Rations and sustenance

Machine gunners, like all soldiers, needed to remain fit and fuelled to ensure that they were as effective as possible in battle. The loads that machine gunners carried may have been different to that of a regular infantryman or cavalry soldier but it didn’t result in any different treatment and they generally received the same rations and sustenance as all other soldiers.

However, they were often not far from their transport or at least a supply line for ammunition, so may have been able to rely on frequent replenishment and potentially fresher and warmer food. For example, the Universal Carrier load included a No. 2 stove as part of the equipment so the machine gun sub-section didn’t have to rely on their individual stoves.

Great War

During the Great War, food carried by individual soldiers consisted of the ‘iron ration’. Their main source of food was through cooking sets and field kitchens in the supply chain and lines of communication.

On 4th August 1914, the Army Council Instructions described the manner in which the Iron Ration was carried.

9. Method of carrying Iron Ration by Cavalry and Infantry Units in the Field.

In view of recent experiments the following appear to be practical methods of carrying the iron ration by cavalry and infantry units in the field:-

(i) Cavalry. – Tin of preserved meat and grocery ration in tin box in the outer pocket of the haversack; the biscuits, wrapped in the ration bag, in one of the pockets of the cloak.

(ii) Infantry. – The iron ration should be carried in the pack in preference to the haversack.

It will facilitate packing if the tin of preserved meat, and grocery ration in tin box, are placed separately in the pack.

The ration bag can be used as a wrapper for the biscuit.

2. The instructions in the F.S. Manuals for a cavalry regiment and an infantry battalion that the complete iron ration is to be carried in the haversack may be disregarded.

3. If a second iron ration is ordered to be carried it will be distributed in the man’s equipment as found most convenient.

4. The biscuits can be placed in the waterproof ration bags at present held in mobilization store, pending the issue of bags of more suitable material and design.

(L.51/3323, S.D.2)

Army Council Instruction 9, 4th August 1914.

The iron ration changed this month. To avoid it going off (or being eaten) during voyages, it wasn’t issued for travel at sea.

17. Iron Ration.

The iron ration will now consist of:-

1 ration preserved meat.

1 lb. biscuit.

In tin case:

5/8 oz. tea

2 oz. sugar

2 cubes (1 oz.) oxo

This ration will not be drawn by E.F. troops until arrival at overseas ports.

(L. 53/Gen. No./4813, Q.M.G. 6.)

Army Council Instruction 17, 4th August 1914.

With the mobilization for war, it wasn’t possible to issue everyone with the full iron ration, or supply them from field kitchens; therefore, alternative instructions were issued for the Territorial Force (TF).

26. Rations for Territorial Force (T.F.).

General-Officers-Commanding-in-Chief are requested to issued instructions that all mobile T.F> troops should draw one ration of preserved meat, and one ration of biscuit, while at their temporary war stations, from the Supply Depot on which they are based, sending in demands of the O.i/c stating requirements.

Should the troops be already in possession of an iron ration no further demands will, of course, be put forward.

The demands for biscuit will be met by the depots as far as possible but it is uncertain whether the full quantities can be supplied.

(L. 79/5513, Q.M.G. 6)

Army Council Instruction 26, 5th August 1914.

Inter-war Period

Second World War

On a day-to-day basis, when training out of barracks, men received ‘haversack rations.’ These were wrapped in greaseproof paper but Army Council Instruction 1240 of October 1940 set out that this had to be treated with care as paper was one of the items in short supply and there was a need for economy in its use.

The majority of the rations for machine gunners would have been carried in the form of ‘compo’ usually provided in wooden crates suitable for 10-men for one day (or five-men for two days or three-men for three days).

Individual soldiers received rations that they could carry in their small packs, usually in their mess tins. For the invasion of North Africa, a 48-hour ‘mess tin ration’ was introduced but for the later invasion of North West Europe – Operation OVERLORD – a 24-hour ration was introduced.

Post-Second World War


  • The National Archives, WO 293/1, Army Council Instructions 1914.
  • The National Archives, WO 293/25, Army Council Instructions 1940.