Watering down and bucking them up

Popular memory of the First World War – if Wikipedia is anything to go by – in relation to an important aspect of wartime domestic life concerns pub opening hours and the watering down of beer.[1] With a first mention of ‘water down’ in the English language in 1811 (according to Merrian-Webster), only a slight increase in usage in the 1910s, a substantial share of its occurrence aligns with post Second World War rationing (according to the Google n-Gram search results). The OED, however, has the origin of water alone much earlier, inherited from Germanic and cognate with Old Frisian, and water down dating dating back to the 1830s, which is in line with the n-Gram mentioned earlier. Indicating that something is made more moderate so as to weaken in quality and/or impact, the phrase had been known also as milk-and-water, which is now obsolete, accompanied by down or not, but stems from the same 1830s: The Bill is to be milk-and-watered down to suit the taste of an obstinate faction (The Times 2 Feb 1831).

In the First World War, both beer and milk were watered down, their habitual quality lessened for a variety of reasons, mainly supply issues but also – in terms of beer at least– because of lesser alcohol consumption at the home front. Admittedly, milk was available in the form of powder and one pound of it made for one gallon of milk (‘watered up’?) (The Family Herald 1916: 532). However, there was no complaining about milk as both baby and man crave for it.


Screen Shot 2018-08-06 at 13.24.52

A chubby baby is one thing – but what of the man or woman it is going to become!
(The Family Herald 1916: 581).


In Germany as well watering down became part of daily life. Food supply, not least all grains and staple goods, was suffering really badly from both the war and the subsequent blockade. Whereas any grain harvest dropped substantially from the start of the war onwards, potato production only diminished greatly after a disastrous harvest in 1916, from which it never recovered. The key reason for the decline was the shortage of fertilizer, most of which was imported from South America. Livestock manure, seemingly a solution to the issue, became problematic in its turn as animals increasingly became malnourished. Because of barley shortage beer production declined dramatically. If Germany produced nearly 70m hectoliters of beer before the war, this dropped to about 24m (Karau 2015: 172). In Britain the acreage of barley also decreased but most of it was used for feeding stock (Hansard, 4 March 1915). A question was raised in Parliament about the advisability of increasing the barrelage of beer from 10m to 15m in order to counter increasing discontent “in all the large towns”. Bonar Law, the then Chancellor, did not budge and was resolved not to amend the law in place (Hansard, 3 July 1917).

In Baghdad beer supply had to be catered for and this was not without difficulty. In October 1918, Ian Macpherson, the Under-Secretary of State for War, was asked whether he was aware that “the hospitals in Bagdad are entirely without a supply of beer, so that the patients when ordered such by the medical officer are quite unable to obtain it, whereas the messes of the officers of regiments stationed there have beer, wine, and spirits on their tables in abundance; and, if so, will he see that orders are sent out for more equal distribution?” (Hansard 30 October 1918). Clearly access to food and beverages in places had become one of privilege. The world of hospitals where beers were in short supply (admittedly when no beer is available, every single cry for one pint constitutes a lack of supply), were a world apart from the front. Although Belgians in unoccupied Belgium produced quite some beer (see below), the imagery of beverage intake by soldiers resonating at the home front was one of bravery and how Oxo “bucks them up”, even if it is only ‘a basin’ of the drink.


Screen Shot 2018-08-06 at 13.25.14

“My husband, who is a member of a Field Ambulance at the Front, tells me that every patient on admittance who is able to drink is at once given a basin of OXO, and he says it is wonderful how it bucks them up.” (The Family Herald 1916: 561).


In Belgium the beer situation was an ambiguous one. Behind the front breweries were having a whale of a time. The population of the unoccupied part of Belgium grew considerably during the war years: not only soldiers from many countries stayed behind the front, but also many thousands of Belgian refugees found temporary accommodation there. They generated a significant demand for beer, which the breweries could hardly accommodate. Despite their limited capacity, the breweries sometimes had to give up their infrastructure temporarily as the yeast tanks were extremely suitable for soldiers for washing and bathing. In occupied Belgium, however, most economic matters suffered, as did food supply and beer production. The German army claimed horses and brewers’ copper. Most of the ingredients for beer production were in short supply, not least barley. Anyone who wanted to brew beer had to be creative. One recipe for ‘war beer’ listed all kinds of produce that wouldn’t normally belong in a pint: syrup, corn, spelt and even beans typically used to feed pigeons.[2] Not only beer was ‘watered down’. Virtually all dishes had to go through such substantial recipe alterations that they contributed to a real change in dietary habits. The change in quality of food was triggered by necessity and affected many.

The London-based The Family Herald, which aptly labelled its subheading as A Domestic Magazine of Useful Information & Amusement had been established in 1843 by George Biggs and arguably was well beyond its heyday – it had been the first journal in which the process of typesetting, printing and binding had been fully mechanised. The Family Herald (FH) established the fiction-based penny weekly formula and by 1855 was credited with a circulation of 300,000. (Cox and Mowatt 2014:8). The April 1916 issue of the journal – the Battle of the Somme started less than two months later – left no imagination as to how much dishes and supply had been watered down because of the war, or how one signified term, the mental concept, assumed a new material form, i.e. a different material form: “Most of the so-called chicory now being used in Italy is made of dried figs. It is claimed that dried figs are at least as good as chicory, and they are now in great demand.” (FH 1916: 502). Whether one should read into the claim a strong volition and preference or just wartime propaganda persuading people to accept figs for chicory, is not altogether clear. Similar confusion arose from the fact on how the recipe for ‘cold meat hash’ stipulated the dish was best served hot.

Each month the FH listed recipes on several pages. The sheer scarcity of the main ingredients literally dries up the columns: stewed mutton with turnip and rice for one single family included one pound of neck of mutton – fair enough – and one turnip “or part of a large one” and half a pound of rice. Matching the dish with today’s Sainsbury’s ready meals – such as the Indian lamb rogan josh  with pilau rice – the wartime recipe would serve two people, not a family. As a sidedish the barley needed for steamed barley fitted one teacup (FH 1916: 532).

Interestingly, the family journal printed a story about “artificial honey”, which “has been manufactured in Germany for many years and large quantities have been sent over here” (FH 1916: 556). Although the artificial honey could be replicated using half a pound of pure honey, the main other ingredients were a pound of sugar, half a pound of glucose, one gill and a half [pint] of water”. Honey colouring could be obtained from any chemist. Such was, according to The Family Herald, the most luxurious replacement recipe, based on a related German production. The cheaper the variants of the main recipe, the fewer ingredients (colouring had to go, obviously) and the quicker the production cycle, involving as few resources as possible. This can be seen in a recommendation concerning vinegar. Readers were told not to throw away any left over from pickles as the leftover vinegar “is better than ordinary vinegar for salad dressing” (FH 1916: 582). Economisation was also turned into a business model.


Screen Shot 2018-08-06 at 13.25.40

Economise your cooking, only with Paisley Flour (The Family Herald 1916: 556).


Economisation certainly was on for the tens of thousands of refugees in Britain, most of whom were Belgian. In 1915 a Belgian cookbook was published by William Heinemann. The amalgamation of Belgian recipes served two purposes: it provided an image that anything Belgian in Britain was still relatively lush – quite some rich ingredients such as butter and cream feature – and that refugees had all the space in Britain to emanate their home cooking, and it provided a platform from which British cooks, hosts and hostesses alike could draw inspiration, even though the preface mentioned that the aim was to catch the attention of the ‘workaday and inexperienced mistress and maid’. Yet, the brief introduction by Mrs. Brian Luck did include a few reservations, not least of which was “And if on Wednesday you find that you have to eat the same part of the very same animal that you had on Monday, do not, pray, become exasperated; treat it affectionately” and that “lastly, the good cook must learn about food what every sensible woman learns about love—how best to utilize the cold remains”. The cauliflower soup recipe underwent some production changes when in exile. Typically boiled first and then turned into a soup using another or cleaned pan, the recommendation now was that “After you have boiled a cauliflower, it is a great extravagance to throw away the liquor; it is delicately flavored and forms the basis of a good soup.” Similarly, for a fish soup bones and trimmings that were leftovers from filleting, should be used too. The most stricking recipe, however, was labelled ‘starvation soup’, a recipe unknown to Belgians by that name, but fair enough: a pork bone should be boiled for an hour, then two pounds of Brussels sprouts should be added, leeks and the hearts of cabbage. With pepper and salt added, this may sound like some soup but the point was to rub it through a sieve until a thin purée was left. Surely ‘starvation purée’ then, no? One ponders whether this was the one recipe Mrs. Luck thought about when she wrote in her preface to the second part of the book, dishes that can be made in a haste, that “We do not wish a meal to owe its relish solely to the influence of extreme hunger”.



The Belgian Cook Book (2013) British Library online. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/belgian-cook-book

Cox, Howard and Simon Mowatt (2014) Revolutions from Grub Street: a history of magazine publishing in Britain. Oxford: OUP.

Een pint van stroop en duivenbonen (2017) https://hetarchief.be/nl/blog/een-pint-van-stroop-en-duivenbonen?search=bier

The Family Herald, April 1916.

History of the United Kingdom during the First World War (no date) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_United_Kingdom_during_the_First_World_War

Karau, Mark (2015) Germany’s Defeat in the First World War: The Lost Battles and Reckless Gambles That Brought Down the Second Reich: The Lost Battles and Reckless Gambles That Brought Down the Second Reich. ABC-CLIO.

Luck, Brian Mrs. (1915) The Belgian Cookbook. London: William Heinemann. Also online https://archive.org/details/cu31924003585985.

Sainsbury’s Indian Lamb Rogan Josh with Pilau Rice 450g (Serves 1) (no date) https://www.sainsburys.co.uk/shop/gb/groceries/sainsburys-lamb-rogan-josh—rice-450g


Reading suggestion

There is a really good post on Farming in the First World War by Julie Moore for Everyday Lives in War (https://everydaylivesinwar.herts.ac.uk/2015/03/farming-in-the-first-world-war/). The post includes many pathways into research of specific aspects of everyday life relating to farming and food supply.



2 thoughts on “Watering down and bucking them up”

  1. Two points – there was strongly associated with Dennis Healey the Labour politician, a song from his time in the Communist Party in the late 1930s: ‘I am the man, the very fat man, who waters the workers’ beer, …’. And I venture to suggest that ‘potage de starvation’ would certainly appeal to British ears, if not tastes.


  2. Oxo seems to have had a commercially useful hold over ‘buck up’:
    An unidentified survivor of the loss of the Hogue (sunk 22 September 1914) is quoted as saying ‘[Oxo] made new men of us . . . we were all pretty nearly done for, I can tell you, but the crew were very good to us. ey brought us round basins of hot Oxo, some with brandy in it, and it bucked us up at once and made new men of us’. ( The Times, 7 October 1914, p. 3)
    From ‘Words and the First World War’, Julian Walker


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: