Review: Bully Beef & Biscuits (Hartley)

Bully Beef & Biscuits: Food in the Great War.

“Iron rations” don’t sound especially appetizing, but you might just work up an appetite while reading this book.

Lavishly illustrated with period photos (all unique, as far as I can tell) and reproductions of advertisements, the author guides us through the entire period of the war from the gastronomic perspective. The book covers all of the theaters for which army feeding information exists, although most of the illustrations portray the soldiers of the BEF, with just a sprinkling of pictures of the French, Germans and others.

The author quotes extensively from unit and individuals’ diaries and from soldier letters sent home. He spends a chapter on home front issues in the UK, such as conscription of agricultural workers, the recruitment of females for agricultural work, and rationing. Also examined are the logistics of supply, as well as a comparison between officer and enlisted men’s diets. An interesting contribution to this history is the addition of one or more period recipes at the ends of all the chapters.

Significant points in the fighting histories of the units and individual soldiers who are quoted flesh out the text. Some of this background information seems only marginally relevant to the topic of the book, but I suppose the idea is to include some “human interest” material with the collections of menus and descriptions of meals that often don’t vary much. The rehash of some of the battles does pad the book, as do the huge number of photos and even the relatively thick paper stock on which the book is printed. If not published this way, the book may have ended up being a thinner and much lighter-weight volume.

The numbered end notes immediately precede an adequate index. It’s a hefty hardbound book that presents well, although it began to show a quality issue with the gluing of the signatures into the binding, such that in time, some pages could come loose.

A well written specialty study that supplies necessary information for the Great War novelist, and would make several good “aperitifs” (or supply a number of between-meal “snacks”) for an armchair general. Recommended.

NB: I bought this copy new (although at a significant reduction from the list price) from A Major Online Retailer, and was impressed by the care that was taken to ship it: tightly encased in bubble wrap, with the dust jacket enveloped in a Mylar cover such as may be found on library books (although the clear plastic was unevenly folded around the jacket, resulting in one short edge that kept coming loose as the slippery plastic worked its way upwards over the boards of the book during reading – not a big issue, and easily remedied with the application of a little tape). I don’t think the careful wrapping was the doing of the Major Online Retailer’s fulfillment center, because a new DVD and a new paperback book I’d also ordered were shipped loose and unprotected in the same box.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Review: Bully Beef & Biscuits (Hartley)

  1. I’ll have to look this one up.

    Like

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