British Troops cooking on way to front, 1914

British Troops cooking on way to front, 1914

British Troops cooking on way to front, 1914

Here we see a group of British infantry cooking during a rest stop on the way to the front early in the fighting in 1914. This area must be fairly safe as the troops have left their rifles scattered around.

Dardanelles Campaign

In March 1915, during World War I (1914-18), British and French forces launched an ill-fated naval attack on Turkish forces in the Dardanelles in northwestern Turkey, hoping to take control of the strategically vital strait separating Europe from Asia. The failure of the campaign at the Dardanelles, along with the campaign that followed later that year in Gallipoli, resulted in heavy casualties and was a serious blow to the reputation of the Allied war command, including that of Winston Churchill, the British first lord of the admiralty, who had long been a proponent of an aggressive naval assault against Turkey at the Dardanelles.

Combat Resilience in the First World War – a Historiographical Review

The First World War was a terrible experience that most soldiers were shocked by once they became active participants. How were soldiers’ able to cope with the grim realities of this war? How were they able to keep going in spite of losing close friends and comrades in one battle after another? How were they able to function as a soldier, much less a human being, in conditions that defy explanation? Trench warfare was an alien world that sapped a man’s strength and wits with each passing day. In such conditions, how did soldiers’ keep sharp and carry out their duties? These questions, and many others, are the subject of Alexander Watson’s study titled Enduring the Great War: Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies, 1914-1918. ‘The question of what constitutes ‘morale’, the common shorthand for military resilience and combat motivation, lies not only at the heart of this book but also at the centre of 20th-century literature on battlefield performance’ (p. 140). Watson delves into the soldiers’ experience in the Great War and chronicles their story and how they came to ‘endure’ the war. A central theme Watson continually places in front of the reader is the ‘resilience’ of the soldier that spanned an interminable period of four years. A soldier had to be resilient in order to ‘endure’ the Great War. If he did not possess those innate qualities, then he would quickly become a casualty or he would be rendered combat-ineffective. Both outcomes were detrimental to the war effort. Resilience was a common attribute shared by many soldiers and was intimately connected to morale and endurance. They are all variables that, when taken together, translate into success. But this was no ordinary war.

A picture of the living quarters of the soldiers’ or of their battlefields would convey more meaning and power than any word known in the English language. A great deal has been inferred from the young soldier gracing the cover of Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory with different individuals extracting different meanings and truths. But what pictures could not illuminate were the psychological terrors and fears that deeply afflicted them. This war was unique. Due to these challenges, it is understandable to see why morale was of great concern. It worried every officer, from Field Marshal Haig down to the platoon subaltern fresh out of Sandhurst. It was considered the main ingredient for success though how to manufacture morale in wartime in such appalling conditions was less certain. The nature of the battlefields and of the trenches themselves was enough to crack the strongest man. Not having control over your own fate or those of your fellow soldiers was tough to accept. ‘The notion of uncontrollability, rather than discomfort or the objective danger of the trenches, was the primary cause of stress . ’ (p. 34). Knowing that the enemy lurked somewhere in the distance invisible to the naked eye heightened fears. In spite of intense fears, fatigue, and the knowledge that the war may go on indefinitely, soldiers were able to fight and fight well. Watson argues that these soldiers were more resilient than previously suggested because they fought for their homeland, their loved ones, the future, and were confident that they would achieve victory (pp. 53, 82–3). That, in Watson’s opinion, was the crux. Soldiers believed they would ultimately vanquish their opponent and would then be able to return to their former lives (p. 183). Belief in a future of one’s own choosing was a powerful incentive to carry on until that dream was realized.

In his most recent article, a continuation of the research undertaken for his book, Alexander Watson and his colleague Patrick Porter, of King’s College London, investigate the role of sacrificial ideology and its impact on combat performance and morale.(1) Historians have paid little attention to the subject and its ‘significance . remains underestimated’.(2) Watson and Porter argue that sacrificial ideology was commonplace in the trenches because officers and other ranks had been deeply ingrained since boyhood in the culture and values of Victorian Britain. Personal letters and diaries reveal colorful language indicative of sacrifice. Evocative words like ‘valour', 'sacrifice', ‘honour', and 'just' are examples of ‘high diction’ used by soldiers in communicating the discharging of their duties.(3) These young men were keenly aware of Britain's illustrious past, her place in the world and her Empire. They possessed a profound consciousness and saw themselves as the guarantors of its preservation. This personal identification with Britain’s heralded past and its relevance to young men in the present was a direct result of youth organizations like the Boy Scouts who placed great emphasis upon patriotism. Sam Pryke explores the pivotal role the Boy Scouts played in extolling virtue and character into Britain’s youth while kindling an appreciation for Britain’s lauded history.(4) They were undoubtedly influential in encouraging British youth from every class to join and develop a healthy appreciation for the outdoors, adventure, and cultivate a sense of identity with Britain’s heroic past.

Because of the success enjoyed by youth organizations like the Boy Scouts, sacrificial ideology ‘reveals itself most clearly and personally’ in the letters of soldiers.(5) If they had not been successful, sacrificial ideology would be conspicuously absent from these letters and may have adversely affected men’s morale. Some historians, however, argue that the other ranks were not likely to exhibit ‘high diction’ and in that point they may be partially correct. But they did have a real sense of patriotism and devotion to their homeland and the evidence says as much. ‘Such sentiments were by no means as rare among the rank-and-file as is normally assumed indeed, censorship reports compiled from the letters of tens of thousands of soldiers remarked explicitly on the continued, widespread evidence of idealistic beliefs and sacrificial willingness among other ranks . ’(6) Sacrificial ideology is a logical extension of Watson’s earlier work and complements his thesis that morale and sacrificial willingness were inextricably linked to the outcome of the First World War.

A complementary consideration of morale is worth discussing because morale is multi-dimensional and deserves a wide-angle lens approach to appreciate its many intricacies. S. P. MacKenzie looks at morale from a different, though complementary, angle from Watson. He draws due attention to the widening gulf between the senior staff and the front-line officer and other ranks as a factor in morale undulating throughout the war.(7) Critical of their luxurious accommodations far-removed from the battlefield, MacKenzie sees the upper echelons of the British Expeditionary Force’s senior officers as out-of-touch with the conditions at the front. A change of leadership, however, led to some concrete changes that had a positive effect upon morale and the course of the war. Haig was not the creative genius behind these initiatives, but nonetheless was open-minded to new ideas that could potentially help his men. Recognizing his men had ‘undergone almost superhuman exertion . ’ and were exhausted and fatigued, Haig was receptive to programs that would help sustain his men’s morale.(8) Morale was important but so was the soldiers’ welfare and mental well-being. Education programs that discussed peace and the future were helpful palliatives to the constant stress of the warfront. It helped to ‘shape soldiers’ thinking’ and keep them focused and alert rather than absent-minded or complacent.(9) Success was correlated, however, to how amenable such programs were to the company CO. With his encouragement, men could freely participate knowing they had their CO’s blessing. An interesting piece of evidence that proves a reliable barometer for men’s uncensored feelings is the testimony of the Third Army’s Censor Captain Hardie. After the battle of the Somme, he reported that the men were generally speaking in high spirits and commended their ‘unfailing readiness’ and ‘dogged determination’ to keep going and fight on.(10) Watson’s firmly-held conviction that the soldiers’ were men of resilience and endurance is corroborated by Captain Hardie’s years spent as a Censor for the Third Army.

Anticipating the extreme strain war would exact upon a man, prudent measures were taken to support men in the field and lift their spirits. Thousands of chaplains were dispatched to the front to stiffen morale and provide comfort and solace. But a directive issued at the beginning of the war kept chaplains from administering the ailing men at the front. Though the directive was rescinded in 1915, notes MacKenzie, the soldiers’ distanced themselves from the chaplains.(11) This was an opportunity that was squandered the men were in desperate need of the chaplains but were deprived of them in their darkest hour. Moreover, when they were allowed access, the chaplains brought propaganda rather than spiritual guidance and comfort. That was what they wanted most. If the chaplains were allowed to console and provide a listening ear to the soldiers’, morale could have risen exponentially. MacKenzie, aware of the harsh criticism laid against Haig, sought to redress some of the balance by commending Haig’s actions and fast implementation of educational programs. Contrary to the picture painted by Paul Fussell of Haig as an incompetent commander lacking personality and humor, MacKenzie portrays Haig as a man perceptive enough to see his men were flagging and sought eagerly for a remedy.(12) Haig was not as aloof from his men or their state of mind as Fussell insinuates but acted decisively when apprised of their condition. MacKenzie has made a small contribution in rehabilitating Haig’s memory.

A soldier’s performance in the field could be dictated by circumstances beyond his control. In a hostile environment, a soldier could encounter various trials at a moment’s notice and would need to draw upon ‘inner reserves’ of strength to safely navigate an impasse.(13) Oxford historian Hew Strachan alludes to three general modes of instilling morale in the troops. These methods are the primary group, ideological indoctrination, and punishment. They all have their merits, in Strachan’s opinion, but they fail to prepare men for the realities of war. Training, however, can alleviate a great deal of uncertainty and allow men to transition to a war environment more effectively, secure in the knowledge of past experience. But, more importantly, it mentally prepares the soldier for the unknown variables of war. ‘The value of training is therefore in large part psychological: it is an enabling process, a form of empowerment, which creates self-confidence’.(14)

Simulations have great value in conditioning soldiers’ to the sound of live machine gun fire, spontaneous forced marches, privation and exposure, night offensives, and the like. This training is invaluable in preparing soldiers’ for service in combat zones. Their lives may very well depend on this training and its ability to mimic veritable battlefield conditions. There is no substitute, in Strachan’s mind, for strenuous training. The more hardened a man becomes through training, the more likely he will not only be an effective soldier but will be confident in his own abilities. Confidence is closely linked with morale. Training insures that men have the proper skill-sets to not only stay alive but carry out their duty in a professional manner. When men go through training regimens, whether basic training or anything else, they come out of that experience better men and are brimming with self-confidence in their own abilities and those of their team. Watson and Strachan are well aware that men have their limits and no amount of training will prepare them for years of grueling fighting. Men have a ‘finite stock of courage’ according to Strachan and the best way to insure combat-readiness and prevent collapse is to prepare thoroughly in advance for the challenges ahead.(15) If the shock of combat can be minimized, morale will not suffer because the men will be familiar drawing upon their ‘inner reserves’ to sustain them when their minds’ and bodies’ are shaken. Without training, men would be unprepared for the cruelty of war and victory would be more costly.

Successful generals took advantage of every opportunity to train their men – even at the front. Strachan focuses due attention on Lieutenant-General William Slim and his transformation of the troops under his command in Burma during the Second World War. Slim’s training regimen turned the tide of the war in Southeast Asia as evidenced in Tarak Barkawi’s research.(16) Motivation to keep fighting in such depressing conditions against an enemy that seemed invincible is difficult to explain. Barkawi concludes that it was not loyalty to the Empire or any other national tie or ideology but the basic training inherent in the Western way of war that built a bond like no other among men of different races and backgrounds. Drill served as a form of rehabilitation for soldiers who had suffered a traumatic trial in the jungle and helped these soldiers to reintegrate into a combat-ready unit. Discipline, precise movements and coordination with fellow soldiers were deeply ingrained in the psyche of Indian soldiers. This training regimen, Barkawi believes, made most Indian and colonial soldiers impervious to the Japanese and the legends of their martial prowess.

A potential threat that could undermine morale and have deleterious effects upon manpower were shell shock victims. A revealing article by Edgar Jones, a clinical psychologist and historian, sheds light on the nature of shell shock and how it was treated both at the front and at home.(17) Jones concludes that effective treatment was conducted at the front where medical officers could effectively treat it. Furthermore, treatment was more therapeutic along the front because medical officers were not disassociated from the traumas suffered by these men. They, too, were subject to it and could genuinely understand their plight and were best-situated to treat them. Jones’ colleague Simon Wessely, professor of Psychiatry at King’s College, London and Director of the King’s Centre for Military Health Research, concurs with Jones’ assessment. Rehabilitation conducted near the front probably consisted of ‘a couple of days rest, food, clean clothing, and sleep’.(18)

Sending men back to Britain to convalesce was a mistake according to Wessely and Jones. Statistics show that men who undertook psychiatric care back home were less likely to return to active duty. On the other hand, men who underwent treatment along the front, known as ‘forward psychiatry’, were more likely to return to duty and not suffer to the extent of those who were sent back home.(19) Whether it was their proximity to the battlefield or the type of treatment they received by medical officers seasoned by war and proficient in its remedy is hard to ascertain but the evidence shows that there is something to be said for the rapid recovery soldiers experienced when treated at the front. If more treatment centers were available and the Army had been more open to suggestions to treat, rather than ignore, shell shock, soldiers would have felt more confident that they would be taken care of rather than ostracized by the establishment. This only alienated soldiers who were overcome by conditions they were inadequately prepared for. Wessely disagrees with Watson arguing men fight not out of sentimentalism or ideology, but because of their buddies. ‘Men fight not because of ideology, but because of their membership in the tight-knit, self-sustaining and self-supporting unit whose creation is the principal ambition of infantry training’ (20) The ‘primary group’ theory coupled with training are factors Strachan believes are integral to morale dismissing the key role ideology can play in sustaining morale, however, as Wessely has done is a commitment Strachan is reticent to make. But Wessely makes a candid admission that should give us pause to consider: ‘There is no universal explanation why men fight, or why they break down in battle’.(21)

A more comprehensive understanding of the many nuanced shades of morale would be incomplete without discussing women’s contribution to morale and the war effort. In a thoughtful article investigating the positive role women played in France, Susan Grayzel demonstrates French women fulfilled the role of mothers at home and confidantes and lovers near the front.(22) In spite of being a focused consideration of French troops and French women, Grayzel’s research suggests that ‘Women, seen both as a guarantee of and as a potential threat to conventional morality in the social order, were recognized to be the key to keeping up morale’.(23) But there was always tension present in the relationships between women and servicemen as well as ‘platonic’ relationships initiated between soldiers’ who had no family and their adoptive Marraines or ‘godmothers.’ The very institution that could stabilize morale was also its greatest threat. ‘Women, who might sustain morale, might also undermine it’.(24) Knowing fully the danger that women posed to the war effort in general was overruled by the basic human needs of the soldier. These personal connections gave meaning to why men fought. ‘The relationship between unknown men and women gave women a role to play and men a personal reason to fight on’.(25) Long-distance relationships cultivated by men and women who had never met were a powerful lift to morale. They instilled hope that a better life was waiting for them back home. It was these deeply personal relationships that kept men fighting and believing. Combat motivation and morale were greatly enhanced by women’s active involvement establishing relationships with men at the front. It was not uncommon to find romances blossoming in the midst of war-torn France though many soldiers, and women, casually tossed their morals aside in favor of pleasure and passion.

A second comparative study would be useful in comparing the dalliances of French women and men to those that frequented the diaries and letters of British troops. An insightful study full of amusing anecdotal evidence illuminates the sexual role of women in contact with the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders.(26) Gibson persuasively argues two points that challenge orthodoxy in viewing sex during the First World War. First, non-combatant troops did not ‘monopolize’ women at the front. Second, homo-erotic or homosexual relationships were exceptional and ‘over-emphasized’ by scholars like Fussell and Niall Ferguson, while ignoring the abundant literature recording heterosexual relationships.(27) Gibson wishes to redress the balance by refuting the pervasive trend propagated by Fussell and others. He tackles Fussell’s contention squarely: ‘Despite the claim that officers reveled in a tightly knit, masculine community and that the comradeship of the trenches was an extension of the homoeroticism of the public school, most of them were as interested in the local women as their men were’.(28) But there were serious time-constraints that left little leisure time to enjoy women. ‘Troops coming out of the line needed sleep, food, and women, in that order’.(29) As Niall Ferguson notes in The Pity of War, it was a semblance of home-life that soldiers longed to recreate in this hellhole.(30) These sentiments are evident in a Canadian Private’s reminiscences which juxtaposed sex and home-baked goods as treats to be enjoyed. It was not ordinary milk but ‘a big bowl of warm cow’s milk.’ Not just a piece of bread but ‘freshly baked brick-oven bread’.(31) This soldier savored every essence that reflected a deep appreciation of creature-comforts like those taken for granted back home. At the front, anything that reminded a soldier of home and normality was seized upon. Sex features prominently in studies of combat performance and its constituent parts, discipline and morale, for instance in Kaushik Roy’s recent article seeking to explain the dramatic turn-around of the Colonial armies in Southeast Asia after suffering horrendous losses during the Second World War.(32) A resurgence in scholarly literature encompassing both World Wars gives special attention to sex as a legitimate but overlooked factor that impacted morale. More studies following Roy’s example would be welcome in Europe and the Pacific.

British soldiers were viewed by many as an occupying force little better than the Germans. Because France resembled a ‘demographic no man’s land’, women were drawn to British soldiers because they were either short of money or they craved companionship.(33) It was a relationship of convenience for both parties who were denied a human connection. Soldiers’ knew that women offered their services for one of three reasons: one, they were in need of cash two, they desired sex and were not finicky about who their partner was third, some women freely gave themselves as a reward for fighting.(34)Trouble was never far away and sex was accompanied by ‘looting, drunkenness, resisting arrest, and general indiscipline’.(35) Of even greater concern to the High Command was the spread of venereal disease. Treatment typically lasted two months and threatened to compromise Britain’s most precious commodity – officers.(36) Conspicuously absent from studies concerned with explaining how the troops ‘kept going’ is a balanced examination of the intersection between civilians and servicemen.(37) Sadly, most relationships ended with the closing of the war and even more bizarre is that most locals were glad to see them leave. These women were courageous and bold in their actions. They did their bit to give men a taste of their former lives and brought relief and relaxation in a way that no other palliative could. Indeed, for some historians they were the unsung heroes of the war.

Front-line trenches could be a terribly hostile place to live. Units, often wet, cold and exposed to the enemy, would quickly lose their morale if they spent too much time in the trenches.

As a result, the British army rotated men in and out continuously. Between battles, a unit spent perhaps 10 days a month in the trench system and, of those, rarely more than three days right up on the front line. It was not unusual to be out of the line for a month.

During moments of crisis, such as big offensives, the British could occasionally spend up to seven days on the front line but were far more often rotated out after just a day or two.

5. Booby-Trap

Booby-trap had been in use since the mid-19th century to refer to a fairly harmless prank or practical joke when it was taken up by troops during the First World War to describe an explosive device deliberately disguised as a harmless object. Calling it “one of the dirty tricks of war,” the English journalist Sir Philip Gibbs (1877-1962) ominously wrote in his day-by-day war memoir From Bapaume to Passchendaele (1918) that “the enemy left … slow-working fuses and ‘booby-traps’ to blow a man to bits or blind him for life if he touched a harmless looking stick or opened the lid of a box, or stumbled over an old boot.”

Primary Sources

(1) In a letter to his parents, Private Pressey of the Royal Artillery described the quality of the food men were receiving on the Western Front.

The biscuits are so hard that you had to put them on a firm surface and smash them with a stone or something. I've held one in my hand and hit the sharp corner of a brick wall and only hurt my hand. Sometimes we soaked the smashed fragments in water for several days. Then we would heat and drain, pour condensed milk over a dishful of the stuff and get it down.

(2) Richard Beasley was interviewed in 1993 about his experiences during the First World War.

In training the food was just about eatable but in France we were starving. All we lived on was tea and dog biscuits. If we got meat once a week we were lucky, but imagine trying to eat standing in a trench full of water with the smell of dead bodies nearby.

(3) Harold Chapin, letter to Calypso Chapin (29th November 1914)

We are getting if possible busier and busier. A Brigade Order arriving last night fairly late involved getting breakfast for all troops at 7.30 instead Of 7.45 and 8 (two batches) which meant up before 5 and out in the rain (it was pouring) by 5.30 all the wood sopping: the fire trench half full of water and the carts and waggons being loaded and got out all over the shop.

We are being sorted into jobs. I fancy I shall stay on cooking. This is good because it is as useful a job as is going and one that demands conscientious hard work still it does not involve going into the actual firing line - a thing I have no ambition to do. Stray shell fire and epidemics are all I want to face thank you, let those who like the firing line have all the bullets they want.

(4) Major Graham wrote a letter to his family about the food supplied to soldiers on the Western Front.

I am sorry you should have the wrong impression about the food we always had more than enough, both to eat and drink. I give you a day's menu at random: Breakfast - bacon and tomatoes, bread, jam, and cocoa. Lunch - shepherd's pie, potted meat, potatoes, bread and jam. Tea - bread and jam. Supper - ox-tail soup, roast beef, whisky and soda, leeks, rice pudding, coffee. We have provided stores of groceries and Harrods have been ordered to send us out a weekly parcel. However, if you like to send us an occasional luxury it would be very welcome.

(5) Robert Graves wrote about his experiences of the First World War in his autobiography, Goodbye to all That. This passage refers to an attack where the battalion suffered very heavy casualties. Only three junior officers, Choate, Henry and Hill survived.

Hill told me the story. The Colonel and Adjutant were sitting down to a meat pie when Hill arrived. Henry said: "Come to report, sir. Ourselves and about ninety men of all companies."

They looked up. "So you have survived, have you?" the Colonel said. "Well all the rest are dead. I suppose Mr. Choate had better command what's left of 'A'. The bombing officer (he had not gone over, but remained at headquarters) will command what's left of 'B'. Mr. Henry goes to 'C' Company. Mr. Hill to 'D'. Let me know where to find you if you are needed. Good night."

Not having being offered a piece of meat pie or a drink of whisky, they saluted and went miserably out. The Adjutant called them back, Mr. Hill, Mr. Henry."

Hill said he expected a change of mind of mind as to the propriety with which hospitality could be offered by a regular Colonel and Adjutant to a temporary second lieutenant in distress. But it was only: "Mr. Hill, Mr. Henry, I saw some men in the trench just now with their shoulder-straps unbuttoned. See that this does not occur in future."

(6) Private Harold Horne, Northumberland Fusiliers, interviewed 1978.

Ration parties from each company in the line went to carry back the rations which were tied in sandbags and consisted, usually, of bread, hard biscuits, tinned meat (bully) in 12 oz. tins, tinned jam, tinned butter, sugar and tea, pork and beans (baked beans with a piece of pork fat on top), cigarettes and tobacco. Sometimes we got Manconochie Rations. This was a sort of Irish stew in tins which could be quickly heated over a charcoal brazier. When it was possible to have a cookhouse within easy reach of trenches, fresh meat, bacon, vegetables, flour, etc. would be sent up and the cooks could produce reasonably good meals. Food and tea was sent along in 'dixies' (large iron containers the lid of which could be used as a frying pan).

(7) General John Monash, letter (11th January 1917)

The big question is, of course, the food and ammunition supply, the former term covering meat, bread, groceries, hay, straw, oats, wood, coal, paraffin and candles, the latter comprising cartridges, shells, shrapnel, bombs, grenades, flares, and rockets. It takes a couple of thousand men and horses with hundreds of wagons, and 118 huge motor lorries, to supply the daily wants of my population of 20,000.

With reference to food we also have to see that all the men in the front lines regularly get hot food - coffee, oxo, porridge, stews. They cannot cook it themselves, for at the least sign of the smoke of a fire the spot is instantly shelled. And they must get it regularly or they would perish of cold or frostbite, or get 'trench feet,' which occasionally means amputation.

(8) General Sixt von Armin, report published by the German Army during the First World War.

It is necessary that fresh troops going into the line, when the precise state of the battle is uncertain, should be supplied with the 3rd iron ration. All troops were unanimous in their request for increased supplies of bread, rusks, sausage, tinned sausages, tinned fat, bacon, tinned and smoked meat, and tobacco, in addition. There was also urgent need for solidified alcohol for the preparation of hot meals.

In various quarters, the necessity for a plentiful supply of liquid refreshments of all kinds, such as coffee, tea, cocoa, mineral waters, etc., is emphasized still more. On the other hand, the supply of salt herrings, which increase the thirst, was found to be, as a general rule, very undesirable. There is no necessity for an issue of alcoholic drink in warm and dry weather.

(9) Harold Chapin, letter to Calypso Chapin (18th March 1915)

We are fed on Bully Beef (ordinary Fray Bentos, you know the brand) and lovely hard biscuits which I adore. Last night I added to my menu a bloater and some bread and marmalade, "duff" and coffee - having scraped an acquaintance with some of the engine room artificers who invited me to sup in the fo'castle. It was very hot in there but we supped in low neck. Great fun!

(10) Harry Patch, Last Post (2005)

Our rations - you were lucky if you got some bully beef and a biscuit. You couldn't get your teeth into it. Sometimes if they shelled the supply lines you didn't get anything for days on end. There were five in a machine-gun team, and everything we had was shared amongst us. I used to get a parcel from home. My mother knew the grocer pretty well. There was always an ounce of tobacco and two packets of twenty cigarettes. That was handed to Number One to share out. That ounce of tobacco - Number Three was a pipe-smoker, same as I was - was cut in half. He had half and I had half. The cigarettes - thirteen each for the others and they took it in turns to have the odd one. And if you got a pair of socks, and somebody else had a pair with holes in, they'd chuck them away and they'd have the new ones. That was the life we lived because we never knew from one moment to the next when something would come over with our number on.

Drink was either weak tea or water drunk from old petrol cans. As for food, we had Crosse & Blackwell's plum and apple jam and dog biscuits. The biscuits were so hard we used to throw them away. One day I looked through the metal aperture that we used to fire through, and two dogs were out there fighting over one of our biscuits. They were fighting over which one should have it. Their owners had probably been killed by shell fire. They were simply strays. They were fighting over a biscuit to keep alive. I thought to myself, "Well, I don't know, there's two animals out there fighting for their lives, and here we are, two highly civilised nations, and what are we fighting over?"

40 (Plus 1) Fascinating Facts about WWI

When the guns fell silent at 11 AM on what is now known as Armistice Day (November 11, 1918),Private George Edwin Ellison’s name would forever be engraved in history as the last British soldier to die during WWI. Ellison had served in the Western Front for four years he was killed at exactly 9:30 AM, four-and-a-half hours from when the armistice was signed. He was also one of the 11,000 individuals killed on the war’s last day – quite an astounding number of casualties.

In connection to the forthcoming centenary of the start of WWI and the coming Armistice Day celebration this November 11, here are 40 other fascinating facts about the 1914-11918 Hostilities – “the war that was meant to end all wars”…

1. 19 was the official age for a British soldier to be sent overseas to serve but many lied about their ages. Approximately 250,000 British lads did that and served whilst they were still under-aged. The youngest was reported to be only 12.

2. A soldier’s average life expectancy while in the trenches was six weeks. Some of the people who were mostly at risk of early death were the junior officers and the stretcher bearers.

3. In the four years of WWI, 25 million tons of supplies were sent to the British forces serving on the Western Front – three million tons of food and five million tons of hay and oats for the horses.

4. As the war progressed, food rations for the soldiers were significantly reduced to keep up with the supply-man ratio. There usual meal while in the trenches was maconochie– so named after the company that made this thin soup of turnips, potatoes and carrots. Other food servings included bully beefand Marmite.There was also a small ration for rum and tea, but soldiers found the latter with terrible taste since water at that time was treated with chloride of lime to purify it.

5. About 6,000 men were killed on daily basis during WWI. This amounted to over 9 million deaths throughout the war.

6. An amazing number of 65 million men coming from 30 various countries fought in WWI.

7. Over 25 million miles of trenches were dug and zigzagged through the Western Front alone. A number of these trenches were nicknamed Bond Street or Death Valleywhile the German lines were dubbed as Pilsen Trench,so on.

8. Germans had superior trenches compared to the Allied ones. These trenches were built to last, some had even shuttered windows and doorbells! Trenches of opposing sides were 50 yards apart in Hooge which was near Ypres.

9. A soldier get to spend 15% of the year in the frontline, that would be about no more than two weeks at a time.

10. During the Battle of Mons in 1914, the British troops efficiently fired their Lee-Enfield rifles the it got the Germans to believe they were up against machine guns.

11. During Christmas of 1914, a truce ensued between the opposing sides, unofficial at that, and along two-thirds of the Western Front observed that. A couple of German soldiers played a football match with British troops in No Man’s land near Ypres, Belgium. Germany won the game 3-2 though not on penalties.

12. Of the casualties on the Western Front, 60% were caused by shellfire. There were also about 80,000 cases recorded that were due to shell shock.

13. In 1917, George V was forced to change the royal family’s name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor due to growing anti-German sentiment within Britain. A number of British road names were changed, too.

14. Some of the well-known people who served during WWI were authors AA Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh JRR Tolkien of the popular Lord of the Rings Trilogy sculptor Henry Moore and the British actor Basil Rathbone.

15. Not one of the soldiers had the protection of metal helmets at the start of the war in 1914. The French were the first to use and introduce them in 1915. Future British prime Minister Winston Churchill donned on a French one when he served in the frontline in 1916.

16. Air raids which occurred on Britain and were carried out by Zeppelins and other other WWI crafts as well as the naval shelling Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby had casualties of more than 700 people.

17. Disease is the main reason for about a third of the soldiers’ deaths during the war. Trench foot, the number one condition that plagued the soldiers and was caused by the damp and cold, was eased with the use of duck boards. However, semi-sanctioned brothels set-up just behind the frontline had about 150,000 soldiers sick with venereal infections.

18. About 346 British soldiers were shot down by their own side, and the number one reason for this was desertion. Another ratification was called the Field Punishment No. 1 – offenders were strapped to a post or gun wheel which was usually located within the enemy’s firing range.

19. Aside from taking up thousands of jobs males left at home for the war, about 9,000 women also served in France as part of their Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and served as cooks or drivers during the war.

20. There were about 16,000 faithful war objectors who refused to take part of WWI many of which were given a white feather as a sign of cowardice. A number were given non-combatant responsibilities while the others were imprisoned.

21. The most popular WWI recruitment poster with the slogan “Your Country Needs You!”had Lord Kitchener featured on it with a pointing finger.

22. There were so-called Pals Battalions during the war and these included groups that had banded together – schoolboys, railway workers and there were even two groups composed of professional football players.

23. About 2,446,719 Britons volunteered for the war by the end of 1915. Nevertheless, induction was still needed and was introduced for 18 years old up to those aging 41 in 1916.

24. The Victoria Cross was given 628 times.Its youngest recipient had been 16-year-old Jack Cornwell who refused to leave his post despite suffering from fatal injuries during the Battle of Jutland.

25. One of WWI’s greatest blasts happened at Messines Ridge, in Belgian West Flanders when the British set off a million pounds of explosives under the Germans the explosion that resulted from the said blast was heard 150 miles away from London.

26. In 1917, the loss of British shipping to German U-boats meant food shortages for the British. The government had to ban the use of rice during weddings and pigeon feeding due to this.

27. Animals were also used during WWI. There were about 100,000 homing pigeons used as message carriers. One particular bird called Cher Ami saved 200 US soldiers who had been cut off when it delivered their message to rescuing forces in spite of its bullet wound.

28. The British Army had 870,000 horses at the height of war. Dead horses were melted down for their fat, the latter used in making explosives.

29. WWI also had dogs – they were employed to lay down telegraph wires terriers became rat hunters.

30. The periscope rifle was developed to allows soldiers to see over the 12-feet deep trenches. Other advanced weapons in WWI were flame throwers and tanks. The first tank came out in 1915 and was nicknamed Little Willie. Tanks, from then on, were named males if they were armed with cannons and females if with machine guns.

31. Many Trench language permeated the English vocabulary – there were lousy and crummy for the lice that beset the soldiers in the trenches as well as dud, bumf and blotto. Trench butterflies was the term for the bits of toilet paper blown about in the battlefield.

32. The Eiffel Tower was essential in intercepting radio messages made by the Germans that eventually led to the execution of Mata Hari, Dutch dancer who was also a German spy. British nurse Edith Cavell was shot by the Germans through a firing squad when they discovered she had been helping soldiers escape behind German lines.

33. At the start, the soldiers’ only protection against gas attacks was cloth soaked in their own urine. It was British officer Edward Harrison who invented the first practical gas mask saving thousands of lives throughout the war.

34. The Defence Of The Realm Act 1914 was an amendment which included these set of rulesBritons were not to talk over the phone using foreign language it was also forbidden to buy binoculars and to hail a cab at night. Even alcoholic drinks were watered down and it was mandatory for pubs to close down at 10 PM.

35. The battle away from the Western Front was just as ferocious. Lawrence of Arabia forged his well-known name during the war in the Middle East while in the Gallipoli campaign, which failed by the way, the Allies suffered 250,000 casualties in their fight against the Turks.

36. The war in the air was also fierce – The Germans had Baron von Richthofen, dubbed as the Red Baron, as their air force’s star pilot. He shot down 80 war planes of the Allies. On the other hand, the British force’s air ace was Major Edward Mannock who was able to shoot down 61 of the enemy’s planes. Both, however, died in action.

37. Superstitious beliefs were rampant among soldiers in the trenches. Some swore they saw angels appearing over the trenches saving them from disaster while others stated that they saw phantom cavalry.

38. Britain spent £6million daily to fund the war by 1918. WWI’s total cost was estimated to amount to £9,000million.

39. As soldiers returned to their homes after the war, there ensued a baby boom. Births had significantly increased by up to 45% between 1918 to 1920. However, the influenza pandemic the occurred in 1918 killed more people throughout the world than WWI did.

40. July 1, 1916 – the morning of the Battle of the Somme – British soldiers had 60,000 casualties, over 20,000 were dead. It was the worst toll within a day in the whole military history. The Allied forces were able to advance six miles that day.


The standard Army ration pack, containing identical food for every soldier, was not introduced until after the conflict. Men carried emergency "iron rations" in a tin and in 1914 the war department set out its aims for feeding troops.

These allowances, supposedly per person per day, were: 1¼lb fresh or frozen meat, or 1lb salt meat 4oz bacon 20oz of bread or 16oz of flour or 4oz of oatmeal 3oz of cheese 4oz of butter or margarine noz of tea, 4oz of jam or 4oz of dried fruit pinch of pepper pinch of mustard 8oz of fresh vegetables or a tenth of a gill lime juice half a gill of rum or 1pt of porter maximum of 2oz of tobacco.

Strange But True: During WWII the British Government Bought all of The World’s Tea

The British and drinking tea are two things that go hand-in-hand. Everyone knows that the English love a good cuppa, but most do not realize the extent of this.

A good example of how important a cup of tea is to the British is the fact that the British government bought all the tea during WWII.

This phenomenal purchase started in 1942, which was a tough year for the British. They had been defeated by the Axis powers on the continent and had been obliged to withdraw their troops from Europe.

Their fortress of Singapore had fallen, and the country was close to being bankrupt.

The government had to find a way to keep up troop morale, and the answer was black tea. This resulted in the very unusual decision of buying all the black tea available in Europe.

So much tea was bought that it has been listed in the top five purchases of the war. It estimated that, based on weight alone, the British government bought more tea than it did artillery shells and explosives.

Members of 12th Parachute Battalion, 5th Parachute Brigade, 6th Airborne Division, enjoy a cup of tea after fighting their way back to their own lines after three days behind enemy lines in Normandy, June 10, 1944.

There are some historians who believe that the vast amounts of tea were Britain’s secret weapon. Tea was seen as a very visible symbol of unity for the nation at war. It was something that everyone could appreciate.

The troops could have something from home with them on the front while people still in the country could have something to calm themselves.

Tea on the front also ensured that the troops drank enough water to stay hydrated. The water that was sent to the troops was in old oil cans which left a strange aftertaste. The addition of tea masked this while energizing the men due to the caffeine content.

German prisoners taken during the battle are given tea by their captors.

The value of tea to the British was clearly illustrated when the Royal Air Force dropped 75,000 tea bombs into the occupied Netherlands. The bombs each had bags of tea from the Dutch East Indies and a message from the British about the Netherlands rising again.

Packages sent to prisoners of war by the Red Cross also contained a packet of Twinings tea.

However, the importance of tea for the troops was not something new to the British government or armed forces. There are reports that, in 1815, tea had been liberally distributed among British troops before the Battle of Waterloo.

The purchase of tea during WWII was simply making this military tradition official.

Tea time on Board HMT Stella Pegasi, 1942.

To ensure that they were able to drink their tea, the soldiers came up with ways to brew it.

The Benghazi burner is a simplified brazier which was used during the North African campaigns of WWII. The stove was made from a four-gallon steel fuel can which had been pierced on the top to allow oxygen to enter. The base of the can would contain sand onto which gasoline was poured.

The soldiers would stir the gasoline into the sand and then set it on fire. A second can would generally be placed on top of the burning one and used as a cooking vessel — or to brew tea.

The primary advantages of this burner were that it was silent and fast. The easy availability of sand, empty cans, and gasoline meant that tea could be made at any time.

However, this improvised cooker was not without its fault. The hot sand had been known to explode. The gasoline could also burn too quickly which made it unpredictable.

A soldier with the 2/7th Middlesex Regiment shares a cup of tea with an American infantryman.

Improvised tea-making facilities gave way to BVs or Boiling Vessels. These kettles have been a requirement in British armored fighting vehicles for the last 70 years.

There is even an informal tradition of the junior member of a vehicle crew being the BV Commander in charge of providing hot drinks to everyone.

While drinking tea is a British institution, there is another reason why this drink might have been shipped to the troops. The supply of tea greatly reduced the use of alcohol among the soldiers.

This ensured that the British fighters were always alert and sober while they waited for their next move.

The British Army in North Africa 1942: a mobile tea canteen in the forward area, July 31, 1942.

The tea the British government bought for the army was strong black tea from Ceylon, Assam, and Africa. East Asia was not a viable source as Chinese exports were close to zero and Japan was not seen as a preferred supplier.

The taste of the tea can be characterized by the fact that many suspected bromide had been added to reduce passionate interests in the soldiers. Many soldiers also reported that, when lukewarm, the tea looked like an unskimmed pool.

Supplying tea to the troops was a great way to boost morale on the front. Drinking tea was a social event which led to camaraderie and lifted everyone’s mood.

The strategy of the Western Allies, 1914

For some 30 years after 1870, considering the likelihood of another German war, the French high command had subscribed to the strategy of an initial defensive to be followed by a counterstroke against the expected invasion: a great system of fortresses was created on the frontier, but gaps were left in order to “canalize” the German attack. France’s alliance with Russia and its entente with Great Britain, however, encouraged a reversal of plan, and after the turn of the century a new school of military thinkers began to argue for an offensive strategy. The advocates of the offensive à l’outrance (“to the utmost”) gained control of the French military machine, and in 1911 a spokesman of this school, General J.-J.-C. Joffre, was designated chief of the general staff. He sponsored the notorious Plan XVII, with which France went to war in 1914.

Plan XVII gravely underestimated the strength that the Germans would deploy against France. Accepting the possibility that the Germans might employ their reserve troops along with regular troops at the outset, Plan XVII estimated the strength of the German army in the west at a possible maximum of 68 infantry divisions. The Germans actually deployed the equivalent of 83 1 /2 divisions, counting Landwehr (reserve troops) and Ersatz (low-grade substitute troops) divisions, but French military opinion ignored or doubted this possibility during the war’s crucial opening days, when the rival armies were concentrating and moving forward, the French Intelligence counted only Germany’s regular divisions in its estimates of the enemy strength. This was a serious miscalculation. Plan XVII also miscalculated the direction and scope of the coming onslaught: though it foresaw an invasion through Belgium, it assumed that the Germans would take the route through the Ardennes, thereby exposing their communications to attack. Basing itself on the idea of an immediate and general offensive, Plan XVII called for a French thrust toward the Saar into Lorraine by the 1st and 2nd armies, while on the French left (the north) the 3rd and 5th armies, facing Metz and the Ardennes, respectively, stood ready either to launch an offensive between Metz and Thionville or to strike from the north at the flank of any German drive through the Ardennes. When war broke out, it was taken for granted that the small British Expeditionary Force (BEF) under Sir John French should be used as an adjunct to France’s forces, more or less as the French might see fit. It is clearly evident that the French were oblivious to the gigantic German offensive that was being aimed at their left (northern) wing.

Watch the video: Απαγκόσμιος πόλεμος:Η ζωή των στρατιωτών στο μέτωπο (November 2021).