Friday, 19 December 2014

Eating rats and lice?


Ratting: The New Sport in the Trenches. This image shows Canadian troops engaged in a rat hunt at Ploegsteert Wood near Ypres during March 1916.  Image credit:

Much has been written about soldiers’ food during the Great War. It seems that troops were fed better in 1914 than by the end of the conflict. Meat rations were steadily reduced and by 1916 flour was so scarce that bread was made from dried ground turnips.   


 A canned broth containing sliced turnips, carrots and potatoes, made by the Aberdeen-based Maconochie Company and used as a ration in the field was generally detested.


British troops receiving dinner rations from field kitchens in the Ancre area of the Somme, 1916. Hot food was not supplied to front line soldiers until late 1915 and even then was by no means a regular occurrence. Photo from the collection of the Imperial War Museums, © IWM, Q 1582  

Inevitably the food was cold by the time that it reached men in the trenches. No doubt in many cases it did not reach them for days when the lines of communication and supply were disrupted by enemy shelling.  



Private Joseph Marker came from Budleigh Salterton. He enlisted at Exeter on 10 December 1915 and joined the Devonshire Regiment.  His remarkable story is told in detail in ‘The Great War at Fairlynch’ exhibition.  Image credit: Celia Marker  

Occasionally, the question has arisen as to whether famished British soldiers were reduced to eating rats. 

This must surely have been a rare occurrence, but one piece of testimony worth noting comes from Celia Marker, whose grandfather joined the Devonshire Regiment. "When I was a little girl he mentioned eating rats whilst he was serving in France!" she recalled on the   Wartime Memories Project website

It is true that rat infestation was widespread as a result of the unhygienic environment in the trenches, and the rats were often larger than usual.  But it was known that rats were in the habit of feeding on dead or even wounded bodies, making them unlikely to tempt even the hungriest man. 
Lice infestation was equally common, and was a frequent cause of an infectious disease known as trench fever.  George Watson, in his memoirs kept at Fairlynch Museum, described his return home on leave, his clothing “wet and lousy, full of lice and their eggs” much to the horror of his mother. “The lice were killed by crushing between the thumb nails.  Even when the clothing had been washed the lice grew again from the eggs still in the clothing.”

Black humour was often found to be the only way of coping with the miseries of trench life.  Even the lice could raise a smile.  “One  chap  saw  the  Quartermaster  Sergeant,” recalled George Watson. ‘Can I  'ave a new shirt  Quarters?’  he asked.  ‘What's wrong  with  your  other  one?’ asked  Q.  ‘There's eggs all t'way up t'seams,’  the man replied. ‘Well  go and  get a collop o' bacon and 'ave a good do’, the Quartermaster joked.”

‘The Great War at Fairlynch’ 2015 exhibition at Budleigh Salterton’s very special museum! Reviews included: “Wonderful display on WW1, informative, bright and relevant. Well done!! 


No comments:

Post a Comment