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Scurvy from deficient military rations at Gallipoli

Friday 19 April 2013 12:02am

ANZAC plaque

A newly published study has found military rations provided to New Zealand soldiers in Gallipoli in 1915 were nutritionally deficient and probably contributed to cases of scurvy and higher rates of other illnesses.

University of Otago, Wellington and Massey University researchers performed nutritional analyses using modern day foods that were the nearest equivalent to those listed in the military rations of 1915.

“We found that the rations consisting largely of bully beef, biscuits and jam were low in vitamins A, C and E, potassium, selenium, and dietary fibre,” says Associate Professor Nick Wilson from the University of Otago, Wellington, who led the research. “These deficits are likely to have caused cases of scurvy and may have contributed to the high rates of other illnesses experienced at Gallipoli.”

The study found some evidence that levels of vitamin A in the rations were low enough to have caused cases of night blindness. Lack of vitamin A may also have reduced resistance to dysentery and typhoid that killed more than 200 New Zealanders at Gallipoli.

The research suggests these nutritional problems would have been preventable if even modest amounts of canned fruit or vegetables, as manufactured in countries like New Zealand at the time, had been provided to the troops, Dr Wilson said.

“This was a serious planning mistake as it was well known from previous wars, such as the American Civil War, that scurvy could develop if the troops were not supplied with fruit and vegetables.”

Professor Glyn Harper from Massey University, who has published a book on Gallipoli and led the historical aspects of the study, says there were extensive historical accounts about the poor food quality supplied to these soldiers.

He cited one writer who reported that “tinned meat, jam and hard biscuits and a mug of tea provided 99 per cent of the meals”. The appalling conditions also complicated eating with another report stating: “Owing to the annoyance of the flies some sections did not eat anything but a dry biscuit during the daytime. To eat biscuit and jam in the daytime a man had to keep moving the hand that held the food.”

The monotonous nature of the food may not have helped the morale of the soldiers, but it did generate one amusing incident where a soldier threw a tin of bully beef over into the Turkish trenches. It was soon thrown back with the note: “Cigarettes yes. Bully beef no”.

The study found evidence that as the war progressed, the New Zealand military on the Western Front tried to improve food quality and provided fresh vegetables. Some other countries involved in the conflict also started including vegetables with the canned stewed meat in the rations.

“Ultimately military planners at Gallipoli were not anticipating such a prolonged and difficult campaign, and all sides were surprised by the new scale and nature of industrialised warfare,” Professor Harper says. “The poor planning around food rations was symptomatic of poor planning throughout the whole campaign.”

The authors plan more research publications as the centenary of World War I approaches. This study has just been published in the New Zealand Medical Journal.

For further information on the nutritional aspects of study:

Associate Professor Nick Wilson
Department of Public Health
University of Otago, Wellington

For further information on the historical aspects of study and Gallipoli campaign:

Professor Glyn Harper
Professor of War Studies,
Massey University, Palmerston North

A PDF of the article can be obtained from:

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