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Durham County Record Office: the official archive service for County Durham and Darlington

Food

Food in the trenches was often repetitive, boring and the rations were small.

Diet sheet for ‘C’ Company 9th Battalion, 11 July 1917 (D/DLI 7/701/2/113)
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This diet sheet is from a scrap book kept by Colonel William Douglas Baird Thompson of the 9th Battalion The Durham Light Infantry.

We would not consider this a balanced diet today, as it contains no fruit or vegetables, except for the lime juice, and very little fibre.

Lime juice was given to soldiers to prevent scurvy as it is high in vitamin C. In the margin of the book Thompson has written that he ate this diet for 14 days in the front line trench, and only received '1 half pint of water per rank per day'.

Today we are recommended to drink 2 litres or 4 pints of water a day in normal conditions, and more when exercising.

See a full transcript of the diet sheet.

Indeed, the poem 'My Little Dry Home in the West' jokes:

'bully beef and hard biscuits we chew
It seems years since we tasted a stew'.

The men could eat fairly well, however, if they were inventive and had a bit of luck. In Reesletter of 28 December 1915, he notes that 'We feed quite well, dine at night, soup, joint & sweets so you see we are really doing quite well' and Catford describes a dinner party in his dugout in his letter of 1 February 1916 which consisted of what, even today, would be considered fairly high quality food.

To supplement their rations, the men received parcels from home containing food (see Constantine's letter of 13 May 1915), often including luxuries such as chocolate. The men could also buy food from the local shops (see Constantine's Letter of 4 September 1916). There are reports of men growing vegetables in reserve trenches, and going hunting and fishing to supplement their rations and pass the time when they were not in the front line. Reverend J.A.G. Birch, chaplain to the 5th Battalion The Durham Light Infantry, described a fishing trip near Ypres in June 1915.

Once food had been bought, caught, grown or scavenged, it could be cooked if needed, and then eaten. 'Mulligan, Or Soldier's Stew' is a poem by Lieutenant Percy Hugh Beverley Lyon of the 6th Battalion The Durham Light Infantry. It was published in 1918 by Erskine and MacDonald in 'Songs of Youth and War' and describes the making of this stew. Dixies were cooking pots.

Mulligan, Or Soldier's Stew 
There's bits of beef from yesterday and bones as good as new, 
There's heaps of stuff about would come in handy for a stew; 
Likewise a brace of rabbits as was 'found' by Pat McGee;- 
I guess it looks like Mulligan," says Milligan to me.

There's onions in the corner there, and cabbages and such, 
And a barrel full of 'taters (you can't never have too much); 
Just mix the lot together, Mike, and salt it pretty free, 
It drowns the salt, does Mulligan", says Milligan to me.

So we stirred it up together, meat and green-stuff, fat and lean; 
We piled the dixies cunningly, and set the fire between;
And soon we had it simmering as sweetly as could be:-
And that's how we made Mulligan, Tim Milligan and me.

The most popular dish in France during the war, however, was probably eggs and chips. It is thought to have been invented because of the scarcity, and high price, of bacon and steak and it was served in estaminets, church army, and refreshment, huts behind the lines. Estaminets were a cross between a pub and a café and were often run in a family's living room, with the daughters acting as waitresses. They were found in small towns and villages and sold wine, cognac, weak beer, coffee, soup, eggs and chips and omelettes to off-duty soldiers.