13 January 2012 by Chris Marais

Biscuits of war

Wartime cuisine – basic, sometimes tasteless and even used for target practice.

If you stroll about the fascinating East London Museum, you’ll come across some old military mementoes from the South African Anglo-Boer War.

In one of the display cabinets is a box of chocolates in a red tin can, bearing the stern likeness of Queen Victoria. She used to send them to the 500 000-odd ‘Tommies’ who marched around South Africa at the turn of the 20th century looking for elusive Boer forces to fight.

Next to the now-inedible chocolates is a British Army biscuit – better known as a dog biscuit. It’s unusual because, as you can see, it has the image of a British artillery piece stamped on one side. That biscuit is 1 of the remnants of life in the thousands of little British blockhouses that were erected all through South Africa during this terrible war, to hinder mounted Boers’ movements across the veld.

They say these Bovril Packs were still being used in the trenches of WWI, nearly 20 years later. Sometimes were they used for target practice.

After the war, curious people wandering around these blockhouses would find old tins of bully beef, worn-out army boots, the odd regimental button and, almost always, a large supply of ‘dog biscuits’. They were hard as nuts, practically tasteless and only good for eating once you’d given them a really good soaking – preferably in a cup of Cape Smoke brandy.

With the biscuits would come a ‘Bovril Pack’: a metal tube with a partition in the middle. One end would hold Bovril paste (good for starting soups with) and the other would contain either chocolate or cocoa. They say these Bovril Packs were still being used in the trenches of WWI, nearly 20 years later. Sometimes were they used for target practice.

That squad of blockhouse blokes – 7 in total – would spend months cooped up in these sweltering mini-forts made of stone and corrugated iron. Apart from the odd furious skirmish, there would be nothing to do.

According to military lifestyle historians, the soldiers would idly sit there mocking each other in that typically languid British manner, stage dung beetle races and cook up outrageous combinations of whatever they could scare up from their ration packs and things growing outside. They would play chess on boards etched out of boulders, they would write painfully long letters home, tear them up, sigh and return to racing insects again, betting a month’s pay on a bug.

No one ever said war was a pleasure cruise…

Category: Culture & History

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