“Not…to their taste”: Pickled Herring and British POWs in Germany during WWI

I spent this evening reading correspondence between James Gerard, the US Ambassador to Germany during WWI, and Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, (via the US ambassador to the UK) about the condition of British POWs in Germany. Actually, not as depressing you might think, as long as you don’t mind open-air latrines and alcohol-free beer (for the other ranks; officers could purchase beer and “light wines”).

Memoir of James Gerard, US ambassador to Germany
Memoir of James Gerard, US ambassador to Germany
Most of the complaints seem to have been about the food. I can’t really blame them after reading a specimen breakfast menu that included soy-starch soup consisting of soy-flour, potato-starch flour and margarine. Yum!

But many complaints seem to come down on national lines. In one camp, “French non-commissioned officers control the quality of food prepared, which appears to give satisfaction to all but the English prisoners who, as usual, do not find it to their taste.”

As Gerard pointed out, “there is no more prospect that the English soldier will ever be satisfied with his food in Germany than that the German soldier will be satisfied with his in England.”

Fair enough! I found one antidote, from a report written by an American inspecting the welfare of British soldiers in a POW camp, amusing. The lunch menu included raw pickled herring, much to the consternation of the Brits. “Germans and Russians relish these herrings raw, but the English do not, and there had been some trouble on this account.” British soldiers had gotten into trouble for building illegal fires to cook their fish.

“Upon my explaining to the commandant that the English did not eat their herrings raw, he said that he would have arrangements made so that they could cook them, without endangering the barracks from fire.” I’m picturing a bunch of British prisoners, building fires in their barracks to cook their herring rather than eat it raw. This obviously pre-dates the days of weekend breaks to Amsterdam! Or there could be another explanation for the fires:

“He said that a complaint on this score had reached him before, and that he had thought that the English had made the fires more or less out of insubordination.” Well, of course, there is also that!
A pickled herring stand in Amsterdam
A pickled herring stand in Amsterdam
Great Britain. Foreign Office. Correspondence with the United States Ambassador Respecting the Treatment of British Prisoners of War and Interned Civilians in Germany. (In Continuation of “Miscellaneous, No.15 (1915)”). Cd. ; 8108. Sl: HMSO, 1915.

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