Today many of us are enjoying pancakes, I in particular love a pancake as it reminds me of my Guardian, Dulcie, who always made the best pancakes and every year I try and fail to replicate that magic. Try and fail that is. So, this post, and tonight’s pancakes are very much for her.
As a First World War historian who is particularly interested in food in the trenches it amazed me this afternoon to think I have never considered the flipping of pancakes under fire. So, let’s have a look shall we!
The history of pancake day, or Shrove Tuesday as it is more officially known, as the precursor to lent, is a long-standing tradition that has lasted for hundreds of years. In Britain, this tradition has lent itself (see what I did there?) to the act of consuming pancakes consisting of eggs, flour and milk together with sugar and other delicacies as a treat before the restriction of luxuries until Easter. Not only did people eat the pancakes but they also, and still do, run with them, in their Frying Pan. Apparently, the story behind this is that in the 15th century a woman was cooking her pancakes when she heard the bells for the church and charged off to make it complete with pan in hand.[i]
Pancake racing at the turn of the century[ii]
During the 1700’s there would also be football games (a wonderful excuse to settle a score with a well-placed punch with the opposing town) organised over the highways but this came to an end with the Highways Act of 1835.[iii]
But what of the First World War? Well the 28th of February was a busy time for the 4 years of the war. In 1915 the German army bombarded Soissons an Reims Cathedral. In 1916 at the Battle of Verdun, British forces repelled the German’s at the west of Douaumont. In 1917 things were particularly hectic as the British took Thilloy, Puisieux and Sailly-Sailisel whilst the Turkish suffered dramatic losses in Mesopotamia. By 1918 German was being repulsed at Chavigeron and all manner of attacks are taking place in the Ukraine. These are just the tip of the iceberg for all the fighting forces in the war as numerous battles were happening whilst at the same time men were on leave, being treated for sickness or wounds, living in billets, training, recruiting, surviving and dying. Essentially carrying out the long, exhausting bloody business of war.
However, celebrations did continue throughout the climate of war. In 1914, the famous Christmas truce saw men share rations and presents with the enemy. A smaller repeat of which was half-heartedly attempted in 1915, but by then not only had the war become more violent and fractious but also it was an offence within the British Army under pain of death to fraternise with the enemy.[iv]
But there is no such account for pancake day and unfortunately given the resources I have and the research I have done so far; I can find no direct account of anyone eating pancakes especially on this day. But that doesn’t mean that they didn’t.
For the men who were behind the lines, the acquisition of food to supplement their rations was almost an obsession. Private Keller wrote in his memoirs about how in 1917 he had to fight to get better food for him and his pals at the front.
During this period our rations were poor and bread was a luxury. One day I walked back to the village about five miles 48. Behind the line to try to get some bread at the bakery. I reached there as the baker was serving the last of his civilian customers who had to be attend to before he could serve the troops. There was a line-up of soldiers to buy what he had to spare and when I came to my turn there was only one loaf left on the shelf. The price was a half franc per loaf which was all that I had but a Canadian just behind me called out ‘one franc mister’. I have yet to meet a Frenchman who would turn down the opportunity to double his take whether the deal was fair or not and the Canadian got the bread. He was to big for me to handle physically, but have him a lashing with my tongue. I pointed out that from now on the price of a load would be one Franc and it was. The news quickly spread that the Canadians were well off and would pay double what the English soldiers could and from then on it would be one franc per load. The Canadian did give me half of his loaf so my ten mile walk wasn’t for nothing. However, my friends were disappointed when I got back with just half a loaf.[v]
Bread is obviously not pancakes, but the lack of such a staple part of the diet, illustrates the unlikely event of having pancakes, at least on mass. The main problem here is availability of ingredients and the ability to distribute on mass. Eggs, flour and milk were precious commodities. During the Second World War, rationing focused heavily on these three particular food types and for the First World War, available foods tended to varieties that were easy to make on mass and distribute hence the use of stews, bully beef and hard tack biscuits.
In 1916 flour in particular was so difficult to come by that that a new kind of flour called K-Brot, made from dried potato’s, oat and barley was trialled. The result of which was a bread that practically inedible and that gave some soldiers unpleasant stomach complications.[vi] Not exactly the best kind of recipe for a pancake.
So, it is again unlikely, but again, it might have happened. Crepes were and continue to be a French delicacy. It is very possible that men were able to grab a crepe if they were lucky enough to be on leave that day or able to gain access to the town. (Although, ask any French person and they will tell you very quickly and clearly that there is a world of difference between the French Crepe and the British Pancake.)
If the men were likely to get a pancake anywhere then it would have been from the Canteens that sprung up alongside the billets which were run by support groups such as the Red Cross, the YMCA and the Army Chaplains Corps. But again, the quality of the food was suspect. Private Parks wrote to his daughter in 1917 to warn her about the food. He wrote:
You see we get out tea so early & breakfast so late at (p.6) night that you get ever so hungry & you are forced to buy some supper at the canteen or the YMCA hut and you get some very mysterious pasties to eat – you can’t buy bread and butter. [viii]
Again, perhaps there were available but then again, perhaps not. Men wouldn’t even have been able to make their own as whilst their French comrades had a cooking pan, their Marmite de Campement, shared between up to eight men at a time, as part of their kit the British only had their ration tins.
French Kit with cooking pan – replica of 1916.[ix]
Now, the D ration tin was very handy to heat up over a flame to make soup or stew but flipping a pancake would have been very difficult. (Although I might try this for a one off feedingunderfire attempt – watch this space).
Replica of First World War British D Tin and Various utensils,[x]
There were alternatives to the pancake as a treat and one of the most widely known was Jam. Jam had a very special place within the lives of soldiers in the first world war. The main brand of jam was Ticklers jam.
Poem from First World War
Tickler’s jam, Tickler’s jam,
How I love old Tickler’s jam,
Plum and apple in a one pound pot,
Sent from Blighty in a ten ton lot,
Every night when I’m asleep,
I’m dreaming that I am,
Forcing my way through the Dardanelles,
With a ton of Tickler’s jam.[xi]
Not only was the jam useful for filling the void made up of stale bread and unpalatable bully beef but it also became a weapon to be used against the enemy. Most of the time the jam in the first world war was Plum and Apple and it wasn’t always particularly popular. So much so that soldiers joke in their memoirs and diaries about the constant presence of plum and apple jam. A joke that continued beyond the second world war. Variety seems to have been the main issue, as one returning soldier notes he would never touch plum and apple jam again. Private Thomas McIndoe remarked in his oral testimony at the IWM that breakfast consisted of ‘Boiled bacon – always a liberal quantity of jam – usually plum and apple and then they would change it the next day, and it was usually apple and plum.’[xii] But Jam was at least sweet, and perhaps on pancake day they could have had a spot of jam instead of a pancake. Also, Jam was useful because the tins that it came in, became the first grenades of the war as the men filled them with bits of metal, stones and explosives to hurl at the enemy, promoting the British Army to research and create new bombs, more powerful and slightly safer versions of the tinned death-traps that the men were keenly throwing over the top.
Replica of Jam Tin Bombs from 1914.[xiii]
So, we have bread, meat, Christmas dinner and jam, but still no pancakes and sadly the truth of the matter is that whilst the men may have had pancakes there is limited references to them within the information we currently have. However, today it seems that Pancakes are a part of the British Army as shown by the 2015 video on YouTube by the British Army of how to make a pancake and demonstrated, very dramatically, by trainee army chefs.
Learning to Flip an Army Pancake
But throughout the course of the First World War, under the tyranny of field kitchens and hard tack rations, sickness inducing flour and curdled milk, it is increasingly unlikely that pancakes made their way to the front for the lads. Hopefully, some of them found a pancake, a small ray of sunshine within the world of bombs, blood and mud on that day, but for the rest there was beef, jam and biscuits.
I’ll stick to pancakes thanks!
If you want to know more about food and the trenches, have a look at my YouTube series Feedingunderfire https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCEfXsWCBelkZY8s_ccx_9LA
Also have a look at the fantastic books by Rachel Duffett and Andrew Robertshaw below.
[ii] The museum of Thin Objects, ‘Seasonal Stories’, WordPress.com, https://inlanding.wordpress.com/2014/03/05/seasonal-stories-pancake-day-races/ accessed 28/02/17.
[iii] Andrew Whittaker, Britain: Be Fluent in British Life and Culture, (London, 2009), p.356.
[iv] Stanley WeinTraub, Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, (London, 2002).
[v] IWM Archive, C R Keller, IWM, Documents.11876, p.43.
[vi] Rachel Duffet, The Stomach for Fighting: Food and the Soldiers of the Great War, (Manchester, 2012).
[vii] Image of K-Brot Bread, from Paul Cornish, ‘Rationing And Food Shortages During The First World War’ IWM, http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/rationing-and-food-shortages-during-the-first-world-war (accessed 28/02/17).
[viii] IWM Archive, T Parks, IWM, Documents.14165, Letter home dated 13/06/17.
[x] D Tin and various utensils, First World War Replica, https://simonhwalker.files.wordpress.com/2017/02/3af28-messkit.jpg (Accessed 28/02/17).
[xi] Andrew Robertshaw, Feeding Tommy, Battlefield Recipes from the First World War, (Gloucestershire, 2013)
[xii] IWM SA, Thomas McIndoe, Oral History Recording, Catalogue 568.
[xiii] Replica Jam Tin Bombs, Tommys Pack Fillers, http://www.tommyspackfillers.com/gallery/images/medium/MED_1185.jpg (Accessed 28/02/17).