Read CHAPTER V - FEEDING THE TOMMIES of A Yankee in the Trenches, free online book, by R. Derby Holmes, on

Food is a burning issue in the lives of all of us. It is the main consideration with the soldier. His life is simplified to two principal motives, i.e., keeping alive himself and killing the other fellow. The question uppermost in his mind every time and all of the time, is, “When do we eat?”

In the trenches the backbone of Tommy’s diet is bully beef, “Maconochie’s Ration”, cheese, bread or biscuit, jam, and tea. He may get some of this hot or he may eat it from the tin, all depending upon how badly Fritz is behaving.

In billets the diet is more varied. Here he gets some fresh meat, lots of bacon, and the bully and the Maconochie’s come along in the form of stew. Also there is fresh bread and some dried fruit and a certain amount of sweet stuff.

It was this matter of grub that made my life a burden in the billets at Petite-Saens. I had been rather proud of being lance corporal. It was, to me, the first step along the road to being field marshal. I found, however, that a corporal is high enough to take responsibility and to get bawled out for anything that goes wrong. He’s not high enough to command any consideration from those higher up, and he is so close to the men that they take out their grievances on him as a matter of course. He is neither fish, flesh, nor fowl, and his life is a burden.

I had the job of issuing the rations of our platoon, and it nearly drove me mad. Every morning I would detail a couple of men from our platoon to be standing mess orderlies for the day. They would fetch the char and bacon from the field kitchen in the morning and clean up the “dixies” after breakfast. The “dixie”, by the way, is an iron box or pot, oblong in shape, capacity about four or five gallons. It fits into the field kitchen and is used for roasts, stews, char, or anything else. The cover serves to cook bacon in.

Field kitchens are drawn by horses and follow the battalion everywhere that it is safe to go, and to some places where it isn’t. Two men are detailed from each company to cook, and there is usually another man who gets the sergeants’ mess, besides the officers’ cook, who does not as a rule use the field kitchen, but prepares the food in the house taken as the officers’ mess.

As far as possible, the company cooks are men who were cooks in civil life, but not always. We drew a plumber and a navvy (road builder) and the grub tasted of both trades. The way our company worked the kitchen problem was to have stew for two platoons one day and roast dinner for the others, and then reverse the order next day, so that we didn’t have stew all the time. There were not enough “dixies” for us all to have stew the same day.

Every afternoon I would take my mess orderlies and go to the quartermaster’s stores and get our allowance and carry it back to the billets in waterproof sheets. Then the stuff that was to be cooked in the kitchen went there, and the bread and that sort of material was issued direct to the men. That was where my trouble started.

The powers that were had an uncanny knack of issuing an odd number of articles to go among an even number of men, and vice versa. There would be eleven loaves of bread to go to a platoon of fifty men divided into four sections. Some of the sections would have ten men and some twelve or thirteen.

The British Tommy is a scrapper when it comes to his rations. He reminds me of an English sparrow. He’s always right in there wangling for his own. He will bully and browbeat if he can, and he will coax and cajole if he can’t. It would be “Hi sye, corporal. They’s ten men in Number 2 section and fourteen in ourn. An’ blimme if you hain’t guv ’em four loaves, same as ourn. Is it right, I arsks yer? Is it?” Or,

“Lookee! Do yer call that a loaf o’ bread? Looks like the A.S.C. (Army Service Corps) been using it fer a piller. Gimme another, will yer, corporal?”

When it comes to splitting seven onions nine ways, I defy any one to keep peace in the family, and every doggoned Tommy would hold out for his onion whether he liked ’em or not. Same way with a bottle of pickles to go among eleven men or a handful of raisins or apricots. Or jam or butter or anything, except bully beef or Maconochie. I never heard any one “argue the toss” on either of those commodities.

Bully is high-grade corned beef in cans and is O.K. if you like it, but it does get tiresome.

Maconochie ration is put up a pound to the can and bears a label which assures the consumer that it is a scientifically prepared, well-balanced ration. Maybe so. It is my personal opinion that the inventor brought to his task an imperfect knowledge of cookery and a perverted imagination. Open a can of Maconochie and you find a gooey gob of grease, like rancid lard. Investigate and you find chunks of carrot and other unidentifiable material, and now and then a bit of mysterious meat. The first man who ate an oyster had courage, but the last man who ate Maconochie’s unheated had more. Tommy regards it as a very inferior grade of garbage. The label notwithstanding, he’s right.

Many people have asked me what to send our soldiers in the line of food. I’d say stick to sweets. Cookies of any durable kind I mean that will stand chance moisture the sweeter the better, and if possible those containing raisins or dried fruit. Figs, dates, etc., are good. And, of course, chocolate. Personally, I never did have enough chocolate. Candy is acceptable, if it is of the sort to stand more or less rough usage which it may get before it reaches the soldier. Chewing gum is always received gladly. The army issue of sweets is limited pretty much to jam, which gets to taste all alike.

It is pathetic to see some of the messes Tommy gets together to fill his craving for dessert. The favorite is a slum composed of biscuit, water, condensed milk, raisins, and chocolate. If some of you folks at home would get one look at that concoction, let alone tasting it, you would dash out and spend your last dollar for a package to send to some lad “over there.”

After the excitement of dodging shells and bullets in the front trenches, life in billets seems dull. Tommy has too much time to get into mischief. It was at Petite-Saens that I first saw the Divisional Folies. This was a vaudeville show by ten men who had been actors in civil life, and who were detailed to amuse the soldiers. They charged a small admission fee and the profit went to the Red Cross.

There ought to be more recreation for the soldiers of all armies. The Y.M.C.A. is to take care of that with our boys.

By the way, we had a Y.M.C.A. hut at Petite-Saens, and I cannot say enough for this great work. No one who has not been there can know what a blessing it is to be able to go into a clean, warm, dry place and sit down to reading or games and to hear good music. Personally I am a little bit sorry that the secretaries are to be in khaki. They weren’t when I left. And it sure did seem good to see a man in civilian’s clothes. You get after a while so you hate the sight of a uniform.

Another thing about the Y.M.C.A. I could wish that they would have more women in the huts. Not frilly, frivolous society girls, but women from thirty-five to fifty. A soldier likes kisses as well as the next. And he takes them when he finds them. And he finds too many. But what he really wants, though, is the chance to sit down and tell his troubles to some nice, sympathetic woman who is old enough to be level-headed.

Nearly every soldier reverts more or less to a boyish point of view. He hankers for somebody to mother him. I should be glad to see many women of that type in the Y.M.C.A. work. It is one of the great needs of our army that the boys should be amused and kept clean mentally and morally. I don’t believe there is any organization better qualified to do this than the Y.M.C.A.

Most of our chaps spent their time “on their own” either in the Y.M.C.A. hut or in the estaminets while we were in Petite-Saens. Our stop there was hardly typical of the rest in billets. Usually “rest” means that you are set to mending roads or some such fatigue duty. At Petite-Saens, however, we had it “cushy.”

The routine was about like this: Up at 6:30, we fell in for three-quarters of an hour physical drill or bayonet practice. Breakfast. Inspection of ammo and gas masks. One hour drill. After that, “on our own”, with nothing to do but smoke, read, and gamble.

Tommy is a great smoker. He gets a fag issue from the government, if he is lucky, of two packets or twenty a week. This lasts him with care about two days. After that he goes smokeless unless he has friends at home to send him a supply. I had friends in London who sent me about five hundred fags a week, and I was consequently popular while they lasted. This took off some of the curse of being a lance corporal.

Tommy has his favorite in “fags” like anybody else. He likes above all Wild Woodbines. This cigarette is composed of glue, cheap paper, and a poor quality of hay. Next in his affection comes Goldflakes pretty near as bad.

People over here who have boys at the front mustn’t forget the cigarette supply. Send them along early and often. There’ll never be too many. Smoking is one of the soldier’s few comforts. Two bits’ worth of makin’s a week will help one lad make life endurable. It’s cheap at the price. Come through for the smoke fund whenever you get the chance.

Cafe life among us at Petite-Saens was mostly drinking and gambling. That is not half as bad as it sounds. The drinking was mostly confined to the slushy French beer and vin blanc and citron. Whiskey and absinthe were barred.

The gambling was on a small scale, necessarily, the British soldier not being at any time a bloated plutocrat. At the same time the games were continuous. “House” was the most popular. This is a game similar to the “lotto” we used to play as children. The backers distribute cards having fifteen numbers, forming what they call a school. Then numbered cardboard squares are drawn from a bag, the numbers being called out. When a number comes out which appears on your card, you cover it with a bit of match. If you get all your numbers covered, you call out “house”, winning the pot. If there are ten people in at a franc a head, the banker holds out two francs, and the winner gets eight.

It is really quite exciting, as you may get all but one number covered and be rooting for a certain number to come. Usually when you get as close as that and sweat over a number for ten minutes, somebody else gets his first. Corporal Wells described the game as one where the winner “’ollers ’ouse and the rest ’ollers ’ell!”

Some of the nicknames for the different numbers remind one of the slang of the crap shooter. For instance, “Kelly’s eye” means one. “Clickety click” is sixty-six. “Top of the house” is ninety. Other games are “crown and anchor”, which is a dice game, and “pontoon”, which is a card game similar to “twenty-one” or “seven and a half.” Most of these are mildly discouraged by the authorities, “house” being the exception. But in any estaminet in a billet town you’ll find one or all of them in progress all the time. The winner usually spends his winnings for beer, so the money all goes the same way, game or no game.

When there are no games on, there is usually a sing-song going. We had a merry young nuisance in our platoon named Rolfe, who had a voice like a frog and who used to insist upon singing on all occasions. Rolfie would climb on the table in the estaminet and sing numerous unprintable verses of his own, entitled “Oh, What a Merry Plyce is Hengland.” The only redeeming feature of this song was the chorus, which everybody would roar out and which went like this:

Cheer, ye beggars, cheer!
Britannia rules the wave!
’Ard times, short times
Never’ll come agyne.
Shoutin’ out at th’ top o’ yer lungs:
Damn the German army!
Oh, wot a lovely plyce is Hengland!

Our ten days en repos at Petite-Saens came to an end all too soon.

On the last day we lined up for our official “bawth.”

Petite-Saens was a coal-mining town. The mines were still operated, but only at night this to avoid shelling from the Boche long-distance artillery, which are fully capable of sending shells and hitting the mark at eighteen miles. The water system of the town depended upon the pumping apparatus of the mines. Every morning early, before the pressure was off, all hands would turn out for a general “sluicing” under the hydrants. We were as clean as could be and fairly free of “cooties” at the end of a week, but official red tape demanded that we go through an authorized scouring.

On the last day we lined up for this at dawn before an old warehouse which had been fitted with crude showers. We were turned in twenty in a batch and were given four minutes to soap ourselves all over and rinse off. I was in the last lot and had just lathered up good and plenty when the water went dead. If you want to reach the acme of stickiness, try this stunt. I felt like the inside of a mucilage bottle for a week.

After the official purification we were given clean underwear. And then there was a howl. The fresh underthings had been boiled and sterilized, but the immortal cootie had come through unscathed and in all its vigor. Corporal Wells raised a pathetic wail:

“Blimme eyes, mytie! I got more’n two ‘undred now an’ this supposed to be a bloomin’ clean shirt! Why, the blinkin’ thing’s as lousy as a cookoo now, an me just a-gittin’ rid o’ the bloomin’ chats on me old un. Strike me pink if it hain’t a bleedin’ crime! Some one ought to write to John Bull abaht it!”

John Bull is the English paper of that name published by Horatio Bottomley, which makes a specialty of publishing complaints from soldiers and generally criticising the conduct of army affairs.

Well, we got through the bath and the next day were on our way. This time it was up the line to another sector. My one taste of trench action had made me keen for more excitement, and in spite of the comfortable time at Petite-Saens, I was glad to go. I was yet to know the real horrors and hardships of modern warfare. There were many days in those to come when I looked back upon Petite-Saens as a sort of heaven.