Much has been written about the shrapnel and bullets that flew on Gallipoli, but something in the Anzacs’ ration packs was almost as hard: the dreaded “Anzac tile”.
The food on Gallipoli was awful, but the men felt particular hatred for the “tile”, a square hard-tack biscuit made from flour, sugar, milk powder, salt and water.
The biscuits kept for years, but were hard enough to break teeth. The men usually ground them up and ate them as porridge.
Added to that were the inevitable “bully beef” (salted tinned beef), the bit of rice or bread, jam, cocoa and tea. Gallons of tea.
The Anzac Book, written by the men of Anzac and published in 1916 to raise funds for war charities, included heartfelt descriptions of army food.
O E Burton, of the New Zealand Medical Corps, wondered whether army biscuits had “the delicious succulency of ground granite or the savoury toothsomeness of powdered marble”.
He added: “We eat our meat, not with thankfulness, but with biscuits. We lengthen out the taste of the jam – with biscuits. We pound them to powder. We boil them with bully. We stew them in stews. We fry them as fritters. We curse them with many and bitter cursings…”
As for their hardness, he wrote: “Call to mind how your finest gold crown weakened, wobbled, and finally shrivelled under the terrible strain of masticating Puntley and Chalmers No. 5s.”
A comic poem, How I Won The VC, by “Crosscut” of the 16th Battalion AIF, details how the narrator supposedly sallied into a battle with two tins of Fray Bentos bully beef, plus an army biscuit in his breast pocket. He threw the tinned meat into a Turkish trench and heard the enemy pounce upon it. The biscuit, meanwhile, saved him from taking a bullet in the chest.
Sergeant F.C. Brinkley wrote to his mother in South Australia: “You have to break the biscuits with your rifle butt.”
Burton wrote that “well glazed”, the biscuits “would make excellent tiles or fine flagstones”. He predicted that, after the war, they would become “souvenirs which one can pass on from generation to generation, souvenirs which will endure while the Empire stands.”
In November 27, 1925, the Albury Banner And Wodonga Express reported the War Memorial Museum was gathering wartime artefacts made from “all varieties of substances – metal, wood, fabrics, foodstuffs, and rubber, to mention only a few”
“Of them all the one which is best preserved and promises to last the longest is a biscuit from Anzac, a fact which will not surprise Australian soldiers who broke their teeth on these `iron’ rations in 1915.”
News of the future exhibit reminded one returned soldier that he had once used a biscuit as a postcard.
Former shearing-shed cooks were prized on Gallipoli, working daily miracles with supplies as they slaved over kerosine-tin pans.
The Anzacs were dogged by a shortage of fresh water. The Anzac Book quotes a cook about the challenges: “How the *** can I cook seventy beef teas, forty puddings, and two hundred milk diets with the bloomin’ quarter issue of water I get? Love me, when I was cooking for shearing sheds out on the barcoo, where it never rained, I would get as much water as I wanted.”
For the soldiers, who spent most of the eight months on Gallipoli digging or improving trenches, food was a preoccupation.
Sergeant Gordon Macrae, of the 6th Light Horse, was initially enthusiastic, noting in his May 22 diary entry: “We get a good issue of rations, including biscuits, bacon, tea & sugar, beef, cheese & jam, cigarettes, tobacco & matches.”
But in July, after bouts of diarrhoea and “not feeling too good”, he noted: “A change in tucker would be very acceptable. The menu is not sufficient to stand much pick & shovel work on.”
The Geelong Advertiser of February 24, 1916 reported on meeting between Britain’s Lord Kitchener and an Australian digger on Gallipoli.
Kitchener had asked: “Well, lad, what did you have for dinner today?”
According to the report: “The casual looking Australian, without troubling to salute, shifted a piece of chewing gum from one cheek to the other, and muttered disagreeably, `Just the *** same, only *** tinned stuff again.’
Mealtime may have lacked taste, but it was action-packed.
Warrant Officer F H Phillips, a Queenslander from the 2nd A L H Field Ambulance, told his parents (in a letter published in the Brisbane Courier on August 26, 1915) he would “sit on boxes outside the dugout with a plate on our lap. A shell or two would come whizzing over and burst. Plates and everything would go when we ducked and jumped into the hole. Sometimes we would beat it, and sometimes the shell would get in first.”
He also pleaded: “If you want to send any parcel along, send some chocolates.”
“… not a Turk, sir,
was left of that legion accurst –
For they’d whacked the Fray Bentos among them,
And each man had perished of thirst.”
The biscuit, too, proved a lifesaver:
“Then a fifteen-inch shell came straight at me
– I hadn’t a moment to shirk –
And it struck on that hard army biscuit
And rebounded – and blew up a Turk!
You doubt it? Well, if you want proof, sir,
The truth of this tale to endorse,
Here’s the biscuit – that dent in the middle
Is where the shell struck it, of course.”
*How I Won The VC, by “Crosscut”