Army Hardtack Biscuit, 1914

Framed with the Bucks Battalion badge and ‘Chelmsford 1914’, there is an additional paper label, ‘This biscuit was left behind at 164 Springfield Road in 1914’. Left when the 1/1st Bucks Battalion departed for embarkation to the Western Front, it was given to the Bucks Battalion Old Comrades Association when a member visited Chelmsford in 1955.

Densely made from flour, water, and salt, hardtack was cheap and a result of multi-baking in its production. Originally associated with the Royal Navy, it became standard issue for the army during the South African War. Notoriously hard, the biscuits had to be broken into pieces and soaked in water or tea or soldiers were liable to crack their teeth. The oldest known surviving example dates from 1851.

Mobilised in August 1914, the 1/1st Bucks Battalion arrived at Chelmsford as part of 48th (South Midland) Division on 23 August 1914 but did not actually leave the town for overseas service until 30 March 1915. As it happened the 2/1st Bucks Battalion, raised in Aylesbury in September 1914 and part of 61st (2nd South Midland) Division, then arrived in Chelmsford in April 1915 and occupied the same billets as the 1/1st before moving to Epping in June 1915. Indeed, Springfield Road is specifically mentioned in the history of the 2/1st Bucks. In 1911 164 Springfield Road was the home of Walter Abrey, a 44 year old carpenter, his wife, three daughters, and a boarder who worked as an instrument maker for a wireless telegraphy firm.

August 1914 was the first time in a century that large numbers of troops were permanently visible to British society, the billeting of men from different classes and regions on civilian households through the lack of barrack accommodation undoubtedly providing a cultural shock in a markedly parochial society. In Bucks, the 21st Division, initially billeted in Aylesbury in September 1914, was recruited from Northumberland, Durham and Yorkshire. Although soon moved under canvas to Halton Camp, poor and insanitary conditions at ‘Halton-in-the-Mud’ resulted in these troops returning to billets until hutted accommodation was available in April 1915.

Householders were approached by billeting parties who then allocated men according to the size of property. An allowance of up to 3s.4½d per day was paid to householders for food and lodging. Nonetheless, billeting was not always welcomed. The second in command of the 2/1st Bucks, Geoffry Christie-Miller, felt Chelmsford had become ‘sick’ of the presence of the 1/1st and were soon sick of the 2/1st Bucks so that when, in turn, they were followed the 65th (Second Lowland) Division, the inhabitants ‘either went to bed and locked the doors, or went to the seaside and left their homes “not available for billets”’. Back in October 1914 the Rev. Andrew Clark of Great Leighs in Essex recorded that the schoolmaster in Little Waltham had asked men of the 1/1st Bucks Battalion to promise not to do any damage to the hall before he would admit them. The unhelpful reply was, ‘If you don’t get out of that door, I will knock you and the door in.’ However, some from the 1/1st Bucks battalion married Chelmsford girls and the same was true of the men of the 1/1st and 2/1st Royal Bucks Hussars in East Anglia over the respective winters of 1914-15 and 1915-16.

Dispersion of men into billets could hinder training. The usual routine for the 1/1st Bucks at Chelmsford was ‘Swedish drill’ from 0630 to 0730 hours, followed by a battalion parade at 0900 and training until 1400. Company parades took place between 1530 and 1630 and there was also an hour’s drill. Night operations were undertaken once a week.


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