‘An Army Marches on its Stomach’ – Rations Through the Ages

Rations at Cornwall's Regimental Museum

By Verity Anthony, Visitor Experience and Collections Manager

‘An Army marches on its stomach.’ Whoever actually said it first was right. In the last newsletter, we heard from Deborah Vosper about rationing during WWII. In this article I am going to look at military rations and how they have changed over time.

From rations in the 18th century, in an age of seafaring, the salting of food to ensure its long-term preservation was commonplace, and this is reflected in the rations of the 18th – 20th century where fresh meat could be supplemented by salted pork.

Though 18th century rations often aimed to provide a soldier with fresh bread and fresh meat, these were often supplemented with salt pork, and hard tack biscuits, or simply flour, when it was not possible to make or get hold of fresh products.

Rations in WWI weren’t much improved (if not worse!); with such a large army to feed, the daily ration for soldiers was 90z (255 grams) of corned beef (known as bully beef) and hard tack biscuits. This was supplemented by the great British staple tea, as well as, jam, sugar, condensed milk and salt. This ration became less meat and more bread made of potato and straw(!), as the war went on and it got harder to get supplies through to the front.

Huntley & Farmers WWI hardtack biscuit, currently on display at Cornwall's Regimental Museum
Huntley & Farmers WWI hardtack biscuit

Not the greatest of food to be eating when fighting, but through the worry of a young Princess Mary, and the kind donation by Trinidad, Grenada and St Lucia, soldier’s diets were supplemented for Christmas with chocolate and tobacco.

Gift of the colonies tin – The colony authorities allowed £40,820 to be spent on cocoa for the manufacture of chocolate in England.
Gift of the colonies tin – The colony authorities allowed £40,820 to be spent on cocoa for the manufacture of chocolate in England.

Standard ration packs for troops were not introduced until after WWI; where each soldier would have their daily food ration, generally contained within the equipment needed for cooking and eating it.
In WWII, ration packs varied by the meat in them, but contained items: meat, biscuits, chocolate, sweets, oatmeal, meat broth, sugar and of course the essentials…a tin opener, matches and toilet paper!
As technology has developed, so has the military’s ability to feed their soldiers something more akin to whole meals. With the advent of freeze-drying food, the possibilities for what could be offered to soldiers was developed…but of course, some things never change, there’s always space for jam, biscuits and chocolate.

Rations from the 1970s and 1980s, Light Infantry Collection at Cornwall's Regimental Museum
Rations from the 1970s and 1980s

Today rations are produced in a range of different menus in order that soldiers have a variety in what they eat, and are also produced for a range of dietary and religious requirements.

‘Modern’ rations
‘Modern’ rations

Each Menu 8 24 hour ration contains: Cinnamon Bun, Thai Style Chicken Soup, Chicken Marsala with Rice & Potato, Coconut & Cherry Flapjacks, Hot Pepper Sauce, Mango/Banana/Apple fruit puree, Smooth Peanut Butter, Tuna in Light Mayonnaise, Biscuit Fruit, Caramel Cereal Bar, Grapefruit flavoured Boiled Sweets, Tropical Fruit & Nut Mix, 4 assorted fruit flavoured powdered drinks & a Hot Chocolate.

By Verity Anthony, Visitor Experience and Collections Manager



If you’re interested in rations, take a look at some of our previous blog posts:

Former object of the Month – Military M&M’s from the Light Infantry collection

Deborah Vosper’s article about WW2 rationing

Object of the Month for December, 2017: The Princess Mary Gift Tin