny and sentences to anything from 90 days to 10 years.
    Then, in London, the Battle Of Bow Street (March 9) flared up. Up to 2,000 American and British soldiers and sailors pitched into fighting police after two arrests for gambling on the street. Clearly, the root cause was impatience to get home and being kept waiting around with nothing useful to do.
    Post-war unrest also resumed in Germany with street-fighting in Berlin (March 3-14) and a general strike (3-6). Fresh rioting kicked off in Cairo too (9-11).
    Meanwhile, war continued in Russia with a major conflict between the Whites and the Reds, about 100,000 on each side in total. The Whites dominated with their Siberian Army capturing Ohansk and Osa (March 4-8; about 870 miles east of Moscow), and, further south, their Western Army forcing the Reds to retreat to Simbirsk and Samara (6-10; 540 miles east of Moscow).

[Memoir background: my father, Lance Corporal Signaller Sam Sutcliffe from Edmonton, north London,16-year-old underage volunteer in September, 1914, fought at Gallipoli with the 2/1st Royal Fusiliers (Blogs September 20, 2015, to January 3, 2016), then on the Somme Front with his second outfit, the Kensingtons (Blogs May 15 to September 25, 2016)… until officialdom spotted his real age – 18, legally too young for the battlefield. They told him he could take a break from the fighting until he turned 19. He accepted, though with an enduring sense of guilt. December, 1916, saw him posted to Harrogate, Yorkshire, and re-allocated to the Essex Regiment Battalion (Blogs November 27, 2016, to November 11, 2017). During this interlude he suffered various illnesses while recovering from trench warfare’s privations. In December, probably, solo, he returned to France – reverting to Private on arrival, I don’t know why – and dogsbodied around Arras until mid-March when he ran into his own Essex 2/7th Battalion. They moved into the trenches near Fampoux just in time for the German Spring Offensive. A last stand by the Battalion on March 28, 1918, left 80 alive and “fit” out of the 520 who started the day – the 440 in between being dead, wounded or, like Sam, “missing” and, in his case, a POW (Blog March 25, 2018). For several months he wandered occupied France in randomly-assembled half-starved POW groups doing hard labour, before spending the summer in southern Germany and finally moving westwards to Lorraine – whence, the day after Armistice, his long trek towards the French Front began. He reached safety after tiptoeing through a German minefield (November 15 probably). Then began his recovery from chronic near-starvation – and a brief emotional breakdown – until, finally, on December 10, 1918, he returned to England and another few days in hospital before reuniting with parents and siblings, especially brother Ted, home on a week’s leave but suffering badly from gas damage. Civilian life offered Sam a warm welcome… until, in February, 1919, the Army called him back - though only to a “Dad’s Army” unit and, so far, a few weeks de factoholiday in Brighton…]

Retrospective 3: As of February-March, 1919, my father, Private Sam Sutcliffe, Gallipoli, Somme, Spring Offensive veteran and ex-POW, found himself in Brighton – billeted in a Spartan dormitory near the top of a grand Palmeira Square mansion. Transferred to the Royal Defence Corps – an early Dad’s Army – for his concluding months in uniform, at this point he simply enjoyed “a month spent by the sea with nothing to do”… which he described comprehensively with just that phrase so, for want of concurrent 100-years-ago-this-week blog material…
    I’ve left him for four weeks in all until the powers-that-be come up with something useful for him and his mates to engage with (which they did). For now, a third themed-excerpts look back. Last week, it was a young Tommy’s experiences of “Sex and romance”… now it’s Army Grub or Bully-Beef Gastronomy or If I Ever See Another Tin Of Apricot Jam or If The Jerries Don’t Get You The Quartermaster Will and suchlike Tommy laments for what used to be his stomach…
    (Warning: another long read ahead – best take a packed lunch!)

Food played a big part in my father’s early life, in the Army and before. Born in 1898, he had a poverty-afflicted mid-childhood – that is, the family was wealthy in Manchester then, by the time he was two, suffered “ruin” and “came down in the world” as well as down to Tottenham and Edmonton, north London. The level? He and his, then, four siblings didn’t starve, but hunger gnawed at them. Here’s the most telling image of how young Sam felt it (this from the kid-to-recruit chapters which he wrote in the third person calling himself “our lad”, “Tommy” and such):

‘…when one day our boy saw a lad younger than himself sitting on the ground tearing up paper and eating bits of it, he asked him, “Why are you eating paper?” “Because I’m hungry,” said the boy. Our lad thought, “Perhaps it would help if I could do the same”. He tore up some paper and chewed it, but, oh, it tasted horrible. He never resorted to that again and he didn’t hear what became of the little boy who had been eating quite a lot of it.’

The situation worsened with his father not getting paid for agenting work done, then unemployed, before he lowered his sights, took a bottom-rung office job and began the family’s long climb to modest financial equilibrium. Hence, this great day, marked and celebrated with food and ceremony:

‘That week when Dad received his first pay packet was long remembered because on the Sunday, very unusually, their mother lit a coal fire in the grate of the kitchen range and they baked rather more potatoes than usual and boiled a small number of haricot beans (hard when bought, they had to be soaked for 24 hours or so before cooking). For this occasion dishes they hadn’t used for some time were set out on the table. One for the potatoes, another for the beans, and a larger one for the joint. Mother placed it at the end of the table where father sat. He carved it most carefully, small portions for the children, of course, but the taste of that meat in addition to the beans and the potatoes was a treat.’

By the time my father had to leave school – at 14, like his older brother Ted, for lack of money to continue his education – poverty had receded to a degree (the while, one new child, Edie, thrived, and one-year-old John and 12-year-old Sidney died, leaving five children in all). Sam got his first job at a walking-stick maker’s near Old Street, and was delighted to find a pal from choir, Reg Curtis, worked nearby. It meant they could have lads’ lunches together:

‘Reggie knew of one or two places to sit and listen to music and singing for half an hour. He also knew the places where, for a penny, you could get a large cup of tea – one, part of a chain called Lockharts (bless the promoter of them), where just buying a mug of tea entitled you to sit there and eat the sandwich lunch mother had prepared for you. Rest and refreshment for a penny… Another place Reg introduced Tommy to was known as the Alexandra Trust, where hundreds of people went for cheap food. And it was cheap – apart from the tea, a large, toasted teacake cost a penny too.’

Apart from the pleasure of cheap, ample nosh – especially when you’ve known harder times – in his early teens Sam’s perspective did come to include a good look at “how the other half lived” in terms of comestibles. He found his second job (1912-14) at tin-mining company Lake & Currie’s HQ near Liverpool Street station. As office boy, he was deputed to arrange the catering for the directors’ in-house business lunches – leading to this sumptuous experience/insight:

‘A day or so beforehand, Tommy had to visit the supplier to hand over the order – often at a famous restaurant and bar over in Cheapside called Sweetings where he observed really prosperous City businessmen, bosses all, who wouldn’t even spare the time to sit down to have their lunch. These toffs, as Cockneys called them, clad in fine morning suits, lined the long counter, munching and drinking their ale or whatever they favoured. The smell of all these delicious foods pleased Tommy; he loved to stand there and look and breathe it in. White-hatted waiters dressed up as chefs carved succulent slices of beef or ham.
     When the customers finished eating, they would just throw down some silver on the counter and walk out — no question of bills or talking about the cost…
     In addition to the special drinks and foods the restaurant supplied, Tommy had to buy certain cheeses and a special type of coffee. This task took him to a shop of the old style where soft cream cheeses hung from the ceiling in muslin bags… Fortunately, in due course, Tommy would get the chance to do more than look at all this enticing provender.
     When one of these feasts had concluded, the bosses would take their guests to a club… Often, when they left Mr Lake’s office Tommy went in to clear up before the caterers came to collect any utensils and crockery they had provided. But he’d pause to inhale the fumes of cigars and cigarettes, the aroma of all this good food – and of an appetising cocktail they regularly took called gin cup* which they drank from small, silver tankards, a sprig of a small mauve flower with a yellow centre floating in each one.
     And, until the men from Sweetings arrived, Tommy could eat and drink anything left over – often quite a lot. Quickly as he could, he’d run through the menu. The lovely cream cheese, the crisp little rolls, some meat, ham or tongue or beef, a little salad, and then, of course, the gin cups had not always been emptied so he sampled them as well. It was very good. And one further pleasure he would save for later; some of the senior partner’s Turkish cigarettes – made for him by a chap in Burlington Arcade – would be left lying on the table and Tommy, who sometimes collected parcels of them from the tobacconist, felt free to take some of them if he wished. For a brief while, the boy would think of himself as a man. And fare like a lord.’
* Gin cup: gin with mint, sugar and lemon juice.

No culinary change occurred immediately after he joined the Army (September 10, 1914) because he lived at home during the initial squarebashing phase of his 2/1st Royal Fusiliers training. But soon they moved down to Tonbridge and lived with families in the town. “Tommy”/Sam and billet-mate Churniston struck lucky. Mr Fluter managed the local print works and lived in sub-posh plenty laid on by Mrs F. Exemplified by the first night’s dinner:

‘“Everything’s ready,” she said. “I thought we’d start off with good old English fare. Roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and apple pudding to follow.”‘

Then the packed lunches she provided to support them in their work, digging part of the southern ring of trenches (built to protect London from putative invaders), proved enough to… well, feed an Army:

‘Came the Monday morning, the air clear and pleasantly chilly. Tommy and Churniston expressed their surprise and delight when Mrs F laid out the food she had prepared for their first day’s digging. She had wrapped fine, white, table napkins round large, meat pasties, marmalade turnovers and lots of sandwiches. Wonderful food, lovingly prepared and packed. Each of the boys had sufficient for four men…
     ‘When the lunch break arrived, he soon realised he would not be able to eat all the fine food Mrs F had packed, so he put about a third of each pasty to one side, wrapped them in newspaper, and hurried along to find his brother in G Company. Ted gladly accepted this addition to his smallish packet of sandwiches. “If my landlady keeps up this level of grub supply I’ll be able to pass on some tasty bits most days,” Tommy told him. “If she ever asks me about the quantity I’ll assure her not a crumb is wasted.”’

So, by the time “Tommy”/Sam first confronted real Army cuisine, he did have parameters of comparison beyond the basic-decent of home and working-men’s caffs. It happened on the bad ship Galena (real name Galeka, my father being a systematic purveyor of [transparent] aliases). As they rocked and rolled out of Southampton into a huge week-long storm, like most soldiers he soon became a choosy food critic:

‘He clung to a rail, amazed to see and feel the forepart of the ship rise high, then plunge…  And so the thing he had been fighting for several hours took possession of him and his loss was the fishes’ gain.
     All the same, when he saw men tottering towards the hatch bearing large dixies and bags of food he followed them down below. Hot tea got rid of the chill and, that morning, there were loaves of warm bread and tins of Irish butter. But the butter proved to be very rancid, so Tommy helped his mouthfuls of dry bread down with swigs of tea.’

After a couple of days he got over his seasickness and spent a lot of time away from his Company’s horrible hold way below decks. But he felt he must sometimes return to fill his stomach from time to time to avoid dry-wretching nausea:

‘With many men still very ill, plenty of grub remained for those who could face the stew of tough meat and undercooked potatoes. Each of them had devised their own methods to eat their food before the ship’s violent motions spread it over table, trousers and floor, but usually this involved filling their enamelled, iron plates then, with both hands, raising them to lip level, tilting carefully, and swiftly drinking off the liquor. Solids could then be forked up with ease, though not much enjoyment.
     The brothers, with memories of simple, tasty meals enjoyed at home, realised the difficulty of cooking for hundreds of men. But they compared this meal with dinners at Scout camps prepared over open, trench fires; Ted expressed the opinion that the rotten cooking on their ship was all that could be expected if it was superintended by that evil-faced curmudgeon appointed Lieutenant Quartermaster. “Satan with a waxed moustache,” said Ted. Indeed, later events proved that to be a not ungenerous description.’

He soon came to ponder further regarding the system that got the victuals to them and facilitated “Old Wax Whiskers’” villainy:

‘Strong tea, often taken with hunks of bread and watery jam, usually passed for breakfast. That jam wouldn’t have fetched tuppence a pound in a grocer’s shop; issued in tins and made by a firm seldom heard of before or since that war, it needed no spoon, it ran like water.
     Even the boy could guess at the sort of profits the villains made and, in idle moments, soldiers discussed what they would like to do to the manufacturer and the people in authority who placed the orders and, no doubt, shared his gains and guilt.
     For some reason, the same low standards did not apply to Army biscuits, as they were called. Tommy believed that just one firm supplied the square, white, easily chewed biscuits – very different to the brick-hard squares referred to earlier. Proud of its product, the company baked its name, Jacob’s, into each biscuit – and men rejoiced when they were given them. For the rest, as far as Tommy could see, anonymity concealed the shame of their victuallers. If soldiers’ hopes have been realised they all live in a hell where the diet consists solely of their own provender.’

When they reached Malta, their first meal on dry land – at St George’s barracks, in barren countryside outside Valletta –received a more tolerant welcome than it might have, but still occasioned some PBI eye-rolling:

‘The Corporal despatched two men to the cookhouse carrying the shiny bucket and bowl, and their return brought cheers from the happy men even though their burden consisted of the usual potatoes with tough, stewed meat. On this occasion, they required only quantity to fill the aching void and, indeed, there was plenty for all. They enjoyed that first meal in the barrack room in a happy mood of banter and speculation about the future.
     “Get that lot down you,” said Corporal Ash. “Then the orderlies will take the pans down to the cookhouse and, when they’ve scrubbed them out, they’ll be issued with tea and hard biscuits and that will be all the grub for today.” The tea was good but the biscuits presented a problem again, although they definitely came from a different source to those provided aboard the Galena. About three inches by three and a half inches, thick, dark brown and very hard; the strongest teeth could make no impression on them. Soaking in tea failed to soften them.
     Ewart Walker, ex-journalist and very knowledgeable, spoke of a huge reserve food store maintained underground in Valletta… Over many years the food store had been maintained at a level sufficient to feed the population of Malta for the duration of a six-month siege. Walker… estimated that these stony biscuits could well have been placed below during the Napoleonic Wars. Their hardness and their repulsive dark appearance lent weight to his theory.
     All attempts to eat them had to be abandoned, although an enterprising chap with a hammer and small chisel did chip carefully away at some of them to make what he sold as frames for photographs.’
** The Granaries, Fosos in Maltese, lie under Publius Square/Pjazza San Publiju in the Floriana district of Valletta.

Well, Army grub certainly had its comedic side, but it could have serious consequences when Tommies (or troops in other Armies, of course) came to feel it as an act of disrespect – from the British Army in an institutional amorphous sense, from the upper-class officers who ruled them, from the country they had volunteered to serve… according to taste. Here my father (incidentally experimenting with a first-person passage) shows how the Tommies grievances led to a small mutiny: 

‘The food remained the one faulty part of the organisation. Whenever the men discussed the subject, they cursed that beady-eyed rascal [the Quartermaster]…. He was seldom seen around the barracks and general opinion held that his job had scared him. Such an unprepossessing person would be fair game for more experienced supply officers. But dozens of men in the ranks at that time possessed more ability than that reptile to do the job of quartermaster in a responsible manner.
     “Imagine,” thought Tommy, “what strange sort of caterer would so bungle his ordering that men’s breakfasts in a hot climate would consist of strong cheese and onions boiled together?” This occurred on two or three days of each week for a period. It appeared a vast amount of cheese had been stored so carelessly it partially melted. And obviously some bright lad had bought a large consignment of Spanish onions. So someone induced Quartermaster Muggins to take quantities of both. Hence, the repulsive breakfasts.
     Corned beef might have proved an easy solution, but it bore no resemblance to that on sale in shops: delivered in large cans, dry and almost tasteless. Soldiers on the battlefield expected indifferent food, but a good quartermaster could surely do better than this for a Battalion in barracks.’

And so, when they moved from the barracks to a tented encampment (my father training as a Signaller by then):

‘At meal times, the orderly officer and a Sergeant visited the messes and the Sergeant called “Any complaints?” to which, normally, no one responded. It was assumed that a complainant would be marked as a grumbler and might suffer for his temerity.
     But, finally, one day several did complain – all greeted with a stony silence and a hostile look from the Sergeant. No improvement followed and, soon after that, around midday, from my raised situation in my Signals tent, I witnessed a couple of hundred men marching round and round the footpaths bordering the camp, led by a man carrying a leafy branch torn from one of the few trees in the area. They shouted slogans such as “Poor food, no work!”
     Roused and, understandably, incensed by hunger, more men joined the protest. Little as I knew of military law, I felt certain the ringleaders risked court martial and severe punishment… the leader, a chap with wild, staring eyes, pursued his rabble-rouser role with infinite zeal and no apparent idea as to what the next move should be.
     A young officer made the decision for him. He appeared suddenly in front of them and gave a clear, sharp order, “Halt!” Without quibble, all the marchers obeyed. “Follow me!” he said, and turned and started marching — making himself the head of the column. And follow him they did, on to the road and out of my sight.
     Later, I heard he had taken them all to a nearby large marquee in which a famous firm of brewers and caterers, official concessionaires, retailed food and drink. That place was the nearest thing to a canteen we had at the time. By cheque, the officer — Lieutenant Booth***— bought a large quantity of canned sausages, bread and biscuits and organised their fair distribution to those present. He also undertook to put the mess complaints to the Colonel and told the men to disperse quietly.
     Thus, a situation, which could have resulted in imprisonment and punishment for decent, but desperate soldiers, was settled quietly by a good man who had some regard for human feelings and failings and not so much regard for the book of rules.
     Some good did come of the mutiny-that-wasn’t. Lieutenant Booth, who had a flair for organisation, accepted a job which would often intrude on his off-duty periods; he was given authority to inspect food stores, to check cooked meals before they were issued to the men and generally to look after the men’s interests regarding quantity and quality of foods. Perfection was not achieved, but sufficient improvement elicited praise from some former complainers.’
*** “Booth” is my father’s alias for Harry Nathan (1889-1963), who gained promotion to Captain quite early in the Battalion’s Malta sojourn and that autumn, in Gallipoli, became a Major and Battalion CO. A biography by H Montgomery Hyde called Strong For Service, quotes an August, 1914, letter from Nathan to his mother wherein he notes the importance of giving the troops “green vegetables, but they are not provided by the government”; Hyde also quotes Nathan blaming the poor provision for the troops in Malta – including the wounded already being shipped from Gallipoli – on Field Marshall Lord Methuen (1845-1932), Governor and Commander of all Forces on the island (February, 1915-May, 1919); Nathan wrote that he protested about all this officially and often and sometimes hoped “my remonstrances had a momentary effect”. Much later Nathan became a Minister in Attlee’s post-WW2 Labour Government.

In August the Battalion sailed to Egypt. There, “Booth”/Nathan as Quartermaster proved the value of talking to the Tommies, who would forgive much if given a rational explanation. For instance, in their camp outside Cairo he told them:

‘…the meat we had just eaten – or not – was very tough, but nothing better could be bought for love nor money. The sweet potatoes that went with it were strange to us, but there were no ordinary spuds to be had. So he proposed to spend the additional funds [chiselled out of the Egyptian Government apparently] on canned goods, meats if available, otherwise fruits from a big importing company. A sound businessman, he looked after our interests carefully.’

In late September they moved on – a troopship carried them north to… they knew where, though they were never told. This instigated their introduction to battlefield “iron rations”:

‘… a bag of small, hard biscuits, single packets of beef cubes, tea and sugar, and a can of Maconochie’s stewed beef**** – this last, one of that war’s great successes’
**** My father wrote from experience, of course, and apparently without sarcasm here, but various sites reveal a critical consensus either abusing the Aberdeen-based victualler’s stew – “An inferior grade of garbage,” says one – or warning of noxious side effects: “The Maconochie stew ration gave the troops flatulence of a particularly offensive nature”.

Preparing for action also brought another characteristic of the prudent/fearful Tommy – grabbing up all available food items to ensure against shortage later:

‘What bread I, and others around me, couldn’t eat, I stored in any space in haversack or pack. Stew couldn’t be so readily saved; surplus remained in the big dixies for return to the cooks and probable dumping overboard. But I picked out leftover pieces of meat, dried them off, wrapped them up tightly in an oilskin cap cover, and crammed this little package into my haversack.’

And… on the very night they landed at Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, a provisioning crisis did occur. Those emergency iron rations were gone before the night was out – because of my father it seems:

‘I was in a full tizzy of excitement having been on the ship to expect immediate and violent action. However, when we stayed there [just above the beach] for some while, pangs of hunger became pressing – we had not eaten since early morning. In a fairly loud voice, which I hoped would reach our officer’s ears, I said I was starving. “Quiet!” came a reproof, but muttering spread along the line, confirming that others also felt empty. A word of mouth message passed from man to man brought a junior officer over and he explained that no rations had been issued since we left the island harbour. Rightly or wrongly, he agreed that we should start on our iron rations.
     Fortunate the ridge concealed us, for we were soon lighting our little methylated stoves to heat water in our mess tins. Into this we dropped beef cubes and some of the small, hard biscuits. With this below our belts we felt stronger. I set about chewing dry biscuits as well. A swig from my water bottle, and I felt twice the man.’

Perhaps that mistake was down to the admired “Booth”/Nathan. Whether or not, he soon fixed it:

That first morning we had cause to bless Lieutenant Booth, the enthusiastic young officer who had replaced Quartermaster wax whiskers. He did his job of feeding and clothing us with complete dedication and, during the hours of darkness, had applied his energy to bringing forward from the beach some of the stores unloaded from the lighters. Volunteers distributed food. They gave each of us four rashers of bacon and half a loaf of bread, small paper bags of tea and sugar, and a tin of condensed milk.
     One volunteer from each group of four holes was allowed to hang the occupants’ eight water bottles over his shoulders and make his way back to a clump of trees and bushes behind which sheltered a mule-drawn water cart.
     Still we huddled there unmolested. We could hardly believe our luck. The mess-tin lid with its fold-over handle made an efficient frying pan and most of us still had the methylated-spirit heaters. I fried the rashers, soaked up the fat with bread and ate that up, then boiled about half a pint of water and dropped some tea, sugar and milk into it. It was good, I felt very much better and happier after that meal.’

But Suvla Bay standard meals proved far less satisfying or nourishing. The Tommies weakened rapidly, in body and, consequently, morale – again, they felt disrespected:

‘Rough seas meant poor rations, slack organisation of supplies back at the bases resulted in monotonous repetition of the same food items, as with the already mentioned apricot jam and hard biscuits – the oft-abused corned beef became, at times, a welcome luxury. If some bully beef came our way we felt stronger, the nourishment taking effect rapidly in our debilitated bodies. If a piece of bread and a chunk of cheese filtered down through the hands of all those who organised supplies to the ranker, the lowest level of Army life, then there was much slow, careful chewing and such pleasure evinced as would warm the heart of whoever had consigned the delicious grub to such humble men. Unfortunately, long gaps lingered between such treats.
     With the best will in the world, our officers could not attain efficient feeding and welfare of their men under active-service conditions. They had not received the necessary training and it was easy to let things slide, to let the willing workers overtax themselves while slackers lurked in places they believed safe spots. A good officer would see that every man had his share of what’s available; not many of ours took so much trouble, probably because they themselves were overcome by discomforts and lack of rest and sleep.’

Hard to ‘to live under such conditions and maintain your intelligence or even your sanity’, Sam wrote. So what did the more resourceful do? Scrounge. My father spent most of two months in a trench/hole on a hill overlooking the Turkish lines with one other Signaller for immediate companionship, splitting the 24 hours, seven days a week, between them. But their neighbours, regular Essex Regiment machine gunners, decided to do something about the dietary monotony:

‘… country lads, very shrewd – they secured an officer’s permission for two of them to make a foraging trip to the beach. A lighter had unloaded a cargo of fresh meat, we’d heard – very likely this had happened many times previously, yet our lot had never had a mouthful of it, not the rankers anyway.
     These two resourceful men returned with – would you believe it? – a whole leg of beef. Whether they stated that they represented a large group of men I don’t know, but they got hold of it, and they carried it, each taking turns, a long way across open country, risking shells from field guns and bullets from snipers until they got down into a communication trench leading uphill to our position. I marvelled that two men could have hauled it such a distance.
     Generosity to comrades was part of the faith of these Essex farm men, so they included me and my helper [then a glum fellow my father calls Harry Green] in their feastings. They gathered old planks and anything that grew nearby. At dusk, they partially covered over a disused trench with sawn-off branches and started burning small quantities of our scavenged wood, restricting the flames carefully to avoid inviting a shell. Gradually, they built up a big heap of glowing embers whereon we laid our mess-tin lids with their folding handles to cook thin slices of the beef. The smoke filtered away through the branches and the night air grew rich with the smell of meat roasting.
     Then, during daylight hours, we filled our bellies with beef stewed in a couple of large dixies left overnight on the smouldering mound – small additions to it being made at intervals by those whose duties kept them up and about. Large tins of dried potato shreds had been issued and we all added our shares to the cook pots to thicken the liquor. Into one dixie, went a quantity of curry powder for those who liked their stew really hot – and had no fear of possible consequences.
     This feasting continued for several days and I felt my strength building up and youth’s natural cheerfulness returning. We could smile again; such a change from the dejected hangdog expressions with which we had all been depressing each other.’

After that respite, more privations followed. In the (literally) Siberian blizzard of late November, of course many froze to death. The already creaky food provision system broke down. Up on the Signallers’ hill, Sam reckoned that ‘having no protection from the terrible cold, Green and I looked like dying quite soon’. He slid and stumbled down to Battalion HQ. An acting Quartermaster Sergeant told him the Essex lads should feed them – which they couldn’t. Then he relented and gave my father ‘a handful of tea and two hard square biscuits, this to feed two men for an indefinite period’.
     Shortly after that, he did get a short break down at Brigade HQ where his suspicions about the Army food chain proved true:

‘Some days we had steak and onions for dinner; it seemed incredible after the hard tack and occasional bully beef which had usually been my lot. Bacon for breakfast was not unknown, cheese and bread in the evening common. If the pecking order worked that way, the lucky devils at Divisional HQ probably got breakfast, a meat lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner in the evening. It all passed through too many hands before the ranker’s turn came, God help him.
     Meanwhile, I felt the benefit of this luxury, my spirits rose again, I smiled, even laughed occasionally.’

By mid-December he’d moved back to the hilltop. Then evacuation to Lemnos, relief, guilt at taking part in such a defeat – that’s what my father felt – and then a couple of days’ worth of joy. By Christmas, they’d collected all the accrued parcels from home, including those sent to the 80 per cent of the Battalion (800 out of 1,000) killed in action or shipped out with wounds or illness. The officers decided to share out the whole lot on Christmas Day: ‘cakes, biscuits, Christmas puddings and sweets, such a plenitude of good eatables’ (plus two dixies full of beer!).
     Come the small hours of Boxing Day, the warm glow turned to horror when the RSM peremptorily woke them and told them to get back down to the Mudros docks. A ship awaited them and soon they made a night landing at V Beach, through the battered hulk of the River Clyde. While they remained there only until January 6, and did take a few more casualties, the most notable feature of their “help with the evacuation” – the reason for their second Gallipoli trip – turned out to be… eating treats. That is, sharing in the delights normally reserved for that “other half” (always a small minority in truth, of course):

‘Our Signals group landed a lovely job which consisted of going to a large dump near the beach and gradually dispersing its contents: canned and bottled food and drink intended as extras for officers – anything that would keep well in cans, boxes, cartons, with smoked items in cotton wraps, also biscuits, some cakes and sweets, wines, beers, but not much in the way of spirits. We loaded these good things on to small mule carts.
     A very fair way had been devised to consign them to the troops in equal quantities. Those up at the Front got the first deliveries, naturally. The officer in charge at the dump had records of all the units in benefit. We could only work at night, but during breaks for rest, or while awaiting transports, we were allowed to eat and drink. Chicken, asparagus, Irish bitter from round brass-coloured tins, Schweppes lemon squash or Seltzer water, thin lunch biscuits and other luxuries… for a brief period our small, but fortunate group guzzled these lush items.
     Quite fairly, we were not allowed to take anything away from the dump for our own use; but we would be entitled to a share of what was delivered to our Battalion. In fact, we Signallers hadn’t the gall to accept our share when it was offered since we stuffed ourselves to capacity during the night and, in daytime, only wanted to sleep. But we did work with a will on the job – and so shortened its duration, unfortunately.
     A few days after our disembarkation at V Beach, around midnight someone called out “It’s New Year’s Eve!” and a special search produced several bottles of what may have been cider, although some called it champagne. We didn’t know which, but heartily toasted each other and anyone else we fancied, before renewing our onslaught on that marvellous giveaway job.’

After that second evacuation, via a four-month R&R stint in Egypt, the Battalion was despatched to France. In Rouen the proud remnants, to their bitter chagrin, found themselves broken up and scattered to other outfits on the Somme Front. Sam ended up with the Kensingtons in the Hébuterne/Gommecourt northern sector. Despite the profound disappointment of losing his old comrades, he did acknowledge that here on the Western Front the common soldiery got much better care and attention from the Army – hence, one less reason to moan!

‘I soon recognised that this Battalion was run by men more skilled in caring for and providing for their rankers than any I had encountered earlier. A Quartermaster Sergeant, a Sergeant Cook, and some well-trained men worked miracles with the rations to produce meals of a quality I’d seldom experienced in front-line soldiering. They had several mobile field kitchens, comprising large boilers, food store boxes, fuel containers, fire boxes under boilers with tubular chimneys and so on, along with two-wheeled vehicles, usually pulled by mules, which allowed cooking to proceed while on the march. According to circumstances, they either stayed behind to work and caught up with us later, or moved with us in the column, or went ahead to our destination if our progress was slower than their wagons could achieve.
     Always, a substantial hot meal and good steaming tea arrived when needed – well, except when “enemy action” occasionally disrupted their praiseworthy efforts. The Quarter-bloke, a tall, strong, purposeful man, a tower of strength and efficiency, often achieved near-miracles under terrible difficulties. For men who, for hours, had endured exposure to rain, cold, shot and shell to unexpectedly be given a mess-tin full of hot stew or tea with bread was to restore our faith and hope and courage – the very knowledge that others thought about our discomfort, even misery, and had been kind enough to do something about it heartened us.
     None of the messing about with bits of rations here, no cooking puny portions in a mess-tin over a small spirit burner – often producing nothing worth eating. No going for days with nothing but hard biscuits, jam and a small allowance of water…
     Observing this, and other matters of organisation, I came to understand that, here in France, with the war obviously going to be a long one, the British Army conducted it rather on the lines of a business.’

Some encomium. However, he did still encounter meannesses and privilege translates into damaging inequality. With the Kensingtons, Sam was promoted to Corporal. He detested any kind of command over his fellow men, but when he had it he tried to exercise it fairly, like his shining light “Booth”/Nathan. Here he talks to his Company officer about the nutritive difficulties of men out digging advance trenches in No Man’s Land overnight – he had to regularly lead such a patrol:

I told him of the men’s need of food and drink around midnight – to which his only suggestion was that, as the men were required to sleep during most hours of daylight, they should save bread, cheese and such for a meal during the night; water would have to suffice for drinking.
     None of this would please our chaps – good workers if looked after, but capable of skilful toil-avoidance if displeased. I felt they were not being well treated and would be resentful. Yet, somehow, some work must be seen to be done. So I let it be known that if they did a good three hours graft, starting from our time of arrival, then the rest of the night could be taken easy, given that each man should grab a tool and be busy as soon as he heard my voice, for my coming would be a warning of the officer’s presence, doing his rounds.’

On rations generally, my father proved game to ask the awkward questions, if not to any obvious effect:

‘… we often said, it was all right for those bastards at Army HQ about 50 miles back. With their maps, plans, and schemes, battle was probably no more than a game to them, to be played between 10-course meals.
     Indeed, solid rations such as bread, butter, cheese etc, were distributed through “the usual channels”, that is, a recognised pecking order as they passed from Division Headquarters, on to the Brigade, to the Battalion and finally to us, the Company. When, in the front-line trenches, the bread allocation they gave me to share out amounted to rather a small portion per man, I found it pretty disgusting — because I was handed my own Corporal’s ration for the day separately and that was a half-loaf. I questioned this with the Sergeant controlling the distribution, but he insisted this was all correct, since those responsible for others did more work and must be maintained in a fit state to do it.’

Otherwise on the Somme – May-late September, including July 1 of course – food ceased to be a constant source of concern and complaint. No joy either, though drink could prove an enhancement when his Battalion was relieved of front-line trench duties for a week or so and billeted in a French village: “

‘…at that moment, champagne was a good buy because the owners of one big house had decided they couldn’t carry on living in that dangerous area, finally abandoning the hope, long shared by many in that region, that the Allies would soon drive the Germans back to the Rhine… So, imagine: champagne at 2.50 francs the bottle, brandy cognac about 5 francs, curaçao about 8 francs, coarse red wine 50 centîmes*****. The red wine I didn’t favour. A few weeks previously I had drunk two whole bottles during an evening, and become tipsy in a sad, sour way… whereas a steady tippling session mainly on champagne yielded a night of unbroken sleep followed by an awakening to a clear head and a feeling of well-being.’
***** One online account says the British Army’s exchange rate  in France was fixed at the rate of 5 francs = three shillings and seven pence for the month of July, 1916. Alan MacDonald’s Pro Patria Mori says the more discerning soldiery enjoyed the  estaminets of Souastre, just behind Hébuterne, because they flogged Veuve Clicquot champagne at 9 francs.

In late September, Sam’s age came to light – 18, still under elegibility for the battlefield – and he went home for a year, albeit via a stint at the Harfleur British Army camp where, by what you might call delicious irony, he worked in catering.
     On his return to France from December, 1917, he experienced the same Western Front efficiency with regard to victualling that he’d seen in 1916 – with one pleasant addition: ‘I viewed with amazement and pleasure the sight of water pipes and taps in the rear trenches – the like of that had never been dreamt of in earlier days’.
     However, the regime of steady nutrition ended abruptly on March 28, when, in the Fampoux sector of the battle against the Spring Offensive (outside Arras), his Essex Regiment 2/7th Battalion was sacrificed to cover a retreat and he became a POW. With Germans in the Army and at home rapidly approaching starvation levels because of the Allies’ naval blockade, prisoners got worse than short shrift. For Sam, the relentless diet became clear on his second day in captivity, even though he fell into the peripatetic groups of prisoners shuffled around behind the lines in northern France, then southern Germany, pausing in many different locations for a few weeks’ forced labour:

‘Nourishment for that second day as a prisoner had consisted of a litre of coffee substitute (mainly roasted and crushed acorns) and a piece of sour, dark-brown rye bread, which yielded two slices. I was to become familiar with these items during the coming months. The only daily addition to this, now that we had entered some kind of makeshift war prisoner camp, was a litre of stewed root vegetables – swedes, turnips and mangoldwurzels – doled out every evening. Some old horsemeat may have been cooked with them, but none came our way; the under-fed Germans saw to that.
     This diet just kept me alive. Now, even in these earliest days, I too started to become hollow-eyed, emaciated.
     First priority was to acquire an empty tin can in which to collect your liquid rations. I managed that quite soon and, with a penknife which had eluded the Germans who robbed me on the battlefield, I began shaping a spoon out of a piece of wood.
     Finding some potato peelings one day, I washed them at a stand-pipe in the ex-factory building, put them in my can and filled it with water, gathered wood shavings, straw and odd bits of floorboard for a fire, cadged a light and cooked them. Without any seasoning they tasted awful, but down they went.’

Occasionally, he got the chance to supplement his eating with something good when a passer-by showed compassion – some boiled potatoes, a fruit pie once. But mostly the variations and keep-you-alive additions came only from what the POWs could scrounge. Anything. The worst maybe what his pal Wally got hold of while working in a piggery:

‘… he managed to slide his hand into a trough and pull out some dark-coloured meat which, on close study, appeared to be liver. It smelt unsavoury, but we wiped it and ate the revolting stuff. So robbing pigs of their swill was now our aim in life – though I have since suspected we were laying up stores of health troubles for future days.’

My father may well have been right. His final “interesting” gastronomic experience of World War 1 occurred after November 11, 1918, when, following his long walk back to France from his final POW camp, he was twice nearly killed by good-willed people with no experience of dealing with near-starvation. The first example, immediately after he – a skin-and-bone tottering rag of a man by then – crossed the French front line somewhere south of Nancy:

‘I was given one of those long French loaves and a mug of hot, sweet cocoa. Replete and secure at last, I slept… until, at some time later, I awoke, scarce able to breath.
     My belly had swollen, awful pain and discomfort assailed me. Movement did get rid of a vast accumulation of wind, but then the inevitable enteritis and diarrhoea took over and had to be dealt with.
     A tummy too long deprived of normal nourishment simply could not tolerate the rich, sweet chocolate drink. So, both then and later, I suffered as kind people plied me generously with food which would, of course, have been good, plain fare to fit men.’

Still, once he, helped by French, British and American medics, got the hang of the problem, he thrived again, filled out, began to feel normal, enjoyed slap-up meals and parties with friends and family… But the stored-up problems did re-emerge and, in fact, directly caused his eventual discharge in May, 1919 – by then he had transferred to a Dad’s Army-style group engaged in guarding German POWs down near Arundel:

‘In Sussex, the fat – even a burgeoning dewlap – which happiness and good living had prematurely bestowed on me in the months after my return to England gradually disappeared. In fact, my face partially reverted to its prisoner-of-war gauntness; food had seemed so wonderful after previous deprivations, but in time my voracious appetite waned, abdominal pains returned and irked me and, despite my efforts to bear in mind all the blessings now available, a dullness settled like a blight upon me.
     I resisted it constantly, pressed it down inside me. I attempted normal conversation and persevered with laughter, but it was all difficult. The officer who regularly inspected the prisoners and premises, granted my request for an interview and was understanding when I told him about these things. He sent me to see an RAMC doctor at the local Headquarters and the results of his tests led to an appointment with a Medical Board. Doctors there probed my abdomen thoroughly and somewhat painfully, then recommended my release from the Service “having become physically impaired”.’

So he had. Aged 20. He did recover again to live a full life and a long one – he died at 88 in 1987. But gastric problems troubled him intermittently and he always wondered whether the rectal cancer which afflicted him – and he survived – in his 50s was triggered by the whole WW1 experience. He did first show signs of debilitation and intestinal troubles in 1917, his year “out”, which saw him spend a month in a Sheffield military hospital… but who knows?
     In sum, whatever the upshot of all this WW1 Tommy-as-foodie reportage, it certainly does suggest that Napoleon wasn’t wrong when he came out with that old saw about an Army marching on its stomach… 

All the best– FSS

Next week: While Sam enjoys that “month spent by the sea with nothing to do but polish our boots and buttons”, the Blog Retro 4 theme is… not what I planned and trailered, which was “A Tommy’s eye view of the enemy”… because, thinking about it, I got more interested in “Comradeship”, how Sam and assorted pals or, anyway, companions kept one another going in appalling conditions with narry a therapist in sight…

(1) In his 70s, Sam Sutcliffe wrote Nobody Of Any Importance, a Memoir of his life from childhood through Gallipoli, the Somme, Arras 1918 and eight months as a POW to the 1919 Peace parade.

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