The First World War was a nationally unifying event – everyone knew someone in uniform. Rallying to the call of Lord Kitchener, brothers, husbands, sons, lovers, and fathers enrolled from every home and class across the land.
As troops marched to Victoria Station to board ‘Goodbye trains’ – wives stuffed chocolates and cigarettes into their men’s rucksacks. Those smokers that didn’t have an ample supply of tobacco received a nasty surprise on arrival in France, as there were no canteens serving such luxuries.
The problem of a universal canteen service to serve the entire British military contingent was only solved the following year with the establishment of the Expeditionary Force Canteens (EFC) – a unit providing ‘small comforts and articles such, as they are used to purchasing in their canteens or regimental institutes.’
The EFC was designated a War Office institution under the control of the Army Council, with some of its senior officials granted temporary commissions, while subordinates were all in uniform with varying ranks and recognised as being ‘engaged in the performance of duties under Military Authority’, and were, therefore, under Military Law.
As troops poured onto the continent, the new unit began groaning under the strain. In fact, on mobilisation in March 1915, a battered secondhand car was the only transport available to trundle along the rear-lines delivering supplies to canteens.
By spring, as half a million troops dug-in, EFC was struggling to cope, especially given that staff– all officially non-combatants – frequently stiffened the ranks by acting as stretcher bearers and on occasion even picking up arms to join the fight.
Canteens often doubled up as makeshift medical tents, whilst at the larger field hospitals, tea trolleys clattered along the wards serving refreshments, as travelling kitchens churned out hot meals on troop-trains.
EFC Private William Noakes was running a canteen on the southern point of the British lines at Albert in November 1915, where he experienced cooking, ‘amid the din of battle and to the accompaniment of the roar of the big guns from batteries.’
Noakes was exposed to the full fury of enemy guns, as he served troops coming and going to and from the trenches at all hours.
Strikingly, even in such hellish conditions, some regiments set up their own canteens. The men of the 6th Black Watch converted a dug-out into a cafe, which became a ‘great draw’ with three thousand eggs sold in its first week.
Along with the YMCA, Catholic Women’s League and Church Army, independent efforts like ‘Miss Barbour’s canteen’ sprang up behind the lines.
Her influence can be seen in the pages of the Globe newspaper, which reported:
‘Miss Barbour has given of her means to make the fighting men happy. No praise can be too high for the work she is doing.’
Further north in Boulogne, socialite Lady Angela Forbes unfolded a trestle table every night on the railway station platform to serve soldiers with tea and cake.
As the war rumbled on, EFC continued to grow; becoming the universal provider with 577 branches in France and in Flanders. An original well-thumbed stock list from 1916 shows it sold a dizzying array of products, ranging from ammonia and anchovies to dictionaries and curry powder.
Their solitary automobile had been replaced by 249 trucks, 151 cars, and 42 motorcycles.
From EFC headquarters at the chateau Regnière–Eclusenear on the Somme, managers ran mobile kitchens, butcheries, bakeries, cinemas, concert parties, printing presses, and a ration pack production depot.
Over time, the canteens gained a reputation for being careful about credit, with troops affectionately referring to the EFC as ‘Every Franc Counts’ because of their shrewd business practices – and flat refusal to accept IOUs.
There were no sales of over-the-counter alcohol either, and spirits were supplied only to officers and sergeants’ messes and were only obtainable with signed authority from a staff officer, meaning it was never possible for a private soldier to obtain spirits.
However, EFC did brew beer on the continent as well as buying wine directly from vineyards in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal.
Rest behind the lines
Contrary to popular belief, troops didn’t spend all of their time in the trenches or preparing for battle. They were rotated between the front lines, reserve trenches and spent leisure time in rear areas where bigger canteens, shop huts, and rest-houses were run by the Woman’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), working for the EFC.
These volunteers, donned in their ‘khaki’ uniforms, became a welcome sight for Allied forces everywhere. In an attempt to stretch limited supplies, the girls used inventive methods such as dipping rashers of bacon into flour to ‘beef them up,’ or soaking stale bread in water and then baking it again.
Off the beaten track
Obtaining little luxuries at postings further afield, like in Salonika, proved trickier. Rifleman William Walls expressed dismay after,
‘having to stand in a line for about two hours before getting served. Then I only got a small packet of tea and some cigarettes for my pal.’
Walls – like most of his comrades – was not satisfied. Pricey items topped his list of grumbles:
‘I went to the British Expeditionary Force Canteen and spent ten drachmas on milk, fruit, and a tin of salmon. We received our pay in the afternoon; I got fifteen drachmas.’
Over in Gallipoli, where the Allies were failing to score a victory against the Ottoman Empire, Sergeant Harrop of the Divisional Engineers complained that soldiers would be frantic to buy goods if there was anybody selling them. He noted bitterly,
‘The troops in France have the Expeditionary Force Canteens trotting about all over the show and can fairly easily get almost anything they want. The troops out here have no facilities for purchasing little odd things which would probably add to their comfort.’
Those serving in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) enjoyed a more relaxed pace of life, fussed over by EFC waiters – garbed in white jackets – as they sipped afternoon teas at Qurna, the legendary site of the Garden of Eden.
Over in Palestine and Egypt, EFC pushed forward their comforts on mules and camels to a line of canteens spread along the Suez Canal, where about £5 million passed over counters annually.
The prayers of those hoping for an end to the conflict were answered in late 1918 when the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany agreed to an armistice ending the war in victory for the Allies in November.
As operations wound down, vast quantities of EFC surplus stock was sold off in bulk at a huge loss. This sudden glut of merchandise turned out to be a blessing for an enterprising young former soldier called Jack Cohen who spent his £30 demob money on a crate-load of unwanted EFC stock.
He then hired a wheel-barrow and pitched up a stall to flog his consignment of Lyle’s Golden Syrup, Maconochie’s Paste and tins of Nestlé’s canned milk.
Cohen made a £1 profit on his first-day trading and returned the following morning to buy more stock. His wheelbarrow enterprise would blossom into the supermarket giant Tesco.
Nathan Morley is the author of Canteen Army: The Naafi Story. The book charts an organisation that has seen action in almost every theatre of war over the last century and is available to buy from Amazon.