Rum, Tobacco and Iranian Mars Bars – The True Story of Military Rations

By October 23, 2017Military

There’s some debate as to who actually came up with the phrase that ‘an army marches on its’ stomach’. If you’re stuck for an answer at a pub quiz, you can choose between Napoleon, Frederick the Great of Prussia or even Claudius Galen, chief physician to the Roman army. What isn’t open to question is the truth of the statement – military personnel are far more likely to perform at their optimum if they’re fed and watered properly. Poor supplies equals poor morale equals poor performance – it really is that simple. Combat conditions, however, make the setting up of field kitchens more than a little tricky, and that’s when a steady supply of easily prepared and eaten rations can prove to be so vital.

Protein and vitamin packed meat, vegetables, grains and pulses are the obvious choice, and modern field rations have been put together extremely carefully by teams of nutritionists, dieticians and chefs. The same hasn’t always been true, however, and over the years UK service personnel have been lucky (or not) enough to find the following items nestling in their field rations:

Rum

Most people are probably aware of the rum ration which was traditionally given to sailors, but a daily 1/16th of a pint (a quarter-gill) of dark rum was also provided for troops fighting in the trenches during World War I. Generally given out at dawn, the ration was too small to induce any feelings of intoxication, and instead was probably supplied for reasons of boosting morale, particularly of UK and Commonwealth soldiers seeing their French counterparts being given half a litre of wine per day.

Tobacco

The modern military man or woman is an ultra-fit specimen, honed and drilled to deliver a performance when it matters. To a degree, this has always been true, so it probably reflects the attitudes of wider society rather than the military that tobacco was once seen as an indispensable component of field rations. Again, it was a question of morale more than anything else, and all troops in the trenches during World War I would be issued with 2oz of tobacco per day. The biggest shift which took place during the war was the shift away from pipe smoking – regarded, pre-war, as being the ‘manly’ option – and toward cigarettes, driven by convenience and portability. The cigarettes soon became a form of currency in the trenches, with the cost of a haircut, for example, being set at two cigarettes.

Coffee

It’s currently fairly difficult to keep track of whether coffee is good or bad for people. The powers that be felt no such doubt during the Boer war, however (1899-1902), when British troops were issued with not just coffee beans but also a coffee grinder to put them through. Coffee was regarded by the government as representing an essential part of any evening meal. The troops on the front line had other priorities, however, and often used the grinders to turn the African Cornmeal, which was also part of their rations, into a cereal which could be more easily stewed.

Iranian Mars Bars

This is perhaps the most unusual item on this list. The Iranian Mars Bars were initially manufactured in bulk for the Shah of Iran toward the end of the 1970s. Following the overthrowing of the Shah in 1979, the Mars Bars were never delivered and, instead, somehow ended up forming part of UK soldiers 24-hour ration packs, where they stood out thanks to the fact that, by now, they had developed a less than appetising white discolouration.

Maconochie’s Stew

The famed – or infamous – Maconochie’s Stew was a staple part of UK soldier’s rations during World War I. Claiming to be a combination of ‘finest beef, potatoes, haricot beans, carrots and onions’, the tinned stew was intended to be eaten hot or cold, and therein lay the problem. As a contemporary account claimed…. “Warmed in the tin, Maconochie’s was edible. Cold it was a man-killer.” Since warming meant heating the tin for 30 minutes in boiling water, front line conditions meant the stew was almost always eaten cold from the tin, and that meant digging through layers of congealed fat. Throw in its reputation for inducing violent and highly toxic flatulence, and it’s easy to see why Maconochie’s Stew has never basked in the rosy glow of nostalgia afforded other favourites, such as Spam.