By Simon Walker
When I first began Feeding Under Fire, I was excited for the episode on medicinal food because it offered the chance to combine my public engagement platform and my PhD research into the improvement of soldiers’ bodies in the First World War. Now that the video is up, it is important to consider the role that food played in the improvement and recovery of soldiers’ bodies, while also drawing attention to the peculiarity of medical improvements during the war being supported by traditional recipes.
Let’s start with calories. According to the British Royal Army Medical Corps Training Manual soldiers were supposed to receive between 3000 and 5000 calories per day dependant on the strenuousness of their activities.[i]
The manual also notes that a varied and healthily diet was important for ‘general health and liability to disease’.[ii] Obviously, food was an important aspect of keeping men healthy, and meal plans were devised to attempt to ensure that soldiers were getting enough to eat.
Food also played a regenerative role. Within the 1915 Manual of Military Cooking and Dietary, several recipes are displayed under the heading ‘When soldiers are required to attend their sick and wounded comrades the following simple recipes are useful’.[iii]
These recipes include ‘Toast and Water’, essentially burnt bread steeped in water, ‘Calves food Jelly’, a citrus treat with sugar that had to simmer for a full day, and the onion porridge from my episode. This dish of boiled onion, salt, pepper, corn flour and butter would be very much at home on the side of a roast dinner, but instead the instructions read ‘eat the porridge just before retiring for the night. This is an excellent remedy for colds’.[iv]
Onions have a long history of being associated with folk medicine. Gabrielle Hatfield, for example, explains that they were already considered a cure for coughs and colds in ancient Egypt.[v] The recipe that is printed in the manual has almost the exact same wording as in Charles Elme Francatell’s 1868 Cook’s Guide and Housekeeper’s & Butler’s Assistant, except Francatell’s claims the recipe ‘…was imparted to me by a jolly, warm-hearted Yorkshire farmer’.[vi]
The story for my other recipe, rice water, is similar. This dish, dating back to ancient Chinese medicine, has hundreds of different versions, including additions of milk, sugar, or fruits, and is found in numerous recipe books including John Milner Fothergill, Food for the Invalid: The Convalescent, the Dyspeptic, and the Gouty (1880).
It is interesting that while improvements such as blood transfusions, plastic surgery and disease prevention through sanitation and inoculation were being employed. The British army were still somewhat reliant on recipes that soldier’s parents may have just as easily made for them as a home remedy.
Moving to consider those whose maladies carried them off the line and into medical facilities, although some of these home remedies may have remained part of their diet, overall all, food whilst in a hospital bed could be significantly more substantial. After the war, Private George Elder wrote in his memoirs about how being transferred to the hospital could have meant ‘…comfort, good food, bed and skilled attention.[vii]
Towards the end of the RAMC Manual there are several pages of recipes for hospital cooks including, meat dishes, vegetables, breakfast foods, desserts and beverages. Next to Gruel and Stewed Tripe (see Episode 7 of Feeding Under Fire for the “delicious” use of tripe in the trenches), there is also Roast Fowl, Fried Filleted Plaice, Lemon Jelly, and Lemonade.[viii]
These recipes were not only far from the ‘trench’ treatments of a nice bowl of onion porridge, but also seemingly beyond the usual fare that men were getting for their regular meals both in and behind the trenches. They may have been sick, wounded, controlled by tyrannical medical staff and wearing a blue pyjama uniform, but at least it seems the food was good.
Ultimately, food was an important part of maintaining and improving the health of soldiers, but is it interesting to note that in the face of traditional medical dishes being printed in the official military medical handbook, that its seems old remedies still had a place next to ever improving military medical practice.
[i] Anon, Royal Army Medical Corps Training Manual (London: HMS, 1911), p.60
[ii] Ibid. p.61.
[iii] Anon, Manual of Military Cooking and Dietary, (London: HMS, 1915), p.48
[iv] Ibid. p.50.
[v] G. Hatfield, Encyclopaedia of Folk Medicine: Old World and New World Traditions (Oxford: Clio, 2004), p.255.
[vi] C. E. Francatell, Cook’s Guide and Housekeeper’s & Butler’s Assistant (London: Richard Bentley, 1868), p.53.
[vii] G. Elder, From Geordie Land to No Man’s Land, (London: Bloomington, 2011), p.76.
[viii] RAMC Manual, pp.415-426.
About the author
Simon Harold Walker is a Military Medical Historian in the final stages of his PhD at the University of Strathclyde. His PhD Research focuses on how British soldier’s bodies and identities were created, conditioned and controlled over the course of the First World War. He has published on the role of Army Chaplains within the medical services in the First World War and presents a popular YouTube series, Feeding Under Fire, which examines First World War soldier’s food. Simon has also researched inoculation and power and is in the process of researching soldier’s experiences and medicinal food in the First World War.