Trench Cake: 1914

I’m teaching trench warfare to year 9 at the moment. I really like my year 9’s; they’re funny and inquisitive and (fortunately) have never had to live through anything more distressing than the wi-fi going down. So it’s really hard for them to grasp just how grim conditions in the trenches would have been. We’ve gasped at images of trench foot (seriously, only click on that if you’re done eating), analysed maps and images showing the position of trenches and groaned at the futility of going over the top, just to be cut to shreds by machine gun fire. And yet, they still don’t quite get it. How can they? I can pinpoint the exact moment they lost their ability to relate to the situation on the Western Front and that moment is called the Somme:

“I just wouldn’t go over the top, miss, I’d just refuse and tell the C.O. to do one.”

“Yeah, what would they do if the whole trench didn’t go over?”

“I’d run away back to England. D’you think I’d get to keep the gun, though?”

I did my best Mary Poppins-esque smile of charitable patience, even though we’d covered these exact scenarios every single bloody lesson so far.

“You think you could swim the English Channel in full military uniform, do you Finn?” I queried in what I hoped were calming non judgmental tones to hide my inner eye roll. “You must have just been pretending you didn’t have the stamina to do the 800 metre race at sports day, hmm? And Robbie – realistically what do you think might happen if you told a 6 foot something man with a gun who’s also out of his mind with fear to ‘do one’?”

We agreed (yet again!) that none of us knew what we’d really do if faced with similar circumstances to the men who fought in the trenches of World War One. It was an incomprehensible time – in everything I’ve taught, nothing comes close to matching the futility and horror of trench warfare and the impossibility of how people coped with it. Take Herbert Burden, a soldier who fled the battlefield after seeing the carnage and massacre at Bellwarde Ridge (1915), where over 1000 men were slaughtered in a 1/2 mile square battlefield in 12 hours. Aged just 16, he was still 2 years too young to have officially and legally signed up to the war but he had lied about his age – like many others, he had been swept along in the propaganda campaigns promising excitement and adventure. Still didn’t stop him getting executed by firing squad for desertion, though.

My students’ repeated inability to accept what happened in the trenches is a clear indication of how awful the reality must have been for a lot of men when the fighting was happening. Even when there was no fighting and boredom was the predominant emotion, it was still boredom mixed with mud, rats and the risk of an unexpected bullet hole in the head if you happened to stand in the wrong place at the wrong time. That year 9 can’t accept the realities of trench warfare, but instead come up with incredulous scenarios they’d try in order to escape the trenches every lesson, shows how out of the ordinary the situation was.

Imagine, if you can, you are a young man fighting in World War One. You’ve just got back from a gruelling week on the front line. You haven’t taken your boots off for days, you’ve only slept curled up in a dug out and it’s been pissing it down constantly because the climate of Northern France doesn’t give a damn about making this war easier for you. And that’s one of the ‘better’ front line experiences. You get back to the rest camp for 4 days’ break before returning to the front line again and after a mandatory wash and shave (this is the British army after all – got to keep those personal standards up, even if the water’s grey and the towel smells like feet) you are handed a package. Something from your family, to keep your spirits up: a cake.

Now, people back home during World War One weren’t totally ignorant of the realities of the war. They would have seen men returning bandaged and broken, unable to speak of their experiences and worked out that maybe this war wasn’t the jolly 20th century Butlin’s holiday it had been billed as. Soldiers also wrote home to their families to tell them of their experiences. The only problem with this was that at the start of the war, every letter sent from the battlefields was opened and read by a junior officer and then read again at Home Depot in Regent’s Park (the Post Office sorting office, not the home improvement shop) to make sure it contained no classified information that might fall into enemy hands. If it did, or if it contained information that wasn’t classified but was deemed too graphic or likely to lower morale, that section could be deleted or crossed out.

So I can only think that people back home were aware of the guns and general ‘ugh’-ness of the war and trenches, but must not have realised the true extent of the reality; the mud, lice, blood, despair and boredom, when they named the cake in honour of them. Also, as a side note, if you know that your husband’s having a bit of a hard time fighting in less than ideal conditions, why would you send him a gift named after the very thing he’s struggling with? “Made you this cake, darling, know how much you’re hating it out there so I’ve called it trench cake to remind you that you can never escape. Toodle-oo!”

It’s astounding that in the depths of war, the Post Office still managed to deliver 12 million parcels and letters every week to men at the Western Front. Among the lipstick marked envelopes and perfume scented photos, some of those packages contained Trench Cake baked by the wives, sisters and mothers of men fighting to keep their spirits up and serve as a welcome break to the unrelenting front line diet of bully beef and bread.

Although rationing wasn’t introduced until the end of the war in 1918, some traditional cake ingredients were still hard to come by as import shortages occurred and prices rose. In order to get to France in one piece and be enjoyed properly, Trench Cake had to be the cake equivalent of Lord Kitchener himself: robust, a patriotic reminder of England and able to keep without being wrapped in brown paper or stored in an airtight container (I’m assuming – but what Lord Kitchener got up to in his own time is his private business.)

Following the re-released recipe, I mixed margarine, brown sugar, flour, currants, spices, lemon rind and cocoa together. It smelt lovely and reminded me of a light version of a Christmas cake. Surely any man would be delighted to get this? The recipe then said I should add milk, mixed with a teaspoon of vinegar with 1/2 a teaspoon of baking soda dissolved in it. Hmm… I guess the vinegar and soda were supposed to react to make bubbles and cause the cake to rise, but in my case it just led to a jug of funky smelling liquid after I mixed it with the milk. I added all the ingredients together and baked it at 180 degrees for 1 and a half hours. The recipe called for it to bake for 2 hours, but after 1 and a half the edges had started to burn and it was most definitely cooked through.

Shiny, shiny vinegar cake

First impressions were that if it didn’t taste great it could at least serve as a back up weapon, maybe a bludgeon or missile, in a tight spot. It was very, very dense and very, very dry. If I was sending this cake today it would have cost me over £5 to get it to France and I would also have to label it in capital letters “PERISHABLE”, which might have been one ironic morale booster too far for front line troops.

Turns out, it probably wouldn’t have ever made it to France for the simple reason that it was actually pretty decent. Sorry, imaginary front line soldier, but you’re going to have to get through another tin of corned beef without dessert this time.

Because there wasn’t any white sugar in the recipe it wasn’t very sweet – I had to go back and check I’d actually added any sugar at all. As the sweetner used had been light brown sugar (and not an abundant quantity at that), the flavour was more treacle-y, made slightly sweeter by the currants, but definitely not like modern cakes at all. The ginger and nutmeg spices weren’t obvious, except in that sort of subtle warming way TV chefs mention and that up to this point I’ve had no idea how to recreate properly. You’d miss them if they weren’t in the cake, but you didn’t notice their individual presence. I gave my sister – who has developed an uncanny ability to always appear at times of culinary triumphs and disappears at times of despair – a slice. She said she could taste the cocoa very well and could she take half of the cake home, please?

Looks like a cake, tastes like a cake, sits in your stomach like a cannon ball

In all seriousness, this was a success. I can absolutely see how men would be delighted to receive this and how their loved ones at home would have enjoyed the process of carefully measuring and weighing ingredients out, knowing their act of love would bring happiness to their man abroad and perhaps a welcome distraction from their imminent return to the front line.

Next week, year 9 will be watching Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old (hey, it’s the end of term and one of the perks of being a History teacher is the prerogative to watch historical films in the name of education.) As we watch and comment on what the students can see and hear, and how the genuine front line footage supports what they know about trench warfare, I think we might all be eating a slice of trench cake too. That, or hiding under the tables if Robbie and Finn decide to tell me, their commanding officer, to ‘do one’ and use it as a missile instead.

E x

Trench Cake

225g plain flour
115g margarine
1 teaspoon vinegar
1/4 pint of milk
85g brown sugar
85g currants
2 teaspoons cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
nutmeg
ground ginger
grated lemon rind

  1. Grease a round cake tin and pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees.
  2. Rub margarine into the flour.
  3. Add dry ingredients to the flour and margarine. Mix well.
  4. Dissolve the soda in the vinegar and mix. Add the milk.
  5. Add milk, vinegar and soda mix to the dry ingredients and stir well.
  6. Turn into the cake tin and bake for between 1 1/2 hours and 2 hours.

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