In 1914, the British War Office made a huge order with Reading-based biscuit (cookie) makers Huntley & Palmers. This order was not for any average sweet treat, however, but for a key ration for the army’s fight ahead. Huntley & Palmers response was a dense, square brick of nothing more than flour, salt, and water. Huntley & Palmers were able to cheaply produce these stocky slabs, given the fittingly plain name of Army No.4, all the way up to a year before the war’s conclusion, surpassing their expected contract by three years.
Concurrently, despite losing much of their staff to the ever-growing demand for able-bodied men to join the war effort, the company also prepared and distributed a quarter of a million tons of tinned rations, tea, sugar, and stock cubes to accompany their biscuits on the front lines.
As unappealing as the Army No. 4 may seem, it was a fittingly durable provision in the dank trench-based front lines of the war in Europe, avoiding rot and spoilage while densely packed with much-needed energy. No matter how well it stood up to the elements however, the tasteless and tough tablets weathered the teeth of many soldiers.
Ever industrious soldiers found that, if soaked in water long enough the biscuits could become a hearty paste, which was then used to bulk out the weak vegetable “soup’” that was typically served.
This display at Reading Museum showcases the ingenuity, skill, and good humor of the otherwise weary troops. With the display, visitors can see some of the more inventive uses for the tough ration, from picture frames and canvases to postcards. One example is the biscuit framed photograph of Lord Kitchener, British war minister at the time, and icon of campaign posters that went on to be imitated in the United States “I Want You” ad, which instead used Uncle Sam.
Visitors can also see the ways soldiers sent these biscuits as curious souvenirs to loved ones back home, in one example a humorous soldier sent a No.4 biscuit home with an accompanying note reading: ‘Have gone on hunger strike, reason attached, mind your toes.”
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