Food in the Trenches: Christmas Menus during the World Wars

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega searches old newspapers to learn what Christmas dinner our soldiers were served during WWI and WWII. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

When I think of past family holiday meals, I tend to focus on home gatherings. It’s easy to do so since we may have old photos of our ancestors’ celebrations, or use china, tablecloths, recipes, and take part in traditions that have been passed down through the generations.

But have you ever considered the holiday menu for those family members who served our country in the military? Do you know what the soldiers in your family dined on Christmas Day? Whether they were on the battlefront or in the United States at a military base, learning more about our military ancestor’s life can help us better tell their story.

What Soldiers Ate during World War I

In order to get a sense of what your service member was eating at Christmas, consult a collection of old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives. During both war and peace, newspaper articles report the Christmas menu for those troops on the move and stateside. World War I-era newspaper articles give us some ideas of what soldiers were eating away from their families.

U.S. troops fighting in World War I were ensured a Christmas dinner, according to this 1917 State newspaper article published on Christmas Eve.

An article about the Christmas menu for soldiers during WWI, State newspaper article 24 December 1917
State (Columbia, South Carolina), 24 December 1917, page 2

It states that U.S. soldiers in France would receive a meal consisting of Christmas turkey, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes and mince pie:

Hundreds of thousands of pounds of the best turkeys to be bought in the Eastern markets have been sent across the Atlantic not only for General Pershing’s men, but for the bluejackets of the navy patrolling foreign waters.

This article further reports on the Christmas menu served on a battleship:

Mock turtle soup, olives, roast turkey (sage dressing), giblet gravy, cranberry sauce, potatoes au gratin, celery, roast loin of pork, mixed pickles, buttered beets, apple sauce, mashed sweet potatoes, asparagus salad, cheese and crackers, apple pie, chocolate cake, ice cream, fresh fruit, nuts and raisins, coffee, cigars.

For those unfamiliar with mock turtle soup, this once-popular dish was made from calf’s head instead of turtle meat and would have included some vegetables.

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A year later and a month after the war ended, the Idaho Statesman newspaper reported in December 1918 on the Christmas menu for the “150th aero squadron at Rich field, Waco, Texas” which was provided to the newspaper by soldier Robert K. Stubbs’ mother. The menu features foods you would expect to see at a holiday feast, including turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce, stuffing, pumpkin and mince pie. Other foods included olives, celery, tomato soup, candy, ice cream and cake.

An article about the Christmas menu for soldiers in 1918, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 3 January 1918
Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 3 January 1918, page 6

What Soldiers Ate during World War II

A mere 23 years after World War I ended, the United States found itself involved in another world war. The military sons of fathers who served in WWI most likely feasted on a meal similar to their father’s. World War II soldiers still ate meals on U.S. military bases and on the front lines, but some enjoyed a meal stateside in a canteen. Known for entertaining and feeding soldieries, canteens were located in various cities across the United States.

The Stage Door Canteen in the Broadway district of New York City was a place where soldiers could watch entertainment, dance, and partake of food and nonalcoholic drinks.*  For Christmas 1942, the Evening Star newspaper reported that the soldiers were feasting on “turkey, cranberries, potato salad, hot soup with giblets and rice, steam pudding with hard sauce, fruit cake and Danish pastry” as well as “pies, cakes, doughnuts and ham and cheese sandwiches” which was always available at the canteen.

An article about the Christmas menu during WWII, Evening Star newspaper article 25 December 1942
Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 25 December 1942, page 19

Those American troops who spent their Christmas in other countries had a different experience, but their food was similar. A short, matter-of-fact 1944 newspaper article reports on the army holiday menu. Soldiers could look forward to:

Roast turkey and dressing, giblet gravy, cranberry sauce, snow flake and sweet potatoes, green beans, asparagus, fresh fruit salad, mayonnaise, celery, pickles, olives, hot rolls, butter, hot mincemeat pie, candy, assorted fruit, nuts and coffee.

An article about the Christmas menu during WWII, Daily Nonpareil newspaper article 24 December 1944
Daily Nonpareil (Council Bluffs, Iowa), 24 December 1944, page 16

What Did Your Family Members in the Armed Forces Eat?

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Did your family have members serving in the military during World War I or World War II? What did they eat for their holiday meal? Not sure? Check out GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives for ideas and recipes to get a sense of what their life was like while they served.

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* “No Liquor, But Damned Good Anyway,” America in WWII http://www.americainwwii.com/articles/no-liquor-but-damned-good-anyway/ : accessed 3 December 2016

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