Bully beef and biscuits are the stuff of legend when it comes to army rations. However, although this was largely the reality during the Gallipoli campaign, the Australian troops’ rations in other theatres of war were considerably better. It was assumed that supplies would be augmented from what was available locally. This worked better on the Western Front in Europe than it did in the Middle East. At Gallipoli, as the troops were pinned down in trenches close to the coast, it didn’t work at all.
A comprehensive article, Everything on its belly’- feeding the first AIF problems and solutions of Australian Army rationing and catering in the First World War, can be found here in The Free Library.
The article explains the various problems encountered in providing army rations during training, during transport and during battle. In the Middle East, unfamiliar foods such as rice and preserved vegetables were not necessarily palatable to the troops, especially when contaminated by the ever-present sand and flies. However, the first field bakeries were set up in Egypt to complement army rations with fresh bread and rolls.
Later, on the Western Front in Europe, proper field kitchens supplied three hot meals a day, although often with considerable difficulty. The Free Library article quotes the following as a sample menu: Breakfast–fried rissoles, pork and beans, bread, butter, tea; Dinner (lunch)–boiled beef, cabbage, mashed potatoes, rice custard, bread, tea; Tea–bread, butter, cheese, jam, tea.
At Gallipoli, things were very different. Cooks may have been supplied for the officers’ mess but soldiers had to cook their own meals in the trenches. This was fraught with peril as the smoke from a cooking fire presented a target for the enemy. Often, cooking took place at night, which also helped to alleviate the problem of flies.
The rations for the Gallipoli troops, per man per day, were:
Preserved Meat 12 oz (340 gm)
Biscuit 1 1/4 lb (570 gm)
Bacon 4 oz (110 gm)
Cheese 3 oz (85.05 gm)
Onions 8 oz (225 gm), or potatoes 8 oz (225 gm) and onions 4 oz (110 gm)
Tea 5/8 oz (17 gm)
Jam 1/4 lb (110 gm)
Sugar 3 oz (85.05 gm)
Salt 1/2 oz (15 gm)
Pepper 1/36 oz (0.79 gm)
Mustard 1/20 oz (1.42 gm)
Lime Juice 1/10 gill – not to be issued when potatoes or onions available for issue
Rum 1/2 gill When available
Tobacco 2 oz (57 gm) Per man per week
There were attempts to supplement this ration with frozen fresh meat shipped from Australia, but the climatic conditions meant that this usually arrived in an inedible condition. Potatoes, too, were withdrawn from the ration when they proved too expensive to ship, while the British cheese supplied turned oily and unpleasant in the heat. Two months into the campaign, supplies of bread arrived a couple of times a week from a field bakery on the island of Imbros (now Gökçeada).
Many soldiers became creative in the way they used their rations. and even wrote home about their culinary expertise. An example is quoted in the Inglewood Advertiser in October 1915:
Lance-Corporal J.J. Palmer writes: – Just a couple of recipes which have been tried in Gallipoli with great success. Somebody might care to waste the stuff in their spare time:-
Dug-out Porridge. Ingredients – Two meal biscuits, large size (commonly known as dog biscuits); one mess tin half-full of water. Treatment – Break biscuits to powder; put mess tin with water on fire. When boiling add powder and then stir for a while; then flavor with milk and sugar, if available, otherwise jam marmalade, plentiful.
French Rissoles. Ingredients – One tin of bully-beef, any brand; little bit of biscuit powder; a couple of onions and a little bit of thyme to flavor. This grows plentifully about the hills. No need to add salt, as the bully contains too much. Treatment – Chop up onions very small and mix the lot together; have it just a bit sticky. Make into small pasties and roll in flour, if one is lucky enough to pinch some off the beach without getting pinched himself. Fry well in lid of mess tin. To get fat for same render down bacon from breakfast which was too fat to eat.
The army rations for the Anzacs at Gallipoli proved grossly inadequate. The lack of fibre and essential vitamins led to scurvy and susceptibility to infections diseases such as typhoid. The hard biscuits, lack of water and vitamin deficiencies caused dental problems including bleeding gums and mouth ulcers.
There were some attempts to alleviate health issues with “invalid rations” including eggs, but these were in short supply and often only issued on prescription by the medical officer. In October, the Australian Comforts Fund managed to deliver one shipment of goods including canned fruit, cakes, sweets and other “luxury” goods. By the time of the evacuation from Gallipoli in December 1915, the troops were emaciated and in extremely poor physical condition. For the following month, they were allowed increased rations in an effort to restore them to health.