To accompany the BBC series The Crimson Field, we’re sharing some of the best First World War stories, letters and diaries from our archives. This week: sheep-brain soup, ‘egg flip’ and what happens when your cook can’t cook…
It reads like an extract from a TV script: “Clickety—click. Clickety—click. Clickety—click. In the circle of light a VAD [Red Cross volunteer] is frothing the white of an egg. Behind, in the ward, men badly gassed are panting away their lives. Over all the moon shines.”
It was actually written in 1918 by staff from a hospital in Etaples, France.
Sarah Phelps, the writer of The Crimson Field, said that this “tiny little description… went like a knife into my heart”. She loved it so much that she included the scene in episode two.
“There’s just a little moment with Kitty (Oona Chaplin) beating egg whites in a bowl because I just loved that so much. There’s something about it which is incredibly evocative – the sound of that fork against the bowl, and then trying to feed a man who was dying in front of you from injuries that were just untreatable.”
Our volunteers, known as VADs, frothed egg whites to make ‘egg flip’ for patients – a fortifying mix of raw eggs, caster sugar and sherry or brandy.
Eggs formed a vital part of hospital diets in the First World War. In Shropshire, Red Cross volunteers collected eggs for local hospital kitchens. Incredibly, between 53,000 and 71,000 eggs were donated every year in Shropshire throughout the war.
Eggs were fed to acutely ill patients – as well as men on the mend. VAD Janet Garrod wrote that all her patients got “great amusement (from) Kelly of the Dublin Fusiliers who thinks nothing of eating five hens’ eggs for his breakfast every morning. True he needs it after weeks of starvation through a hole in his jaw.”
We published a cookery book with advice and recipes for VADs who worked in hospital and camp kitchens. Soups and broths, it says, “are an essential in camp life… A cup of rich, well-flavoured broth is often one of the most invigorating of emergency rations.”
However, the idea of a ‘rich, well-flavoured broth’ from 1915 doesn’t seem so palatable now. Check out this recipe for sheep’s head broth – with brains, trotters and all. Blurgh!
Pass the dog biscuits
What better way to help your brain-soup go down than a nice side-helping of iron biscuit? In her memoirs, former VAD Kathleen Theodora Rhodes writes: “on the whole, our food was not too bad, [although] we were, when there was a bread shortage, issued with army iron-ration biscuits.
“These were like extremely hard dog biscuits, about five inches square and very thick. They played havoc with our back teeth.
“The troops used to say that they made photo frames of them, and one of my brothers assured me that a friend of his broke a trenching tool in the effort to pierce an army biscuit!”
The horrors of a soggy sponge
Recipe books offered no comfort to VADs who simply couldn’t cook. One woman volunteered at a Red Cross auxiliary hospital as kitchen-maid – to her own cook. But it soon became clear that she did not share her cook’s expertise.
Our journal from 1916 reports that this woman “had been in trouble several times for her incompetence, and was passing a sleepless night of worry in connection with a lemon sponge. It had not come right, and she knew what awaited her in the morning.
“Suddenly she had an idea.
“Rising from her bed, she crept to the kitchen… What exactly she did will never be known, but… a message of thanks came down from the ward next day, with the comment that it was the best bread-and-butter pudding the patients had ever tasted”!
Food shortages began in 1917 when our UK hospitals were feeding about 2,500 people per day. We worked with the Ministry of Food and the War Office to ensure our patients had enough to eat.
Sugar, tea, meat, margarine, butter, cheese, fish, suet, golden syrup and jam were all in limited supply. No wonder The Crimson Field’s Sister Margaret Quayle attacked Flora’s cake with gusto.