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Food in the field: Iron Rations

Cooks mincing bully beef from Iron Rations to make rissoles at a field kitchen in Ypres, 1917 (AWM E01064)


Posted on May 7 2018

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 moved 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.

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