Monday, May 25, 2015

Bread of the Poilu, Part I

Bread of the Poilu, Part I: The Bread Ration

  I have returned after a rather protracted absence while experiencing what we used to refer to in the Army as being "OBE" (Overcome By Events), a catchall phrase used to indicate being preoccupied by a simultaneous accumulation of issues which prevent one from fulfilling other missions.
I apologize for not responding yet to the many comments, and will answer them as quickly as possible.

  For those unfamiliar with the term, "poilu" (translation, "hairy one") was a slang term applied to French infantrymen of World War I, a reference to their unshaven (and often unkempt) appearance which was also considered to be rather manly and virile.

    But on to the bread: in the French army of World War I, as with most European armies of the time, bread was a critical part of the soldier’s daily rations whether in garrison or in the field. This is shown in the chart below. The daily bread ration of the French soldier throughout both world wars was 750 grams (~26.5 ounces).
Daily Bread Ration, 1914
Hard Bread
700 or 840 grams*
24.5 or 29.5 ounces*
500 grams
17.5 ounces
750 grams
26.5 ounces
600 grams
21 ounces
750 grams
26.5 ounces
500 grams
17.5 ounces
Great Britain
450 or 570 grams*
16 or 20 ounces*
450 grams
16 ounces
700 grams
24.5 ounces

1024 grams***
36 ounces
717 grams
25.5 ounces

*Rations amounts varied, dependent on a number of factors such as type of unit and proximity to the front lines.
**Same bread ration weight in WWII
***Originally measured in the Tsarist-era system of measures. The wartime bread ration was
       2.5 "funt" (фунт). One funt=approx. 409.5 grams

  In the French Army, fresh bread was commonly in the form of pain ordinaire, literally “ordinary bread”, but perhaps more aptly translated as “standard bread”. Pain ordinaire was produced in round loaves of 1500 grams in weight:  two daily rations. It was a round, flattened loaf approximately 270 mm in diameter and 97 mm in height (approx. 10.5 x 4 inches). It had a somewhat tough crust, a dense crumb and fairly low moisture content which allowed it to remain edible (after 18 hours of "ressuage", or resting after baking to allow for venting of excess moisture) for up to five or six days in summer or eight days in winter, and to stand up to rough handling while in transport.

Pain ordinaire was normally made using a levain* (starter) for leavening. Using levain, rather than yeast, enhanced the bread’s ability to keep longer without going stale. And as a levain is made from supplies already on hand, flour and water, it obviates the need to use scarce transportation resources to keep the army bakeries supplied with yeast. Brewer’s yeast was authorized for use in extenuating circumstances, but only for a day until a starter from leftover dough could be produced. With the occupation of Belgium and the loss of much of their logistical support, pain ordinaire was supplied to the Belgian army. However, many Belgians disliked the somewhat tangy taste of French pain ordinaire made with levain, instead preferring the yeast-leavened version.

* Levain is the French term for a mixture of flour and water that has been colonized by yeasts and bacteria.
French soldiers carrying their dinner, soup and bread, 1915.
The bread is pain ordinaire or pain biscuité / Biblioteque nationale de France
At Amiens (Somme) a pile of pain ordinaire on the ground, awaiting transport.
Pain biscuité (biscuit bread) was pain ordinaire prepared in a slightly different manner and baked longer to produce bread with lower moisture content in order to increase its keeping qualities to 20-25 days. Of approximately the same size and shape as pain ordinaire, pain biscuité had a slightly flatter shape, a thicker crust and weighed 1400 grams (~50 ounces) due to its lower moisture content. The daily bread ration for pain biscuité was 700 grams. As it was less susceptible to mold, pain biscuité made with brewer’s yeast and cooled for 24 hours could be stored for as long as 18 to 20 days, but was recommended to be used by the 10th day.

Arrival of bread and tobacco rations by truck.
The round shape and thick crust of pain ordinaire made for a sturdy loaf that could endure being tossed about during the transportation process. The mission of the ration parties was one of the more dangerous of World War I, as soldiers would have to leave the relative (emphasis placed on "relative") safety of the front-line trenches.

Several methods to transport pain ordinaire to the front-line trenches were improvised.
One was to impale the loaves on a stick and carry between two soldiers, as illustrated above. 

Twine could also be passed through the center of the loaves to string several loaves together
for transport.

At Camp Coëtquidan (Brittany), German prisoners of war prepare pain ordinaire for transport.
Note the baisure (part of the loaf with no crust) on the sides of the loaves, resulting from the loaves being placed close to each other in the oven. While it does affect the keeping qualities by leaving an entry point for moisture, it does not affect taste or texture. Apparently these loaves were intended for immediate consumption.

A third type of bread was the French WWI version of hardtack, "pain de guerre" (war bread). It was a departure from the traditional type of hard bread or hard tack in that pain de guerre included leavening. While it didn't have the long-time storage capability of previous hard breads, it was more palatable and less likely to cause digestive problems.

There were many sources for bread in the French Army. Bread could be procured from civilian bakeries in time of extreme need, but was more commonly produced in permanent army bakeries, field ovens or in rolling ovens (“boulangeries roulantes”) that accompanied units in the field. 
Even while moving daily and under adverse conditions, field bakeries equipped with  boulangeries roulantes were expected to be able to produce an output of not less than six batches of bread in twenty-four hours, The production of a bakery unit of 32 boulangeries roulantes was rated at 26,880 rations (13,440 loaves) per day.
(above and below)
Testing field ovens (boulangeries roulantes), Argenteuil (suburb of Paris)
, 6 May, 1914.

Coming soon, how to make your own pain ordinaire (see photos below). 
I need to tweak the formula just one more time before unleashing it. 

L'Intendance en Campagne,
enri Charles-Lavauzelle, Éditeur militaire (Military publisher), Paris, 1914

No. 96bis, Instruction sur les Boulangeries Légères de Campagne
Henri Charles-Lavauzelle, Éditeur militaire (Military publisher), Paris, 1901

No. 96, Subsistances Militaires, Boulangeries Roulantes de Campagne
Henri Charles-Lavauzelle, Éditeur militaire (Military publisher), Paris, 1910

No. 96, Subsistances Militaires, Boulangeries Roulantes de Campagne

Henri Charles-Lavauzelle, Éditeur militaire (Military publisher), Paris, 1915


  1. Yay! I was just thinking about this blog this weekend. I picked up a Trangia stove for camping and was thinking of all the great things I could cook.

    1. As we're in the centennial of WWI, I'm working on doing more posts on WWI field cooking.
      Thanks for stopping by and visiting.

  2. Tres bon!

    I'll be looking forward to postings on the recipes (I hope).