Food in the field

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During the First World War if a soldier entered enemy territory or was stuck in No Man’s Land, a well packed kit could mean the difference between life and death.

For this reason, Australian troops were issued with the ‘Iron Ration’, an emergency supply of preserved meat, cheese, biscuit, tea, sugar and salt.

The ration was designed to provide a minimum of 13,890 kilojoules (3,319 calories) per day, sustaining a man in the field for 24 hours, and it was not to be eaten except in emergency, with permission from an officer. 

The theory was that as troops moved in an advance, their division train would push supplies forward and provide fresh meals.

The reality, however, was quite different.

Graham Wilson, in his book Bully Beef and Balderdash, found that Australian soldiers often had to rely on their Iron Ration:

“Quite often, men might have no more than their 24-hour iron ration to sustain them for up to three days, sometimes even longer, until they either got back to their own lines or the supply system caught up with them. It is for this reason, no doubt, that the many personal memoirs of the AIF recall ‘going over the top’ with a voluminous pockets of the Australian blouse stuffed with extra tins of bully beef and packets of biscuit, ‘just in case’.”

Catering for diverse cultures and food habits across the Imperial forces – including British, Indian and Australian – was not an easy task.

Biscuits were an important part of the ration. Initially these were provided by companies in India but in 1915 manufacturing was allocated to Australia. 

The biscuits, known as hard tack, had to be softened with a liquid. They were so tough that soldiers frequently used them to make trench art and some are still held by the Australian War Memorial.

The name ‘Iron Ration’ came from the tinned, boiled beef to distinguish the emergency supplies from fresh rations. Australians adapted the French term ‘bouilli beef’ to ‘bully beef’.

The pack generally included:

  • 1lb preserved meat
  • 3 oz cheese
  • 12 oz biscuit
  • 5/8 oz tea
  • 2 oz sugar
  • ½ oz salt
  • 1 oz meat extract

The allocation did not have the relevant nutrients for long-term wellbeing, including Vitamin C, calcium and fibre, but it was appropriate for soldiers for one day, as intended.

The Second World War rations were slightly more advanced than the First World War rations but the allocation was still only appropriate for a few days. The Operation Ration 02 included with RAAF Emergency Flying Ration packs (pictured) states on the back of the tin:

''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.''

Today’s ration packs have changed significantly since the First and Second World Wars and soldiers are now able to carry more than one month’s worth of food on their backs and still have their nutrition needs met. The ‘Combat Ration One Man’ weighs about 1.8 kilograms and comes in eight menus.

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, cutting the weight down to about one kilogram.