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Food, fighting and feelings

While the AHRC celebrates its tenth anniversary, it coincides with the sombre commemorations of the events of the First World War. Many projects investigating elements of the Great War have been funded by the AHRC helping to document the history of World War I – including Rachel Duffett's fascinating study of food and rations of soldiers serving on the Western Front.

It's a fascinating topic, and one that has not received a great deal of academic attention – but it wasn't what Duffett was originally looking to explore.

“I think food for many soldiers was a way of expressing the inequalities of the British army,”

“What I was really interested in was how working-class soldiers, the bulk of the British army, expressed their emotional responses to the war,” she confesses. “When I went to the archives I was just amazed that they wrote so little about how it felt to be at war. What they did write about, all the time, was food.”

Trawling local and military archives, including those held at the Imperial War Museum, Duffett analysed letters and memoirs from soldiers at the front and developed the idea that their discussion of food was a shorthand for expressing their feelings. She also argues that food is one of the clearest ways in which the attitudes of the military hierarchy to the frontline soldiers were expressed.

“I think food for many soldiers was a way of expressing the inequalities of the British army,” she says. “There are stories from soldiers saying, 'A brass hat came to the front, never seen a general there before, but he left after half an hour saying must go, boys, we've got roast pork for dinner tonight.' He may have said that, he may not have done, but what it did do was reinforce to the reader the difference between the officers and the frontline soldiers.

“There's a diary where one writes, 'They say the Germans are inhuman, but the British are just as bad, some days we have no vegetables at all.' It meant lack of care, it meant that the soldiers felt they were utterly dispensable, and they were treated like animals – what was the point in feeding them if you were going to take them to the slaughteryard shortly?”

Working so closely on the writing of individual soldiers meant she found herself developing attachments to some of the authors.

“There's a wonderful letter collection in Suffolk records office, the Stopher letter collection, two brothers, George and Albert,” she says. “Their letters are full of them saying to their mother, 'Oh, I could just do with a bit of your homemade batter pudding, Mum,' and this desire to be fed. It's about maternal love, I suppose, more than anything else.”

Example letter from collection in Suffolk records office
Example letter from collection in Suffolk records office

The brothers were killed in 1917, within six weeks of each other. Fascinatingly, Duffett was able to trace the Stophers' descendants, their niece and great-niece, and add additional context to their letters.

“Their niece talked about spending summers with her grandparents, the soldiers' parents, and I asked if the boys were talked about,” Duffett recalls. “She said, 'Oh no, no, we never spoke of it, but the front room had their pictures and their medals, but every now and then my grandma would go and stand at the gate of this cottage, look down the road and just cry.' George and Albert were never mentioned, but her interpretation was that the mother was waiting for the boys to come home but they never would. It's touching to see that those deaths lived on in the family.”

Duffett moved into historical research after some years away from study, and received funding for her PhD at the University of Essex from the AHRC. She describes that financial support as “wonderful”, enabling her to make a career change, manage her family commitments around her project and then put together her book based on the study, 'The Stomach for Fighting: Food and the Soldiers of The Great War' (published by Manchester University Press).

“I'm also grateful to the AHRC for their continued funding of research and the way in which they combine it with community engagement activities”

And Duffett also highlights the AHRC's continued support of innovative research over the past 10 years as one way in which she's been able to progress her career.

“I'm also grateful to the AHRC for their continued funding of research and the way in which they combine it with community engagement activities,” she says. “Currently, a third of my time is funded by the AHRC through one of their five First World War Engagement Centres. So I'm very fortunate in being able to continue my research interest and develop it further through working with a diverse range of community groups and researchers - all thanks to the AHRC!”

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