Food on the frontline

Matthew Raggatt
Boxes of corned beef and tins of water and kerosene for Gallipoli. Gallipoli and World War II photos from the Australian ...
Boxes of corned beef and tins of water and kerosene for Gallipoli. Gallipoli and World War II photos from the Australian War Memorial. 

Australians remembering soldiers past and present tomorrow may think of guns and bombs, of troops a long way from loved ones. We're less likely to think of one of the great factors in morale and military success: the food.

And while nutrition knowledge and packaging technology has changed greatly in a century, the value of a hearty meal to a frontline soldier remains unchanged.

Peter Collas served in Vietnam and says a cooked meal was one of the three comforts men looked for after returning to base. ''The important things were to come home and have a shower, have a beer and a fresh meal cooked by someone else,'' he says. ''It increased morale.''

The Combat Ration One Man, a soldier's pack from 2008.
The Combat Ration One Man, a soldier's pack from 2008. 

Soldiers relied on ration packs during an operation, sometimes for two to three weeks. But Collas, now deputy president of the RSL ACT branch, says even the processed contents of ration packs were a reminder of life at home. ''You sometimes cursed the ration packs but they were a bit of home,'' he says. ''There were five mixes in the ration packs, but they were all good Australian food.''

More than half a century earlier at Gallipoli, things were very different.

Australian War Memorial senior curator of photographs Alison Wishart has researched the difficulties of feeding the 50,000 Australians who fought in the nearly eight-month campaign. On a hostile peninsula accessible only by sea, with all water having to be shipped in or sanitised, Wishart says trench life further limited the chance for a nutritious meal.

The green World War II ration tin.
The green World War II ration tin. 

''There was no way of distributing a hot meal to men who were based in trenches on the other side of steep cliffs,'' she says. Instead, they did their own cooking, digging shallow pits to light small fires.

The daily rations were made up of 450 grams of tinned bully beef, a similar portion of dry biscuits, 113 grams of bacon and a little less cheese, and a serving of peas, beans or dried potatoes. Some tea and jam, sugar and other condiments were also included, with a little lime discretionary.

But Wishart says difficulties with access meant rations for soldiers near the frontline would often have to stretch for two or three days. The rock-hard biscuits and lack of water - the initial total ration of 4.5 litres was cut by three-quarters - meant men's oral health, let alone tastebuds, was neglected. ''Men were getting bleeding gums, then getting ulcers, then getting infected and needed to be evacuated for dental care,'' she says.

A nutritional analysis of the official ration completed by the University of Canberra shows carbohydrate and protein needs were met, but fibre and vitamin C were lacking. Wishart says the medical consequences were debilitating. ''That can result in constipation, and they didn't have enough water to replenish their fluids,'' she says. ''Lack of vitamin C meant poor recovery from wounds.''

Seven weeks before the mass exit from Gallipoli, an editorial in the Medical Journal of Australia responded to a returned colonel's descriptions by calling for a change to the monotonous and ''nauseating'' rations, blamed for an average weight loss of 28 pounds - 12.7 kilograms - in the troops.

The lesson appears not to have been learnt by World War II. Nutrition scientist Chris Forbes-Ewan, from the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, says Australia wasn't prepared for the food needs of troops with the start of the war, and it was not until the set-up of the Australian Army Catering Corps in 1943 that the full nutritional needs of troops were met.

''Sir Cedric Stanton Hicks, a physiologist at the University of Adelaide, virtually dragged the Australian Army into the mid-20th century with respect to feeding troops,'' he says. Hicks professionalised the ranks of those doing the cooking by recruiting civilian caterers, improving pay and allowing for promotions. Forbes-Ewan says one of Hicks' enduring initiatives was the creation of the first ration pack, the O2 Operation Ration, which contained three meals totalling 15,000 kilojoules packed into a sturdy tin.

''Before that there were times troops were fighting in remote parts of New Guinea for up to two months on only bully beef and biscuits,'' he says. The ration pack was ''based pretty much on what civilians ate at home, because the last thing you want to do is give something they don't like''.

Improvements followed from the modified Wiles cooker, an Australian World War I invention that had a steam boiler, roasting oven and hot and cold water tank and could operate while travelling in convoy. Forbes-Ewan, a 41-year defence nutrition expert, says there were more than 3000 Wiles cookers made for the Australian, New Zealand, US and British forces. ''It could feed a battalion [several hundred men] with a two-course meal whenever the commanding officer decided to stop,'' he says.

In their 1988 analysis, Caroline Laurence and Joanne Tiddy conclude technological advancements by World War II allowing higher-quality tinned products and dehydrated foods meant a more varied and appetising military cuisine.

Today, modern campaigns such as Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor allow for setting up kitchens offering a diverse cafeteria-style choice with cooked meals, but Forbes-Ewan says ration packs remain essential for frontline troops. ''In East Timor, for example, the arriving Australian troops lived off ration packs for more than a month until the infrastructure could be put in place to allow field kitchens to be set up,'' he says. ''And it would be typical for troops going out on regular patrol to get about half of their meals from ration packs.''

Today's ration packs have changed greatly since World War II. ''The Combat Ration One Man weighs about 1.8 kilograms and comes in eight menus, and the alternative lightweight Patrol Ration One Man - almost exclusively used by the Special Air Service Regiment and Commandos - comes in five menus and provides the same nutrition, but all the packaging is lightweight and many items are dehydrated. This cuts the weight down to about 1 kilogram,'' he says.

Forbes-Ewan says keeping soldiers happy with their food packs is critical. ''Quite often, the only thing that soldiers have to look forward to is their next meal, and if it doesn't suit them, they usually won't eat it,'' he says.

It's a view endorsed by Peter Collas, who after a time of leave returned to the Vietnam War with a few dozen frozen pies. ''It made a difference: it said this is Aussie,'' he says. ''How do you raise morale? Feed people well.''

Matthew Raggatt is a staff reporter.

War rations

The green World War II ration tin, Operation Ration O2, pictured says, on the reverse, ''This Ration is intended for use in circumstances where normal rations cannot be supplied. This tin contains three complete meals separately wrapped in waterproof cartons. When one meal has been consumed, the remaining two meals can be carried on the person and the Tin discarded. The contents form a completely balanced ration with ample protective (Vitamin) cover. The complete ration in the tin will keep indefinitely, and can be submerged or buried.''

Each of the three meals is in a sealed ''bituminous paper carton which has been finally waterproofed by dipping into molten wax''. This is the contents of one of the three meals:

Meal 1

Carrot biscuits 3 oz pkt

Fruit and nut 3 oz block

Meat and veg stew 4 oz tin

Peanut butter 1 ½⁄ oz tin

Barley sugar rolls (4) 1 oz

Caramel bar ½⁄ oz

Skim milk powder ¼⁄ oz pkt

Sugar 2 tablets

Tea 4 tablets

Salt 2 tablets