Category Archives: food

POW Death March from Kut, 1916

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 308-311:

In the last days of April and into early May in the desert outside Kut, the Turks gathered the 6th Indian Division’s prisoners for transportation into captivity. They separated all the British and Indian officers to travel ahead to camps in western Turkey. The officers’ journey northwards in the coming weeks was uncomfortable, by river boat, railway, mule cart, donkey and German motor lorry. Along the way they saw many dead Armenians strewn at the roadside or thrown down wells, grim signs of the Turkish government’s mass killings. The officers were treated respectfully by their Turkish guards and tolerably fed. But their Indian and British men had a very different experience from May to August. They underwent a horrific 600-mile death march from Kut through the Iraqi desert to labour camps in Ottoman Syria outside Aleppo and in the nearby Amanus and Taurus mountain ranges, which stretched into Turkey up the Mediterranean coast. ‘It was like one thing only,’ said an Austrian officer who encountered the prisoners of Kut on a mountain road at the end of their march as an army of walking skeletons driven on by Turkish rifle butts, ‘a scene from Dante’s Inferno.’

The march came about because the Turkish authorities did not have enough transport for the captive Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian ranks of the 6th Indian Division, having allocated what little was available to their officers. From Kut, day after day in searing heat and choking dust, the Indian and British ranks suffered horrific maltreatment from Turkish guards, both soldiers and policemen, and from local Iraqi civilians, who appeared from the villages they passed. They were beaten, whipped, knifed, stoned and shot, while their boots, clothes and water bottles were ripped off them. Some were also raped and infected with sexually transmitted diseases.

The prisoners were too weak to resist all the abuse, a consequence not just of their privations under siege but also of how poorly they were fed on the march. They initially had a small boatload of food sent upriver from Indian Expeditionary Force D, which they soon gobbled up outside Kut, the desperate Indian troops fighting each other for it. Thereon they had what the Turkish Army could spare them, chiefly old stocks of its staple biscuit ration–a rock-hard slab five inches long and three quarters of an inch thick, made of coarse flour and husks, sometimes with earth mixed in and often green with mould. Paltry rations of black bread and flour were also available. The Indian prisoners used the flour to make chapattis, which they heated over tiny fires fuelled by dried dung they picked off the desert floor or reeds they pulled from the Tigris. Otherwise they had to barter for food at high prices from their Turkish guards or Iraqis, usually in return for what few pieces of uniform they had left. To drink they had only gulps of the muddy Tigris water, or what they could scoop up in their hands from open village drains flowing with excrement.

The Indians’ diet on the march aggravated their existing intestinal infections from the months spent inside Kut. Many of them with gastro-enteritis passed bloody diarrhoea before dropping unconscious to die on the sand, filthy and emaciated. Others who collapsed in the desert crawled into the streets of villages to slump fly-covered in fetid corners, begging for scraps and slowly starving to death. Only a lucky few got any medical care, either from Turkish doctors or from a handful of convalescent Indian Medical Service officers who travelled up from Baghdad behind the main officer group.

The Indians who survived the march the best were regimental groups of old professionals who stuck together as teams to protect one another, bringing on the slowest and feeding the weakest. The men of the 7th Gurkhas did this, their pre-war NCOs filling the place of their officers, and refusing to let their companies break down. The youngest Punjabi wartime recruits fared the worst, lacking the pre-war professionals’ levels of training to work for each other. Their groups disintegrated more easily, stumbling on in isolated fragments that much reduced their chances. By August, across the desert between Kut and Aleppo, around 2000 of the marching Indian prisoners lay dead, along with a larger proportion of the British ranks. Some of their corpses were buried by regimental comrades in shallow graves excavated by hand, only to be dug up by jackals at night. Iraqi civilians cleared up a few other dead prisoners from around their villages by slinging them into ravines. But most of them remained where they had fallen in the desert.

From September, the Turks forced the surviving ranks of the 6th Indian Division into hard labour. Their task was to help construct the Ottoman Empire’s unfinished masterpiece of pre-war infrastructure, the Istanbul to Baghdad railway. Under the supervision of the railway’s German and Austrian engineers, the Hindu and Sikh prisoners were concentrated along the line in the Syrian desert east of Aleppo, in the locales of Ras al-Ayn and Nusaybin. ‘Their conditions were truly pitiful,’ wrote Percy Walter Long, an Urdu-speaking British sergeant of the Royal Artillery, who was put with them. He saw them daily on the construction sites, labouring from 4.30 a.m. to 6.30 p.m. in gangs, breaking and carrying stone to build embankments and lay track ballast …

The Muslim, Gurkha and most of the British prisoners from Kut laboured further west on the railway, in the Amanus Mountains in north-west Syria and the Taurus range in southern Turkey. They were the skeleton army the Austrian officer had seen as incarnations of hell on earth. ‘We were set to work at blasting and tunnelling,’ recalled Muhammad Qadir Khan, a Punjabi Muslim prisoner of the 120th Rajputana Infantry. ‘I was weak and not fit for much work, so I was beaten and told to work harder. Nearly all who were on the work were beaten and ill-treated.’

Throughout the winter of 1916–17, the labouring Indian prisoners of Kut were fed just enough to keep them working–bread, beans, meat now and then, and water they had to fetch from desert wells or mountain streams. Yet hundreds died of exposure, malnutrition and typhus. On newly completed sections of the railway, they occasionally saw what the Cabinet’s decision to capture Baghdad had ultimately led to for them: a part in strengthening enemy supply lines, plain to see as German rail trucks rattled by carrying artillery, machine guns and other weaponry for the Turkish Army in Iraq.

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Indian Troops and the Boxer Rebellion

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 45-48:

Also in China, some Gurkhas travelled deep into the interior in disguise with their British officers on official intelligence gathering missions; one group sailed the entire length of the Yangtze River. But by far the largest group of Indian servicemen in China, some 33,000, travelled to Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere in the east of the country in 1900–02. They went for the international intervention by a coalition force of the United States, German, French, Japanese and other major armies to suppress the Boxer Rising, the popular peasant movement that attacked foreign legations and business interests, shooting white diplomats and ripping up European-owned railway lines.

The Indian expedition to China for the Boxer Rising exemplified two significant features of pre-1914 overseas service for Indian recruits. The first was that the Army in India was the world’s most experienced at shipping military expeditions. By tradition this was a British imperial speciality, involving troop-ships of the British merchant marine fitted out by the Sappers and Miners at the Indian Empire’s great ports of Bombay, Karachi, Calcutta, Madras and Rangoon; the Royal Navy as the world’s premier fleet, with command of the deep sea lanes and unrivalled experience of embarking and disembarking troops, supported by the Indian Empire’s own navy, the Royal Indian Marine; and the Indian Army’s British officer ethos of kindly care, which helped to maintain, even enhance abroad the benefits of military service in British India to compensate for the absence from home.

Thus when Indian troops were sent from British India to east China in 1900 for the Boxer Rising they were taken away by sea with a confident British efficiency that ensured smooth, safe and sanitary travel. In China itself, the Indians garrisoned much of the eastern seaboard up to 1902 as part of the international coalition force of occupation while a diplomatic settlement was reached to compensate the foreign powers for Boxer damage to their interests. During the occupation the Indians were well cared for by the British. Specifically, their pay was boosted by a special allowance for active service, plus three months’ pay in advance before departure from British India, and an extra two months’ pay as a gratuity while in China. Their food continued to be served in keeping with their religions, but with a greater quantity and variety of meat, dairy products, vegetables and fruit. They could also, with help from scribes serving as non-combatants, exchange letters with their families through Indian field post offices which sold their own stationery and stamps at cheap army rates, and were linked to British India by regular mail ships.

As for their clothes, the Indians needed extra layers in abundance to cope with the severe Chinese winter of 1900–01, when amid heavy rain, hail and snow the temperature fell to −22°C, freezing beards, sweat and urine. They got them in the form of Canadian warm coats, sheepskin overcoats and lambskin vests, and Norwegian socks and fur gloves. The upshot was that the Indian sick rates were low, with just a few cases of frostbite and pneumonia.

The second significant feature of the Indians’ pre-1914 overseas service shown in China was their engagement with foreign culture. The sources for this are few and far between, but the Hindu diarist Thakur Amar Singh was in China in 1900–01 attached to the Indian Army with the princely States unit the Jodhpur Lancers, and he wrote down his thoughts on Chinese culture which were likely typical of other Indian soldiers’ reactions. Like them, he saw the great sights in and around Beijing–the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace and Great Wall of China–and he was enthralled. ‘The Great Wall was our daily view,’ he wrote of one of his postings. ‘I had walked for weeks continually on it, and was wondering what sort of man he must have been who started this enormous work.’ Amar Singh then met Chinese families in whose homes Indian soldiers were housed. ‘The inhabitants seem quite gentle and friendly and offer fruits, walnuts, chestnuts, tea, and liquor to all the troops. Their villages are most beautifully built and have separate rooms. Their houses are also clean and well built… The most extraordinary thing is that they don’t milk their cows. They don’t know what milk is. All their things are cooked by fat.’

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Sichuan’s Ancient Salt Industry

From Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River, by Lyman P. Van Slyke (Stanford Alumni Assn., 1988), p. 95:

While the whole Yangtze Valley east of the Three Gorges was supplied with salt from the Liang-huai district, Szechwan produced its own salt in an industry of great antiquity and technological sophistication. Salt in Szechwan is the result of its geological history. As we have seen, prior to the collision between Indian and Asian crustal plates, Szechwan was submerged by a great primordial ocean. As the land uplifted, Szechwan became an inland sea, then finally took on the mountain-girt basin character it has possessed throughout historic times. This process, dating from Triassic times 250 million years ago, produced large underground brine or solid salt deposits and, from the dense vegetation of many millions of years, large pockets of natural gas and extensive beds of coal.

The underground deposits lie at various depths, though a few brine pools can be found on the surface. We do not know when this salt was first exploited, but the earliest wells are claimed for the third century B.C. and attributed to Li Ping, the engineering genius who conceived All-Rivers Weir above Chengtu…. In early times, these wells must have been quite shallow, but within a few hundred years records indicate dozens of deep wells in the most productive regions. The brine obtained from these wells was evaporated by boiling, with wood (or charcoal) from the abundant forests as the principal fuel. At a later date, coal was also used for this purpose. In a few fortunate locations, even shallow wells brought in natural gas as well as brine. This enabled the brine to be boiled with gas carried by bamboo pipes.

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Joys of Travel in Tibet

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle p. 132:

From here on, we were in the real Wild West. After Lhatse, there are no more conventional hotels, just shared rooms with dirty, damp beds, concrete floors and no heating. The electricity comes and goes and showers are scarce; in most settlements the only way to wash is with a thermos of hot water. During my time in Ngari, I got to shower just once and grew used to matted hair, a week’s worth of stubble and clothes stained with mud and dust. Smoking furiously in the pit toilets in an effort to disguise their stink became second nature.

Only the food defeated me. China’s cuisines are as diverse as its people and most are superb. Tibet is the exception. Tsampa, thugpa (a noodle soup) and momo (yak-meat dumplings) are the principal national dishes, all accompanied by endless glasses of yak-butter tea. Every morning, Tenzin and the driver Lopa would happily pull out the cloth bags which contained their tsampa, before mixing it with butter tea or water and, sometimes, yak cheese. It was a breakfast I tried just once, and the remorseless meals of momo and thugpa soon began to pall.

I had been spoiled for choice in Lhasa, where there are Nepali places and Tibetan ones that cater to westerners; the finest meal I ate in Tibet was a spicy yak-meat pizza with a yak-cheese base. I was able to vary my diet in Gyantse and Shigatse too, thanks to the restaurants run by migrants from Sichuan. Eating Chinese food induced feelings of guilt, given the way Han culture is encroaching in Tibet, but I blamed Tibetan chefs for their lack of innovation rather than admit my own hypocrisy.

Those meals were a distant memory now. The higher we climbed, the worse the food got. For much of the time, only basic fried rice or thugpa was on offer. Fruit became scarcer and much more expensive. Along with vegetables, it has to be transported down [highway] 219 from Xinjiang, and it is common in Ngari to see Uighurs selling bruised apples from the back of a truck. Even yak meat is hard to find, as the animals are slaughtered only at a certain time of the year and the meat has to last for months.

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Adapting Rations for German POWs

From The Enemy Within Never Did Without: German and Japanese Prisoners of War At Camp Huntsville, Texas, 1942-1945, by Jeffrey L. Littlejohn and Charles H. Ford (Texas Review Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. 579-608:

The Geneva Convention placed very strict stipulations on the availability and quality of food served to the prisoners. Specifically, Article 11 directed that the food rations provided to the POWs must be equal to that supplied to American troops. To make certain that such provisions were carried out, inspection teams were assigned to report on the implementation of the Geneva Convention on a regular basis. The quantity of food served at meals never seemed to be in question during the first three years of the war. A POW from Camp Huntsville was quoted as saying, “On the first evening and on the first days, we were hungry, but we were soon provided with sufficient meals. We received good and adequate food. According to our orders to do damage to your enemy wherever you can, we naturally were always asking for everything we could get.”

The acquisition and delivery of food to the camp for prisoners and staff proved to be a considerable task. Many of the goods came into the camp from the train station in Riverside, Texas. Box cars filled with loads of rice, beans, potatoes and various dry goods circulated into the camp and were divided amongst the compounds. Necessary foods, such as cheese, butter, and meat went directly to cold storage units. Other goods were stored in the kitchens, many of which ran 24 hours a day. As Titus Fields later reported, “I have never seen so many potatoes in my life!”

Careful attention was paid to the food preferences of native Germans and efforts were made to appeal to their tastes in order to reduce food waste. A POW Menu and Mess Guide was published in 1944 and catered to German prisoners’ food preferences. The menu provided the POWs with various foods such as frankfurters, salami, bologna, cheese, potatoes, sauerkraut and bread. Cabbage was required to be served a minimum of three times per week. Foods that were unpopular, such as American style soups, frozen fruits and vegetables, and peanut butter were removed from the menu completely. The Germans also refused to eat corn, calling it “Swine Food.” Former Huntsville resident Linda Evans recalled meeting two POWs from Camp Huntsville while visiting Germany in the 1970s. One of them, Herr Pfieffer, mentioned to her that his treatment at the camp was “OK,” but some of the food was terrible. On Thanksgiving, the traditional American turkey dinner was served, and the prisoners were told that it was very good. Pfieffer said, in truth, to the Germans it was terrible, and they could not eat it. Any dish containing oysters, celery, green peppers and canned juices were also removed from the menu because the Germans were said to be unfamiliar with these types of foods. To help reduce waste from the breakfast meal, bacon, eggs, ham, potatoes, and sausage were removed from the prisoners’ diet and substituted with fruit, cereal, and bread because the Germans traditionally preferred a lighter breakfast. Beef was also to be served less frequently with a substitution of salt pork in its place. All of these efforts lead to a reduction in waste and aided many German POWs in adapting to their surroundings.

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Utility of U.S. Aid to Soviets, WW2

From Finland’s War of Choice: The Troubled German-Finnish Coalition in World War II, by Henrik Lunde (Casemate, 2011), Kindle Loc. 1676-90, 1702-16:

The most valuable aid may have been in the 1941–42 period when the Soviet war industry was moved to the Urals and beyond to keep it from falling into German hands. This was an achievement which contributed immeasurably to the ability of the Soviet Union to stay in the war and begin turning the tables on the Germans. However, production in 1941–42 was at its lowest and insufficient to meet the demands brought about by the enormous losses. Victor Kravchenko, who was involved in the Soviet armaments procurement industry during the war, claims that aid played a prominent role.

It may have been in the areas of logistics, transportation, food, communications, raw materials, and the more sophisticated equipment that the aid had its greatest importance. Bellamy points out that the Soviet armed forces had 665,000 motor vehicles at the end of the war but their own production between 1942 and 1944 was only 128,000. It is therefore obvious that most of them came from American factories and that they provided the Soviets with the capability to motorize their forces. The 436,087 vehicles, received mainly from the United States, enabled the Soviets to motorize their troops, their logistical support, and their command and control.

The 8,701 tractors, including half-tracks, provided by the US allowed the Soviets to motorize their artillery to keep up with the advancing troops. Without this the Red Army could not have kept its offensives rolling deep into central Europe. The accessories and spare parts provided to keep this vast transportation fleet running, for example, included 3,786,000 tires for the vehicles. In their final drive on Berlin the northern wing of the Soviet forces under Marshal Rokossovskiy crossed the rivers in East Prussia using General Motors Corporation DUKW six-wheel-drive amphibious vehicles.

Joan Beaumont believes that perhaps the most important contributions of the Lend-Lease program were in the fields of communications, command and control, and railway equipment. The program provided the Soviets with almost one million miles of telephone cable and about 247,000 field telephones. The US aid included half a million tons of railway tracks that were important in rebuilding the 65,000 kilometers of railway tracks and 2,300 bridges destroyed by the Germans. The aid in this area also included 1,155 railroad cars and 1,981 locomotives.

The Soviets have ridiculed the 2.67 million tons of petroleum received from the US in view of their own output of about 30 million tons per year. What is left out of their commentary is the fact that much of the US-provided petroleum consisted of high-octane aviation fuel, a type that was in short supply in the Soviet Union. The Lend-Lease program also provided much-needed raw materials, including about 75 percent of the aluminum and copper needed by Soviet industry between 1941 and 1944.

On the subjects of food aid and the provision of raw materials, Khrushchev writes:

In addition we received steel and aluminum from which we made guns, airplanes, and so on. Our own industry was shattered and partly abandoned to the enemy. We also received food products in great quantities…. There were many jokes going around in the army, some of them off-color, about American Spam; it tasted good nonetheless. Without Spam we couldn’t have been able to feed our army. We had lost our most fertile lands—the Ukraine and the northern Caucasus.

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Germany’s ‘White Bread Division’, 1944

From Defeat in the West, by Milton Shulman (Secker & Warburg, 1947; Dutton, 1948; Arcadia, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4344-67:

After five years of nervous tension, bad food, and hard living conditions, the Wehrmacht found itself swamped with soldiers complaining of internal gastric trouble. Some of these were real, others were feigned. It was difficult to check.

As defeat became more and more imminent and life at the front more dangerous and more uncomfortable, the rise in the number of men reporting themselves as chronic stomach sufferers became alarming. With the staggering losses in Russia and France, it was no longer possible to discharge this huge flood of groaning manpower from military service. On the other hand their presence in a unit of healthy men was a constant source of dissatisfaction and unrest, for they required special food, constantly asked to be sent on leave, continually reported themselves to the doctor, and grumbled unceasingly about their plight. It was thus decided by the Supreme Command to concentrate all these unfortunates into special Stomach (Magen) battalions where their food could be supervised and their tasks made lighter. It was originally intended to use these troops for rear-area duties only, but as the need for additional men became increasingly critical these units were sent forward for front-line duty as well.

On Walcheren Island, following the Allied invasion, it was decided to replace the previous normal infantry division with a complete division formed from these Stomach battalions. By the beginning of August 1944, the transformation was complete. Occupying the bunkers of the polderland of Walcheren Island and pledged to carry on to the very end were stomachs with chronic ulcers, stomachs with acute ulcers, wounded stomachs, nervous stomachs, sensitive stomachs, dyspeptic stomachs, inflamed stomachs — in fact the whole gamut of gastric ailments. Here in the rich garden country of Holland, where white bread, fresh vegetables, eggs and milk abounded, these men of 70 Infantry Division, soon nicknamed the ‘White Bread Division,’ awaited the impending Allied attack with their attention nervously divided between the threat of enemy action and the reality of their own internal disorders.

The man chosen to lead this formation of convalescents through their travail was the mild-looking, elderly Lieutenant General Wilhelm Daser. His small, peaked nose, his horn-rimmed glasses and his pink, bald head effectively hid his military identity. Only a firm, loud voice accustomed to giving orders betrayed it. Like the other fortress commanders he was chosen for his final military role because he could easily be spared, not because he had any particular qualifications for the task. The tremendous wastage of senior officers incurred by the Wehrmacht in Russia and North Africa was the prime reason for Daser’s being called out of semi-retirement in February 1944, to take over a static coastal division in Holland. His last active field command had been in 1941 when he had been sent back to Germany because of heart trouble. The years between had been spent as a military administrator of civilians in occupied territory. Now, at sixty years of age, he had neither the enthusiasm, the zeal nor the ability to make of Walcheren a memorable epic of German arms — but neither had most generals of the Wehrmacht in the declining months of 1944.

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