“You Will Do Your Work on Water”: Hydration in the Field

You may talk o’ gin and beer
When you’re quartered safe out ‘ere,
An’ you’re sent to penny-fights an’ Aldershot it;
But when it comes to slaughter
You will do your work on water,
An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ‘im that’s got it.

– Rudyard Kipling, Gunga Din

The human body needs to be kept hydrated; a person can function longer without food than without water.  Therefore, no military equipment would be complete without giving the soldier a method of carrying water.

The standard British water bottles used in both World Wars were very similar; the Mark VI version issued with the 1908 pattern webbing equipment was replaced by the Mark VII, issued with the 1937 pattern equipment.  Both were made of enameled steel with a wool cover, with a stopper made of cork which was attached to the bottle with a short length of cord.  Each version held two Imperial pints of water, or 40 ounces.

Webbing Detail

The British Mark VII water bottle in its webbing carrier, attached to the 1937 pattern equipment.  Photo by the author of items in his collection.

When the 1937 pattern equipment was adopted, the original intent was that the water bottle would be carried in the haversack, or “small pack” as it was commonly called.  However, a webbing carrier was also developed; it could attach to the ends of the braces and hang below the waistbelt.  Officially, use of the webbing carrier was not the preferred method.  In actual practice, however, more equipment was carried in the small pack than the designers had intended, and the troops were forced to use the carrier simply to make room.  Because of the inherent difficulties in resupplying Airborne troops, they typically carried two water bottles:  one suspended on the carrier and a second inside the small pack.

The original water bottle carrier was made of webbing straps.  A later version consisted of a webbing sleeve; while this version used more material, it was easier to manufacture and saved labor costs.  The earlier type was often called the “skeleton” carrier, and the later type the “envelope” carrier.  Some modern militaria vendors have tried to assert that the envelope version was only issued to Airborne troops, implying somehow that it was more rare or specialized, and therefore more desirable to collectors; that is completely untrue and easily disproven.

Three Carriers

Three water bottles with carriers.  The top right is the original version, sometimes called the “skeleton” carrier.  The other two are examples of the later “envelope” version.  Note the brass buckles for attaching to the brace-ends of the webbing equipment.

The envelope carrier has a web strap at the bottom to support the weight of the water bottle, but is open at the top.  The skeleton carrier has a retaining strap that is closed with a large snap or press-stud; some Indian-made versions closed with a buckle.  The intent was obviously that the water bottle would simply be lifted out, with the carrier remaining attached to the rest of the webbing.  However, I have found at living history events that this is easier said than done.  Over the years, I have used several different carriers, of both types, and all of them have been very tight.  Getting to the water bottle has often required significant effort, or assistance from a friend.  Between events, some of my friends have experimented with soaking the carrier in hot water and stretching; the most successful method involves placing wooden shims between the bottle and the wet carrier, then allowing it to dry.  I assumed that the carriers had all somehow shrunk while sitting in a warehouse for the last several decades; surely they could not have been so difficult to work with during wartime.

As I have mentioned in previous articles, one of my favorite authors is George MacDonald Fraser.  His book, Quartered Safe Out Here, is an extraordinary memoir of his service in Burma, fighting the Japanese as part of Slim’s 14th Army.  Fraser’s title was inspired by Kipling; I thought I would follow suit with this article.  There is a remarkable segment in Fraser’s book dealing with the water bottle and its carrier.  It is a somewhat lengthy and colorful narrative, full of slang and foul language; I will summarize rather than reprint it here.  A significant battle was going on, but Fraser’s section was on the flank and had not encountered the enemy.  It was a hot day, and one of the other soldiers found himself very thirsty and naturally wanted a drink.  He was the largest member of the section, and had a nickname that reflected his size.  He asked one of his section-mates to borrow his water bottle, as he could not easily get to his own.  His mate refused, but countered that he would help the first man with his own bottle.  What is significant in this exchange is the fact that the second soldier did not offer to pull the first man’s bottle out of its carrier; instead, he offered to unbuckle his comrade’s carrier from the rest of the webbing.  This exchange was astonishing when I first read it; my assumption that the carrier must have been easier to use in wartime was shattered.  The narrative continues with the troops finding a local well, using their slouch hats attached to rifle slings to bring up water, and adding purification tablets; all that effort was still apparently easier than accessing the water bottle.  It was at that point that the section took fire from the enemy, and Fraser ended up down the well.

This story of unbuckling the water bottle carrier from the brace-ends must not have been an isolated incident, and I have been trying to find other examples.  While I have not found any other narratives, I did find a rather remarkable photograph showing this method.  The picture shows troops from 1st Airborne Division during Operation Market Garden, and was taken near Divisional Headquarters in Oosterbeek.  The photo shows two Airborne soldiers in a slit trench; one is in the act of drinking water, with the water bottle very clearly still in the skeleton carrier.

Water Bottle Market Garden IWM

Operation Market Garden, September 1944.  The man on the left drinking from his water bottle has clearly detached the webbing carrier from the rest of his equipment.  Photo from the Imperial War Museum.

In another part of his memoir, Fraser describes being issued with a canvas water bag for certain patrols.  This water bag was a clever item; it had to be soaked in water prior to use, which would cause the fabric’s fibers to swell and, somewhat counter-intuitively, make the bag water-tight.  This item was called a “chaugle”, derived from the Urdu, but the troops often called it a “chaggle”.  I have only seen references to its use in the Far East, despite its obvious superiority to the enameled water bottle.

Providing clean water to the troops was a logistics challenge even in the best of conditions.  In the deserts of North Africa, fresh water had to be trucked out to the troops on a constant basis; it had to be chlorinated to kill any bacteria and prevent algae from forming during transport.  Even in Northern Europe, where troops could fill their water bottles from the many rivers and streams, it had to be assumed the water was contaminated.  In Fraser’s narrative, he referenced the use of water purification tablets.  These were universally issued regardless of theater, for use when the men had to obtain their own water.  The “sterilizing outfit” was issued as a small tin; inside were two glass bottles.  One bottle contained the actual purification tablets; however, these tablets gave the water an unpleasant flavor that was supposed to be neutralized by the tablets in the second bottle.  I have one of the tins in my collection, but not the glass bottles.  One of each of the tablets was to be dissolved in the water to be treated; shaking the water bottle was supposed to speed up the mixing of the contents.  In Fraser’s story, the soldiers argued whether chewing the pills prior to drinking the well-water would do any good.

sterlizing outfit

The sterilizing outfit:  the two glass bottles go inside the tin.  The “thio” tablets were supposed to counteract the unpleasant taste caused by the sterilizing tablets.  From the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

I feel rather relieved that my personal struggles using the water bottle at living history events seems to be an accurate reflection on historical precedent.  I have occasionally seen fellow reenactors hide modern plastic water bottles inside their basic pouches, but I consider that cheating and bad form.

Sterilizing - Directions

Instructions printed inside the lid of the sterilizing outfit tin.  Author’s collection; I only have the tin without the contents.

A note on terminology:  to the British, the item that held water was called a “water bottle”, while the American term for such an item was “canteen”.  In British usage, a canteen was a shop, restaurant, and social club specifically for service members.  As an American who reenacts as British, I believe it is important to use the correct terminology.

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Tommy’s Tea: The Significance of the Brew Up

One must never underestimate the importance of tea to the British soldier. It’s true now; it was even more significant in WWII.

Tea was absolutely vital to the soldiers’ morale. Naturally, it contains caffeine and can provide a boost of energy; but there are many who find it calming, as well.  Tea is a part of British culture, even more so in the 1940’s than today.  To the soldier, it was more than just a beverage; it was a reminder of home, family, and happier times.

In barracks and camps, large urns of tea were housed in the cookhouses and dining halls. When soldiers were off duty, they could buy a cup at the NAAFI canteen found on every base (NAAFI was the Navy, Army, Air Force Institute).  There were also mobile canteens which followed the men on training exercises; most of these were operated by the NAAFI, but others were from the YMCA, Salvation Army, and other civilian organizations.

While tea breaks were commonly permitted on exercise, this was an impossible luxury in combat operations. Nevertheless, the troops became adept at quickly brewing tea at every possible opportunity.  Any time a halt was called, and if there were no bullets flying overhead, out would come the tea.

There is a sequence in the film “A Bridge Too Far” when Robert Redford accuses the Grenadier Guards of halting their advance in order to drink tea. I always thought that seemed a bit unfair, although that may have been how it appeared to the Americans.  I prefer the scene in which General Urquhart is upset at the challenges he is facing, so his batman hands him a cup of tea.  Urquhart complains, but drinks it anyway.

The Army issued portable petrol stoves in various sizes; the smallest had a single burner and was issued at the section level (8 men). However, the stoves were kept in the motor transport well behind the advancing infantry and were not available during a short halt.  Even if the “collective stove” was available, the early ones were unreliable and tended to clog with dirt and sand; this was a major issue in North Africa.  The troops were determined to have their tea, and therefore became masters of improvisation.

Some vehicle crews became adept at using a hot engine to boil water for tea. In North Africa, it was common to use a “Benghazi burner” or “Benghazi cooker”, which was simply a cut-down petrol or water tin, filled about halfway with sand.  The sand was then soaked in petrol and set alight, and could boil water in a very short amount of time.

Small folding stoves which used solid fuel tablets were developed; it was intended that every man should receive one, but priority of issue seems to have been for troops destined for Northern Europe.

Small batches of tea could be brewed in the standard mess tin. To heat it faster, the smaller side was used to make the tea, with the larger side on top as a lid.  For larger batches, an improvised kettle was often made from a ration tin.  Often, a rifle section or vehicle crew would designate one man to be in charge of making tea; sometimes, it was the most junior man, but often it was someone with a special knack for unpacking the supplies and getting the water on the boil in a hurry.

brew-up

Brewing up in a slit trench, Holland or Belgium, late 1944. The small stove is made from an artillery shell casing.  Photo from the Imperial War Museum.

While the tea bag had been invented prior to WWII, it was not common until after the war; most tea was loose leaf. Sugar was also issued, along with either powdered milk or sweetened condensed milk.  There was also an instant tea which consisted of dehydrated tea already mixed with sugar and powdered milk.  Tins of this mixture were included in the composite ration crates (known as “compo”).  These tins are popular with modern collectors; I have one in my collection.  Small packets of instant tea were also included in the 24 hour ration pack.

tea-tin

Instant tea ration tin, from the composite ration crate.  Author’s collection.

A note on soldier’s slang: the act of building a fire or lighting a stove and making tea was known as “brewing up”.  The tea break itself then became known as a “brew up”, and the equipment needed was the “brew up kit”.  The folding solid-fuel stove was known as a “Tommy cooker”.  However, with the British soldiers’ ironic sense of humor, when a vehicle caught fire, it was also said to brew up; the Sherman tank had a nasty tendency to brew up easily when shot, so it too was called a Tommy cooker.  “Gurkha Tea” contained more condensed milk than tea.

One of the best descriptions of brewing up is found in George MacDonald Fraser’s memoir, Quartered Safe Out Here, about his experiences in Burma in 1945.

Brewing up is not merely a matter of infusing tea; making the fire comes into it, and when you have lit and maintained fires in the monsoon, you have nothing more to learn. That came later; at Meiktila it was a simple business of assembling bamboo slivers, igniting them (no small thing, with Indian “Lion” matches which invariably broke and sprayed the striker with flaming phosphorus), and bringing about a gallon of water to the boil in the section brew-tin.  This was a jealously-guarded article, about a foot cubed, made by cutting a compo ration tin in two and piercing the rim for a handle of signal wire.  The casting in of the tea leaves from the section box was the crucial thing, followed by the ceremonial dropping in of two broken matchsticks to attract stray leaves; remove the tin from the heat, invite the guests to scoop out the brew with their piallas [“mugs” in Urdu], and tea was served, each man adding sugar and condensed milk to taste.

What is interesting about Fraser’s description is that he does not reference instant tea or folding stoves; perhaps these items never made it to the “forgotten” 14th Army in Burma. However, the importance he placed on the brew up was universal throughout the British Army.

For more information on British rations, including tea, click here.

anzio-brew-up

Brewing up at Anzio.  Notice the use of repurposed tins, both as stove and kettle.  Imperial War Museum.

ENSA Radio: Epilogue

I transcribed a couple of jokes from one of the episodes of “Break for Music” on the ENSA:  Complete Concerts twin-CD (see previous entry).

Michael Howard:  I must inflict a story on you about a private soldier who was walking in the blackout one night, and he wanted to light a cigarette, but he didn’t have a match.  Hearing someone passing in the dark, he called out in a polished Oxford accent, “Oi, oi, mate!  Give us a light?”  The fellow who was passing said, “Certainly”, and struck a match.  Then the private saw to his horror it was a red-tabbed General.  He sprang to attention and said, “I’m terribly sorry, sir, I didn’t know it was you, sir.”  The General said, “Well, that’s all right, I don’t mind.  But you ought to be more careful, you know.  I might have been a Second Lieutenant”.

Eric Speare: Michael, there’s a telegram for you.
Michael Howard: Oh, no, not those corny gags.
Eric Speare: You take this telegram!
Michael Howard: Oh, all right.  [Reads telegram.]
“The BBC like you.
The BBC want you.
The BBC can have you.
Signed, ENSA.”

ENSA Radio Broadcasts

A few years ago, I bought a CD called ENSA:  Complete Concerts.  When I listened to the CD for the first time, I was surprised that it contained recordings of radio broadcasts.  I was already familiar with ENSA, and I knew they had put on live stage shows for the troops.  But I was intrigued by these radio programs, as I had thought such things had solely been the purview of the BBC.  I then bought a book called Greasepaint and Cordite:  How ENSA Entertained the Troops During World War II, and found the answers I had been looking for.

ENSA was the Entertainments National Service Association.  ENSA was part of the NAAFI (Navy, Army, Air Force Institute), which was the organization responsible for the recreation, welfare and morale of the men and women of Britain’s armed forces.  ENSA was the brainchild of London theater producer Basil Dean.  With his experience and connections, Dean was able to recruit many of Britain’s top entertainers to put on shows for the troops.  Gracie Fields, Vera Lynn, George Formby, and many others were involved.  However, with hundreds of thousands of servicemen (and women) serving all over the world, the demands on ENSA were enormous.  Many second- and third-rate entertainers were also recruited, leading the troops to say that ENSA stood for “Every Night, Something Awful”.

Most military installations built their own garrison theaters, either for traveling ENSA shows, or for their own “concert parties”, that is, troops volunteering to put on shows for their comrades.  Of course, the British Army, and I expect the other services as well, had varying degrees of volunteerism.

All this I had known for some time.  Again, the ENSA radio broadcasts were new to me.  Unfortunately, the liner notes for the CD were not very helpful.  However, as noted, further research shed some light.

ENSA created its own Broadcast and Recording Section.  Greasepaint and Cordite includes a photograph of ENSA’s mobile broadcasting station, built into a stylish and streamlined automobile.  Stephen Williams was appointed ENSA’s liaison with the BBC, and he was able to persuade them to allow ENSA to broadcast a weekly live program on the BBC’s frequency band.  This was “Break for Music”, a 30-minute variety show produced entirely by ENSA and frequently hosted by Williams.  The early episodes were broadcast from garrison theaters and were intended for the armed forces.  However, they became equally popular with civilian audiences, and later episodes were broadcast from war factories.

ENSA also made studio recordings and turned them into radio programs.  These were not typically broadcast in Britain; rather, the recordings were shipped to British-controlled cities that housed major headquarters, such as Cairo, then played on local radio.  Examples of these programs included “Top of the List” and “Journey into Melody”.

ENSA:  Complete Concerts contains two CDs.  The first has two episodes of “Break for Music” and one episode of “Top of the List”.  The second disc has one episode each of “Journey into Melody”, “Break for Music”, and “Top of the List”.  “Journey into Melody” has a few songs, but is primarily slow, rather sappy instrumentals; I often fast forward through the entire program.  However, I greatly enjoy the other shows, as they have a nice variety of dance tunes, ballads and some light comedy.  More importantly, I had been looking for WWII radio shows to play at living history events.  I have plenty of recordings of period music and even BBC news, but these ENSA radio shows were exactly what I had wanted.  I recently used iTunes to burn new CD’s with the programs in a different order.

One aspect I find oddly amusing is the influence of American popular culture on these British performances.  A Welsh girl sings “Paducah”, about small-town Kentucky, followed by an ensemble singing “Ragtime Cowboy Joe”.  Hearing these British performers try to emulate American accents is unintentionally funny.

Of course, the title ENSA:  Complete Concerts is a bit misleading.  If all of the ENSA performances throughout the war had been recorded, and those recordings preserved, they would take up many, many CD’s.  Perhaps these are all that have survived, but if so, that would be a shame.

ENSA:  Complete Concerts and Greasepaint and Cordite are both available through Amazon.

ENSA: Complete Concerts

Greasepaint and Cordite