DAPper formation for supplying food to the troops in WWI…

on Friday, 06 June 2014. Posted in Archives, Military

While continuing my work of listing the papers of the Earls of Radnor, I came across a file entitled ‘The Directorate of Agricultural Production’ and dated 1917-1919. Not the most enthralling subject at first glance, but as I read through the papers I discovered that they dealt with an almost completely neglected aspect of war on the Western Front.

Amidst the horror and carnage of trench warfare, it is easy to forget that it was an enormous task to keep the troops supplied with food, drink, clothing and ammunition. This demanded a herculean effort by the Army Service Corps to source and transport supplies over the Channel, and by the autumn of 1917 there were almost 2 million men of the British and Empire armies serving in France and Flanders needing to be fed. In addition, unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans meant that not only were food supplies running low at home, but also shipping losses resulted in fewer ships being available to carry food to France. The answer was for the British Army to grow some of its own food, thus solving both these problems at once.

There had been some cultivation near permanent installations, such as hospitals and depots, and there had been an experiment with each Division growing their own crops. These, however, were on too small a scale and lacked a central organization, so the vast bulk of vegetables were still being transported over the Channel. The Directorate of Agricultural Production was formed in the autumn of 1917 with the aim of making the British Expeditionary Force more self-sufficient in food, specifically fresh vegetables, setting up cultivated areas in the rear of the frontline. Brigadier General Jacob, 6th Earl of Radnor (1868-1930) was appointed Director and the aim was to have 50,000 acres under cultivation by the summer of 1918. The British zone of control (from which French civilians were excluded) covered some of the most productive farmland in France, at the moment lying fallow. One of the earlier worries in setting up the Directorate was that, if the farms were set up too far to the West and the Germans retreated, the French farmers would wish to return (this was ironic in view of what was to happen in March 1918); on the other hand, land too far to the East might suffer from fluctuations in the frontline; it was felt that farms at least four miles behind the lines would be safe. It was envisaged that the new unit would require almost 2000 officers and men and almost 200 tractors; it is not known how many horses were to be used, but 700 of the farm hands were required to be able to look after horses, and there were to be 7 farriers.

The vegetables to be grown were potatoes, cabbages, kale, beet, turnips, swedes, leeks, lettuces and carrots (other vegetables were ruled out owing to shortage of seed); all of these could be planted by 1st of March (except for potatoes which were slightly later) and a great drive was on to source seeds and seed potatoes before Spring, particular care being taken to find types that were suitable for French conditions. Meanwhile, the work preparing the land went ahead and by 21 March 1918 about 7500 acres were under cultivation.

That date is significant in that the great German Spring Offensive started on 21 March, which drove the Allied front back several miles, occupying many of the areas used as farms. A full scale retreat was ordered by the Directorate in the hope of salvaging the equipment; the pace of this could not be maintained, and they were ordered to make a dump of all material other than the tractors, which could proceed under their own power. The place chosen for this was Hargicourt which turned out to be the high tidemark of the German advance and, despite being more or less in the frontline and surrounded by great destruction, these tools were safely recovered intact after the Germans retreated five months later.

As a result of this about half the land under cultivation had been lost as well as the roughly 15,000 acres which had been proposed to cultivate. Another problem was that the British zone of control moved West with the retreat, and by June it was thought that up to 200,000 acres planted by French farmers largely with wheat might have to be abandoned. As it was, the Directorate took control and, liaising with some returning farmers, managed to get the harvest in, sometimes by night as the fields were overlooked by German positions, which made daytime harvesting hazardous.

From August when the Allies counterattacked the old farms were again available for growing, although the 1918 season had almost completely been lost and most of the rest of the year was used to restore the land to a condition where it could be farmed again. With the end of the war in November and demobilization following soon after, the whole directorate, land, horses, tractors and all, was sold to the Department of the Somme as a going concern, and disappeared from the records, although not before a series of aerial photographs of some of the cultivated areas had been taken by the RAF. These photographs are among the documents retained by the Earl of Radnor, and seem to be part of the only surviving record of this little known aspect of World War I.

Written by Robert Pearson
WSHC Archivist

In Memoriam


Accredited Archive Service