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

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Fortnum & Mason Provisions the Front — A Roads Classic

by Assistant Editor Kimball Worcester

Asked what food typified the Western Front, most students would come up with bully beef or Maconochie's stew. Here is the antithesis of that—the luxury of a Fortnum & Mason hamper, of varying items and quantities, available to be sent to "officers." Presumably the price alone precluded other ranks from ordering these, let alone the social exclusion. Bear in mind that many officers were but of the temporary sort, not necessarily monied as in the traditional prewar days. We show below excerpts of the Fortnum's 1914 catalog, primarily for Christmas—

Click on Images to Enlarge

The 1915 catalog (note the black/white, much sparer look) expanded to include other necessities for frontline existence, including a "Mediterranean" version, presumably for those in the vortex of Gallipoli. Perishables and breakables were kept out of these hampers as much as possible. And by hamper we really mean boxes and crates, since the lovely classic wicker hamper from Fortnum's could hardly stand the ravages of wartime transport and storage. Those boxes were useful empty as well.

1915 Fortnum & Mason Catalog

Included here are parcels of the month, all labeled "January," "February," etc. through December. And in another sad new tangent of the war, there is a section of parcels to send to POWs. How many of these actually made it through to their recipients can only be surmised—

After 1915 it is hard to image these abundant catalogs being made use of, or even available, given the escalating lack of food in Britain with the increased U-boat war sinking much-needed imported food. And with official rationing instituted in 1918, this prewar approach to sending treats to the front must have fallen away altogether.

To read through more of these catalog pages and find other Great War historical gems please go to The site owner Ian Houghton graciously gave permission for these to be excerpted. I had not seen his site before, but I recommend it.


  1. On the first page, the contents of "Sovereign Box No.1" includes "1 Housewife"! I wonder how they got her in the box?
    If it means something else, does anyone know what?

  2. Often rendered "Hussif". A cotton roll with tapes to tie it up, containing needles, thread, probably small scissors, perhaps assorted buttons and other small items to help the soldier make small repairs to his clothing - the sort of task that in more domesticated circumstances would have been the task of the "housewife". Fifty years ago, a 'hussif' was prescribed equipment for us Boy Scouts when camping. These days ...?

    1. Brian, thanks for this.
      These days, they probably throw away the one that needs repairing and buy another.

  3. How much were "other ranks" paid in 1914-15? Two or three pounds for a provision box doesn't sound like a lot for "6 to 8" to share. Perhaps non-officers were not allowed to receive bulky packages on campaign. Did the senior sergeants/warrant officers have separate messes that could obtain non-issue provisions?

    1. It varied greatly between nationalities and units. British privates were traditionally paid "a shilling a day", though they would get more for attaining certain proficiencies, and certain deductions were made. And there would be small increases as the war went on. They greatly envied ANZAC soldiers who were paid three times as much (roughly). But there's no straightforward answer to your question, I fear!

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