Short rations

by Redmer Yska / 10 December, 2015
Festive cheer was reserved for officers during a miserable 1915 Christmas.
Cyril Bassett
New Zealand Victoria Cross winner Sergeant Cyril Bassett eating in the trenches in 1917. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Christmas Day 1915 is still recalled as one of the sourest moments of New Zealand’s Great War. As Christmas approached, Kiwi troops eagerly anticipated what the army would dish up as an alternative to tinned “bully” beef. In a letter published in his hometown newspaper, Sergeant John Wintle of Te Puke joked: “We are wondering what we are going to have for Xmas dinner. Turkey is cried off, fowl being preferred.”

Wintle was dreaming. After eight months of bloodshed and 7473 Kiwi casualties, ­evacuees from Gallipoli, including my grandfather, artillery Sergeant Dan Eckhoff, and Corporal Bill Pratt, a Christchurch teacher, found this out. Pratt, en route to Egypt, wrote: “Really this has been a festive season I shall not forget. Christmas Day on a trooper with bully beef and biscuits for dinner. Today is the 28th and since we came on board we have had nothing but bully.”

Corporal Cecil Malthus of Timaru reached the army base on the Greek island of Lemnos by Christmas Day, collecting 67 letters, 22 newspapers and 10 parcels, one of them containing cake. “I met Cuthbert Parr and Jack Gillies, who are in the Otago Battalion, also Bob Patrick, another High School old boy, and they helped me do justice to the Christmas cake, and my tent mates did the rest. I managed to eat a piece the first day, before I completely lost my appetite. I didn’t miss much for there was only rice for Christmas dinner and no gifts reached us.”

Invercargill private WA McLean did better, writing home to say he’d eaten “plum duff” for Christmas dinner on the water “and very nice it was”. But failure to provide Christmas dinner almost sparked a mutiny for the Auckland Battalion, based at Lemnos, who were promised a feast after orders to board a troopship for Egypt on Christmas morning. For hours, wafting smells tantalised the patient Aucklanders – until, by mid-afternoon, they realised the food was destined for the officers. Bully beef and hard biscuits were then summarily dumped on the deck. Not even hot tea was offered. For the Kiwis at Gallipoli, the daily diet – tinned beef, cheese, jam and rock-hard biscuits – added to the campaign’s miseries. Fresh meat and a few veges might have prevented troops from becoming what one observer called “skele­tons without energy, blasphemously fed up, ragged, lousy and incapable of marching a mile in an orderly fashion”.

In his classic account of Gallipoli, historian Chris Pugsley quotes an eyewitness account of how the Aucklanders reacted to the Christmas Day treachery as flunkies ran “backwards and forwards to the officers’ mess with dishes that fairly stank of Christmas cheer. Only on one other occasion have I known such bitterness among New Zealanders. The decks were crowded with men glowering and smoldering in cold rage.”

The chaplain then bravely proposed a concert to the white-knuckled assembly, calling for a volunteer. None came forth. “So in his high, cracked and utterly untuneful voice, he himself started to sing. If there had been stones to throw he would have been stoned on the spot. No response! So he croaked – again and again … the gloom lifted and the evening finished in a very happy fashion.”

The recent evacuation had meanwhile disrupted delivery of “Christmas billies” from home, a popular custom on both sides of the Tasman. In October 1915, members of the Women’s Patriotic League assembled at the Auckland Town Hall to pack 6000 tin billies with “comforts” for the troops. Each contained a pipe, tobacco and cigarettes, chocolates and sweets, a towel, soap, insect powder and a wallet with pen and writing paper. The billies also contained a “message” from home in the shape of a sprig of tea-tree, tied with a red, white and blue ribbon, and a card that read: “Wishing you God speed and hearty greetings from the people of the Auckland Province, Christmas 1915.”

Gallipoli behind them, the Kiwis would depart the Middle East early in 1916, where they’d face three more years in the Western Front’s bloody trenches. But food – and Christmases – would never be as awful again. A new commander, Major General Andrew Russell, proved a more humane leader who understood Napoleon’s maxim, “an army marches on its stomach”. An aristo­cratic Hawke’s Bay sheep farmer, he made food a priority for the rest of the war and good hot meals were regularly served. Divisional canteens even stocked fresh vegetables. A catering officer and a cooking school were established in France and courses were run for unit cooks.

When Eckhoff and fellow gunners were snapped in a French foxhole brandishing a captured German anti-tank rifle – a photo recently published in the Listener – their smiles and filled-out cheeks said it all.

Bully beef remained a trench perennial, but recipes were taught and distributed so that, in one battlefield assessment, “what was once known as the most hated portion of the field rations … [was] turned into most appetising and tasty dishes”.

Scotch bunloaf often arrived in the billies. See the recipe.

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