Eating habits, as well as food technologies, have changed much over the past 75 years. While our grandparents grew up eating fresh, perhaps even home-grown, foods, today’s generation is more likely to live off staples such as Kraft Dinner or the ever-popular McDonald’s. My mum has told me how, as a child, she and her five family members would share a tin of kippers as a snack. Nowadays, the snack of choice would perhaps be a bag of potato chips or a bowl of sugary cereal. Even those who strive to make healthier choices do not, in many instances, eat locally-produced, unfrozen food. Food manufacturing and preservation have become increasingly ingenious over the past few decades, so that most foods in the grocery store have been tampered with in some way.
Likewise, these societal changes have extended to military rations as well. Soldiers in World War II ate things such as tinned meat, local fruit and vegetables, and bread- modern armies are supplied with a huge array of prepackaged and freeze-dried fare for consumption in the field. My point is that, spoiled as we are in the 21st century developed world, it is hard to imagine the hardship of being hungry.
The widely-disliked C-ration (a WWII version is seen here) was distributed in the US Army when fresh food or field kitchens were unavailable. Image from Flickr via Wikimedia Commons, attributed to <DK>. CC-BY-SA 2.0
The modern American Meal, Ready-to-Eat- (or MRE), is equivalent to the old C-ration. However, it includes chili and macaroni, a delicious meal compared to the hard biscuits and meat hash of C-rations. Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Christopherlin. CC-BY-SA 3.0
Challenging though it is, imagine the state of true hunger coupled with the stresses of combat. This was the sober reality for soldiers of the Red Army in WWII. The numerous pincer movements made by the Germans early in the war cut off Red Army supply routes, which often starved the encircled troops at the front. Many of these soldiers were from peasant backgrounds and were not unaccustomed to hunger, but to endure such hardship in combat is quite unimaginable.
The Red Army generally fed its troops with portable field kitchens- but these kitchens were almost always located several miles from the front, so a soldier from each unit would be tasked with walking to the field kitchen and bringing food back for his comrades. This must have been more than a little inconvenient, and I imagine that there must have been several instances where the lone soldier was killed on his journey, leaving his unit hungry.
The Red Army diet had several staples, which were often traditional in origin and simple to prepare:
- Kasha: a buckwheat porridge that was boiled and could be flavoured with meat.
- Okroshka: a cold soup of raw vegetables, boiled potatoes, meat, and kvas- which is a fermented beverage made from black bread, immensely popular in Russia.
- Tyurya: similar to okroshka, but with bread soaked in kvas instead of vegetables.
- Vodka: the Red Army soldier received a daily ration of vodka; at 100 grams, it wasn’t much, but it was greatly enjoyed. Later in the war, the vodka ration was increased because of its positive effect on morale.
Dishes like kasha were only easily available when a field kitchen was nearby, and food in combat could be very different. In advance of an operation, however, Red Army soldiers would be issued some sort of sustenance that wouldn’t immediately spoil. This was often black bread and sausages, or perhaps a tin of SPAM; America sent huge amounts of SPAM to the USSR as part of the Lend-Lease Agreement, and the food was a welcome help. In particularly tough times, however, soldiers were left to find their own food. They learned to forage and to rely on the generosity of civilians; female soldiers were usually sent on the latter errand, since they would seem less intimidating to frightened civilians!
On Tuesday this week, I decided to eat nothing but Red Army-style field rations. This was quite an experience, and although I was hungry, I enjoyed it and gained a new appreciation for the life of the Red Army soldier. I began my day with some stale pumpernickel bread and dried raisins; neither of which were particularly appetizing. However, I’d just done a half-hour workout on the treadmill, so I was starving and eager to eat! I really can’t imagine how difficult it would be to walk cross-country carrying a rifle all day on an empty stomach, when I was even unhappy during my short workout.
Breakfast tasted as uninteresting as it looked
Lunch wasn’t any more satisfying- it was a thin vegetable soup with some seeds sprinkled on top
Fortunately, I had some tea which was a comfort. Red Army soldiers drank a great deal of tea, along with their ration of vodka
It wasn’t 3 in the afternoon before I was feeling so hungry and cranky that I decided to have a nap, in an attempt to distract myself. This method did work, however an afternoon nap would hardly have been an option for Red Army soldiers in the midst of combat.
Finally, it was suppertime- time to open a tin of SPAM! My parents gave me a tin of the stuff for Christmas, but I don’t think they expected me to eat it as part of a Red Army meal!
SPAM helped to save the starving Red Army during World War II- although I wonder what the Russians really thought of it!
I had SPAM with some pickled beets and a ration of vodka, and I sincerely enjoyed my supper! Still, it was all very salty, and living for more than a few days on fare like this would be unpleasant if not vile. It’s a wonder that soldiers of the Red Army managed during WWII, and I have great respect for them for doing so.
Beets (as well as anything pickled) are a staple of Russian cuisine, and when one is hungry, they pair surprisingly well with SPAM
Like surely many Red Army soldiers, I was really looking forward to my ration of vodka. Sadly, it didn’t last long!
Conditions were never easy for soldiers of the Red Army during World War II, and I hope that this post has helped to illustrate just how all-encompassing these trials were! Soldiers from any country weren’t spoiled at mealtimes, but due to the vastness of the Eastern Front and the early defensive failures of the Red Army, Soviet soldiers suffered perhaps most acutely overall. The unfortunate food situation, coupled with the ferocity and fruitlessness of much of their combat, made for a truly trying experience on the Eastern Front.