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Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Sepia Saturday - An Army Marches on Its Stomach

Sepia Saturday give bloggers an opportunity to share their family history and memories  through photographs.

 An Army Marches on its Stomach" is a quotation  attributed to both Frederick of Prussia and Napoleon Bonaparte - meaningthat to sustain effective campaigns, armed  forces must be readily provided with food and drink.  

So read on about the food experiences of my father, uncle, and husband's uncle as they served in Africa, Asia and Europe. 

Food on the Move  & a Regimental Lunch in China  
My husband's uncle,  Matthew Iley White of South Shields  (1914-19) served in the  Durham  Light Infantry and became an army cook. 

Matty's Service Record
Matty, seated on the left) tucking into his food at army camp.

In the Sudan, where Matty served March to October 1937 

Matty's next posting was to China, where in Tiensin the troops celebrated Inkerman Day.  The Battle of Inkerman was fought n 5 November 1854 during the Crimean War, between the allied armies of Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire, against the Imperial Russian Army.  Accounts recalled that the Durham Light Infantry in their red coats attracted heavy fire from the Russian artillery and were reduced to half their strength.  However the remaining Durhams pressed on with a bayonet charge and the opposing regiment  fled the field of battle. Since that date,  the Regiment has always marked Inkerman Day.  

1939 - A Poignant Christmas Day Lunch in France.
Harry Rawcliffe Danson (1912
-2001) was my uncle on my mother's side of the family from Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire. 

In December 1939, Harry was in France  with the British Expeditionary Force, 9/17th Field Battery. The Christmas Day menu (below),written in French and  typed on very flimsy paper, was found among Harry's effects  after his death.
In the Sergeant's Mess,  breakfast was cold ham with piccalilli, eggs, coffee and roll and butter;  for dinner  - turkey with chestnuts, pork with apple sauce, potatoes, and cauliflower followed by Christmas pudding, apples, oranges, and nuts, with cognac, rum and beer.  Given the time of year, and the conditions in which they must have been living, this strikes me as a good example of "an army marching on its stomach,"

Five months later Harry was one of the many men evacuated from Dunkirk, saved by the flotilla of small ships.  Sadly you can not help but think - how many of the men who signed the menu  at this meal survived.   

Harry  arrived back home in the north of England still in the uniform in which he entered the sea at Dunkirk to be rescued.   He never talked about his wartime experiences, but seeing commemoration services or documentaries on TV could bring tears to his eyes, so the memories remained  very strong,   epitomized by that flimsy piece of paper kept since 1939.  
Wartime Food Memories From Europe & Asia  

My father John Weston (1912-2003) served in the RAF, in a Special Liaison Unit, Codes and Ciphers Branch.  He often talked about the war and I persuaded him to write  down his war memories for me.    Here are some of his accounts of the food and living conditions in 1944-5,  after D Day when he was attached to American forces in Europe under General Bradley. 

"We made our way to a little village near a copse – Laval. It had rained heavily and became very humid. In a clearing the GIs had set up trestle tables to hand out meals. We had portioned trays, but the Americans just had billycans to hold the meal of chicken and peaches. There were millions of wasps committing suicide in the fruit juice..............

I had a brief time off and went into the village. I saw some small bottles of brandy in a shop – and not much else, so I bought the lot (16 bottles) – they cost around 1/8 (under current 10p.) a bottle!"

In a letter home dated 27th August 1944, he wrote "We went through Le Mans, and Chartres to Versailles - very little damage.  We set up shop there and we had a good hotel with peaches growing outside my bedroom window, but I could not reach them.

On to Luxembourg  "We had a good hotel and were able to buy some very good cakes in the town. I became friendly  with a former member of the government [Mr Battin]  and was invited to his house. He produced champagne from his cellar and served them with lovely cakes with kirsch in them"

Conditions were much tougher once the troops moved north  "It was now December 1944 and bitterly cold – lots of ice and snow. Out of the blue at 4a.m. on December 16th came a major attack on the American front.  It was pandemonium.....the Battle of the Bulge. . .Anyone moving around that night not giving the correct password (which was Betty Gable), was shot on the spot......The weather did improve somewhat. We were dropped supplies of food and more important the GIs got further weapons and ammo. At one stage we  were being served up five boiled sweets for one meal!"

This meal of five boiled sweets became an, often repeated,  apocryphal family story.  

"On to Wiesbaden in Germany  where we celebrated  D-DayThe GIs went wild, but we took it all quietly, with coffee and doughnuts from the Red Cross post – very very nice!”

Dad was then transferred to the Far East. "In Burma things were moving to a close..... We were always short of tea, which seemed odd in that part of the world, but there was plenty of cocoa.  I also had a ration of one bottle of gin and one of lime juice a month.  I used to drink that under my mosquito net at night watching the mosquitoes  run up and down the wall."  

"On the long journey across India [from Calcutta to Bombay], we stopped at stations to get some food.  We had this on trays, and as we walked along the platform back to the train, hawks dived down and snatched the food."    

It was only much later that I came to realize that Dad's sometimes lighthearted style masked the awful wartime scenes he must have witnessed.  


Click HERE  to discover more tales from other Sepia Saturday bloggers. 


  1. Reading about what they ate and how they ate it (and how the Americans acted) was very interesting. Enjoyed seeing the menus too.

  2. Very interesting,and perfect for the prompt - I see doughnuts even get a mention.

  3. The expression on the fellow standing on the right in that first group photo is rather telling. It appears he's not quite sure he wants to try the food he's holding in his hand? I can see where you get your talent for writing with a wry twist now & then. From your father's account: "There were millions of wasps committing suicide in the fruit juice--" Love it!

  4. After reading this, the one thing that keeps drawing me back is the Inkerman Day Menu. I read down the list and then had to take a second look at the Minerals and Cigarettes. Could someone please explain the Minerals to me? Is it a drink?

  5. Wonderful camp photos! I can picture them eating right now and fighting off the wasps. EKK. Funny how "cigarettes" are part of the menu. Cigarettes were part of "dessert" at my dad's fraternity banquet.

  6. It's so great when memories like this are written down. So many stories are already lost from those who served.

  7. This was just wonderful to read. Your father was a keen observer and aren't you lucky he was able to recall those memories in such detail. I wondered about the minerals too?


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