Food that’s “not bad for the front!”

Regular subscribers to our blog and Twitter will know that we like to link our posts to the monthly themes of the Explore Your Archive and History Begins At Home archive campaigns. For February the themes are ‘letters’ and ‘food’, respectively.

One letter in our collection which immediately sprung to my mind was one written by First World War soldier Arnold Henry Doughty. Arnold, or Harry as he was known, wrote many letters home to his family in Normanton by Derby whilst on active service in the Royal Army Medical Corps in France.

Arnold Henry Doughty was born in 1882, the second son of John James Doughty and his wife Mary Ellen of Normanton by Derby. He had three siblings: Beatrice Helena (known as Trissy), John Frederick (known as Fred) and Kenneth William (known as Ken).

Arnold Henry “Harry” Doughty (D4769/6/2)

Harry’s father worked for the Midland Railway Company, being their Chief Accountant between 1897 and 1904. Harry also joined the Midland Railway Co in July 1898, but in 1903 he moved to Gascoyne’s Stained Glass Company in Nottingham where he also attended the Art School.

As the only unmarried member of the family, Harry Doughty enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) in 1914 and served in 1st 3rd Ambulance 59 Division. His service number was 417347. He was captured on 21 March 1918 and held at Munster I Prisoner of War camp in Westphalia, Germany.

Harry’s letters, even those written as a POW, are upbeat; perhaps that was his nature, perhaps it was to reassure the recipient. Regardless, his letters provide a valuable glimpse into the life of a soldier during the First World War.

One letter in particular provides details which, when I first read it, were a surprise to me.  Along with details of the dangers of becoming ‘lousy’, which we won’t dwell on, Harry talks us through his diet and there’s not a bit of bully beef in sight.

Apl 30 1917

My dear Mother,

Many thanks for your letter which I received yesterday

I sent my last communication to Llandudno because I gathered you were staying there for sometime.

By this time your wishes as to improved weather will have been fulfilled if your weather is anything like ours.  It has been very bright & clear for some days now, & today, Sunday, it has been very warm.

I am rather amused at the tale about Mrs Ellis’ grandson.  So far as I can trace he went to hospital with some skin disease or other that he has suffered from, off & on for sometime, & which was probably accentuated by preserved rations.  At any rate the yarn about catching fever from a wounded soldier that he carried in is a myth.  He has the reputation of being a liar!

The batteries were duly received & I am almost ready for a further supply.  I have been on night duty lately & my little lamp has been very useful.  The two batteries you sent have lasted very well indeed.

With regard to parcels generally – while we are down the line I don’t really think it is worth while wasting postage on food as such.  Cake & sweets are very acceptable, but food, such as bread, margarine &c are, frankly, superfluous because we get quite sufficient of them issued to us, & it is only a temptation to eat too much!

Today, for instance, we had bread, tea, & bacon in quite considerable quantities for breakfast, – roast beef, potatoes, & onions, followed by date pudding for dinner (I also managed to “wangle” a cup of tea!!) & bread, margarine & marmalade & more tea for tea – all of which I think you will admit is not bad for the front!

Your guess as to our position is rather wide of the mark!  You will find a certain French town mentioned in my last letter – we are within five miles of that place.

We had a “Flying” Officer in, slightly wounded, last night, & I was rather interested to hear him explain that when any of their machines do not return they drop a message in the German lines, asking what has become of the airman, & the Germans let them know by dropping a message in our lines.  This, of course, all takes place unofficially, but it is good to hear that the Germans are sporting enough to carry out such an arrangement.

So far I have avoided becoming “lousy”!  I have seen some fine specimens of louse on some of our boys – real beauties, & according to their proprietors, they can’t half bite!

We see any amount of aeroplanes up every day & it is interesting to see the Germans banging away at ours & our batteries banging away at the Boshe machines.  Somehow neither side ever seems to register a hit, when we see them. 

Our C.O. went for a trip in a machine the other day & returned safely.  The planes they have now seem very steady & reliable.

I suppose nothing has come through from Sydney himself yet?

I don’t know that there is much more to say, this time.  I may say that I am writing at 3.0am on the night shift!

Please remember me to all brothers, sisters, brothers & sisters in law &c &c.

I have to thank Bertha & Trissy particularly for letters at Easter, & hope they are both of them feeling better for their holiday.

If I can make a suggestion for a future parcel I would say a small quantity of dried fruit salad instead of anything in the meat line – this especially in view of the possibility that we may be getting some warm weather soon.

With much love to you both

Yours affectionately


Letter from Harry Doughty to his mother, 30th April 1917 (D4769/2/14)

Just over a year later, in a letter home to his parents following his capture, Harry paints quite an intimate picture of life at Munster I Prisoner of War camp.

Letter from Harry Doughty to his parents, sent from Munster I Prisoner of War camp, Germany, 16th July 1918 (D4769/3/13)

rec[eive]d Aug 23 1918

July 16th 1918

My dear Parents,

Another fortnight has passed & it is “letter day” again.

Things are looking up for me.  I have now received two letters – one from you & one from “Lucy Rose Smith” much to my surprise.  In addition I have received two lots of money & four parcels so that to a large extent I am independent again.

We have been having some very hot & sultry weather lately which in conjunction with the Influenza, has been rather trying.  However we have had a break today in the form of a heavy thunderstorm which has cleared the air somewhat.  It has been very bad for the numerous consumptives in the hospital & quite a number have not survived it.

I have had just a touch of home sickness the last day or two – possibly on account of my having had the “flu”.  Generally I manage to keep in quite good spirits.  The Frenchmen with whom we live keep us alive – they are very gay & lively although the homes of some of them are in “occupied country” which in itself would act as a damper on the spirit of most people.

Well, I don’t think there is very much more to say.  It is difficult to find material to fill a letter when one day is so much like another.

I wish you could have a peep at us for a moment!  Four are playing bridge, three are asleep on their beds & the other two are writing letters, while the kettle is boiling away merrily on our excellent stove, ready for tea!

Much love to you both,

Yours affect[ionate]ly


Letter from Harry Doughty to his parents, sent from Munster I Prisoner of War camp, Germany, 16th July 1918 (D4769/3/13)

Harry was demobilised in 1919. After the war he married Marjorie Tucker with whom he had a daughter. In civilian life, he was an enthusiastic rock climber, climbing with H Buckle, G Barlow and WE Steeple. Harry died in 1971.

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