Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Stomach for Fighting
Reviewed by Jane M. Ekstam, Østfold University College, Norway

The Stomach for Fighting: 
Food and the Soldiers of the Great War 

by Rachel Duffett
Manchester University Press, 2012

A Canadian Field Kitchen

"I eat therefore I am." Food, according to Duffett, is what made the unbearable bearable in World War One. At the same time, The Stomach for Fighting: Food and the Soldiers of the Great War destroys the myth that many soldiers from the working classes were better fed at the front than they were at home. While food was nearly always available, the private soldier's diet was monotonous and soldiers came to hate the bully beef that appeared at almost every meal. As Duffett demonstrates,

In static times, and this was to be the more usual experience of the soldiers, there was sometimes a surfeit of the unpopular tins of beef, which were put to use as flooring in dug-outs by men who preferred not to consume their contents (230).

The monotonous diet also caused digestive problems. As one private wrote to a friend from France in 1915, "It requires a much better digestion than Providence has blessed you with to stand the kind of food we get here...nearly everybody is suffering from some bowel complaint" (231). The focus of The Stomach for Fighting: Food and the Soldiers of the Great War is on the rankers' eating, primarily on the Western Front, though Mesopotamia and Turkey are also mentioned. It explores the challenges the army faced in feeding millions of men and the men's impressions of their diet. Duffett concludes that the importance of food during the war was not only calorific; food should be understood "as a medium through which the social and emotional experiences of military service were expressed" (2). The Stomach for Fighting also makes clear the difference in variety and standard between the private soldier and the officer's diet. In addition, it shows the importance of setting when eating: while private soldiers ate in trenches and sheds, officers usually ate in much more comfortable and congenial settings, which not only made the eating experience more pleasurable but also served to reinforce social differences.

Duffett points out that the delivery and consumption of food in World War One have received little specialist attention, the primary focus to date being on strategy and tactics. The Stomach for Fighting is divided into six chapters: "Food and the war"; "Before the war"; "First taste: eating in the home camps"; "Feeding the men: army provisioning, the cooks and the ASC" (Army Service Corps); "Eating: the men and their rations"; and "Beyond the ration: scrounging, supplementing and sharing." The penultimate chapter, "Eating: the men and their rations," is particularly fascinating. It makes clear that food and warmth were the two most important things in the lives of both privates and officers. As one private remarked,

Your feelings only came to the fore when it was a special mate who had been killed or wounded and then it would quickly go away. Because what you really wanted to do was to go to sleep, get warm, get clean, and have a good hot meal (181).

Duffett concludes that because food brings the physiological and the psychological together, it can be used as a vehicle for physical as well as emotional experience. The difference between the private and the officer's rations (roast pork, for example, compared with bully beef) is a form of oppression. Food, argues Duffett, became a metaphor for the helplessness of the private soldier, who had little control over his environment. It was a key privation. Even if what was offered was acceptable, there was anger, fear, and resentment among private soldiers, who saw themselves as captives not only in the army but also in a society that differentiated between rulers and the ruled.

The procurement, preparation and consumption of food took on an emotional significance that it had not had in peacetime, because at the front, soldiers were distanced from their homes and familial affection: food is what brought the men together and helped them cope with the rigors and deprivations of war, physical as well as affective. That the diet of the private soldier, which was both monotonous and unlike the food offered at home, failed to fulfil these important goals is the main subject of The Stomach for Fighting.

Duffett's study, which started as a PhD thesis at the University of Essex, is the product of many years' careful research. Through the numerous references to food in letters, diaries, and memoirs, Duffett establishes the emotional reactions of soldiers to war. The Stomach for Fighting contains many references to archival material. It also includes photographs of men eating, how bread was made at the front, recipes, items made out of food, e.g. a picture frame made of biscuits, extracts from war magazines (e.g. The War Illustrated), and postcards showing food. (One sarcastic card is entitled "More German Atrocities" and shows a barrel of sauerkraut, limburger, and blutwurst, i.e. blood pudding.)

These Tommies Appear to Be Pleased with Their Rations

Some pictures are humorous but have no particular message, such as the one showing a British soldier on duty. He is watching a goose walk by. The caption reads, "His Christmas Goose. You wait till I comes off dooty!" The goose does not seem too worried! The cover picture, featuring John Singer Sargent's Thou shalt not steal is also humorous: it pictures two soldiers stealing fruit from trees. As both a sociable and productive activity that reminds soldiers of their lives at home, fruit picking is also an excellent example of the power of food to evoke memory and emotion.

Each chapter of this book is meticulously annotated. The bibliography is extensive, and divided into letters, printed primary sources, published diaries, published letters, published memoirs, other published primary sources, unpublished theses, and secondary sources. While The Stomach for Fighting is an academic publication, it is also highly readable and elegantly written. It is a valuable source of information for all those interested in what it meant to be at war, far from home, and a long way from the care of loved ones.

Jane M. Ekstam, Østfold University College, Norway

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