This photograph from Percy’s small album is labelled “A Hungry Gang,” but it was clearly taken before the sorry plight took hold.
“The rations at Witley were never anything to go wild over. The printed menus supplied by some stool-warmer to the cooks sounded very imposing, but the ‘Country Sausage,’ ‘Hungarian Goulash,’ or ‘Canadian Fricasse’ usually turned out to be one and the same variety of greasy hash.” (1)
Soldiers like to complain about food, but it was not all graft or incompetence: the German submarine campaign against British shipping had exacted a toll, not only on military ships but on the merchant marine. On February 24, 1917, the British Prime Minister Lloyd George “placed before the British people the two alternatives of making still bigger individual sacrifices or of facing national disaster.” (2) The shortage of tonnage, as Lloyd George called it (so much more abstract than sunken ships and drowned seamen) was the result not only of German submarines, but also of the fact that many ships were diverted from transporting civilian commodities to transporting soldiers, equipment, and supplies for the war effort. (3)
“Prompt and ruthless measures” in three categories were about to be undertaken: the Royal Navy would add to its campaign for “grappling with the [submarine] menace”; the country would build more merchant ships “wherever we can get them”; and Britons would “limit [their] needs for overseas transport by dispensing with all non-essential commodities now being brought from overseas and by producing as much of the essentials of life as [they] can … at home.”(3)
The newspaper summary of what was to be dispensed with includes the following:
- a further reduced production of alcoholic beverages to 10,000,000 barrels from 36,000,000 in 1914
- the prohibition of imported tea, coffee and cocoa
- a cut in salmon imports of 50%, and
- an end to shipping “books, periodicals and other printed matter” into Britain
Other measures include fixing prices of grain and potatoes to make it worth while for farmers and labourers to grow good crops.(4) The weather this winter, of course, has not assisted them in planting winter wheat or getting a start on spring sowing.
It was not only the men who were suffering: “The horses whose rations are considerably reduced show signs of the long continued training & are being eased up,” reads a line in today’s War Diary. There was no easing up for the men: “Musketry instruction continues. This, with laying, gun-drill, fuze-setting, constitutes the greater part of the present work.” (5)
(1) MacArthur, D.C. The History of the Fifty-Fifth Battery, CFA. 1919. 9-10
(2) War Summary. The Globe (1844-1936). February 24, 1917. 1. Archive available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
(3) “The National Grit is Going to be Tested — Lloyd George.” The Globe. February 24, 1917.1.
(4) “Main Points made by Lloyd George.” The Globe. February 24, 1917.1
(5) War Diary of the Fifth Canadian Divisional Artillery. Vol. 3 (April 1917): 1. Library and Archives of Canada.
Copyright 2017. See “More about this project.”