That first Christmas in 1914 must have been bewildering for young soldiers of all nationalities.
The British force in France had been shattered by heavy defeats at Ypres and a steady influx of newly drafted youngsters were arriving to shore up the regular army.
The dullness of trench warfare left these young men plenty of time to think and they were so close to the enemy they could hear their conversations and smell their cooking.
Even before the now famous Christmas truce there were shouted exchanges and the swapping of gifts – although there was no guarantee you wouldn’t get a sniper’s bullet if you ventured too far into no man’s land.
Every little package from home would have been welcome – and that’s where the Trench cake came into its own.
It was a basic home-made fruit cake, baked with love and sent out (for the princely sum of 1 shilling and fourpence) along with hand-knitted mittens and socks to the troops on the front-line.
No eggs in this recipe – there was an expectation that everyone who kept chickens in their back yard would donate spare eggs to the war effort. By August 1914 there was a drive to supply military hospitals with eggs as suitable food for wounded soldiers. The farming magazine Poultry World launched the “National Eggs for the Wounded scheme”, announcing: “Every British hen should be on active service.”
Instead the recipe calls for vinegar and baking soda – working together to provide the necessary lift – and no more than a pinch or two of spices and some dried fruit.
Like most fruit cakes, it would last and provided it was wrapped up well in a bit of waxed paper, would no doubt survive the long and winding road to the trenches.
It may be a simple recipe but a warm, sweet and spicy smell pervaded our home while it baked. It cut well and held its shape, but is less moist and fruity than we would expect of a fruit cake today.
But I’d like to think a few slices would have brought some cheer to the troops so far from home in that first Christmas in 1914.
- 8 oz/225g plain flour
- 4 oz/110g margarine
- 3 oz/75g currants
- 2 teaspoons cocoa
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 3 oz/75g brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon vinegar
- 1/4 pint milk
- Suggested extra flavourings – nutmeg ginger, grated lemon zest.
- Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.
- Grease and line a small cake tin (about 15-16 cm )
- Rub the margarine into the flour
- Add the dry ingredients and mix well.
- Dissolve the bicarb in the vinegar and milk
- Add the liquid to the dry ingredients and beat well
- Pour into the tin
- Bake in a moderate oven for about 1 hour. The original recipe says 2 hours but ours was done in one.
World War 1 images courtesy of Wiki Commons. We understand these to be public domain and available for reproduction.