An army marches on its stomach and this belief contributed to Sir John Monash’s reputation as ‘a commander of genius’.
In horrible weather, mud and slush, General Monash ensured that hot meals were delivered to his troops on the frontline.
Monash believed food was important. His letters observed the deprivations of war – no butter, sugar, fresh bread or potatoes – but he was determined his men would not go without regular, hot and hearty meals.
So, he utilised the same distribution system that conveyed ammunition to the trenches.
Consequently, the Steenwerck railhead in Flanders was, he said, “busier than the goods yard at Spencer Street station”.
“It takes a couple of thousand men and horses with hundreds of wagons, and 118 huge motor lorries, to supply the daily wants of my population of 20,000.” General Monash said.
Meals could not be cooked in the trenches because smoke would be visible, so General Monash had his engineers make hundreds of Thermos style flasks, which were boxes lined with straw and a Dixie cooking pot inside.
‘Dixie’ was the American name for a deep cylindrical saucepan with a lid, also known as a canteen or mess tin (and, in Australia, a billycan).
These were carried in the insulated boxes, on men’s backs, up to the forward defences.
The food remained hot and was a welcome source of nutrition and warmth, warding off frostbite and ‘trench feet’.
Can you picture the careful organization required to ensure that all of these supplies … should punctually reach the cooking-pot, or mess-tin of every man in the division, wherever he may be? – General John Monash
General Monash said the deliveries required painstaking planning and timing.
“Can you picture the careful organization required to ensure that all of these supplies … should punctually reach the cooking-pot, or mess-tin of every man in the division, wherever he may be?” he said.
“The frontline was not really a line at all but a complex and elaborate system of works several miles deep.”
Amid the roar of guns, bombing overhead and “unspeakable misery”, General Monash’s troops ate stews, porridge, coffee, and OXO broth.
While Australian soldiers in Gallipoli had relied on limited ration packs, troops in France were fortified with nutritious, fresh food.
The stews provided meat and vegetables, while the porridge was a source of carbohydrates and fibre.
Coffee was commonplace after the arrival of American troops in early 1917 and, as well as being a stimulant, it kept up morale.
The concentrated meat extract, OXO, was a powerful link with the comforts of home. The cubes sold for a penny and often arrived in parcels from family and friends.
“Be sure to send OXO,” the manufacturer’s patriotic advertisements read.