It is Only Bread
The first two Army Service Corps Field
Bakeries arrived at Havre on 11 August 1914. Installed in the Boulevard de
Graville, the first loaf was baked on 13 August, the same day two more
bakeries arrived. Production continued at the rate of 30,000 rations per
day per bakery until the bakeries evacuated Havre on 10 September.
Three bakeries evacuated to Le Mans and one to Saint-Nazaire before returning to Havre on 21 September, when they were established on the dockside. Congestion on the dockside caused a move to Rue des Chantiers where they were accommodated in tents until wooden buildings had been erected. The original Perkins ovens were replaced by later Perkins Steam Travelling ovens. By mid-1917 the bakery consisted of 160 ovens, by now bricked in to conserve heat and also, it was discovered, reduce corrosion of the outer casings. The bakery employed 1,150 men from 1916, billeted in huts nearby.
Initially the low-lying ground with its inherent dampness caused problems maintaining high oven temperatures. The ground was drained and raised by half a metre with rubbish, old tins and ashes. Walkways between the ovens were built using logs with their ends uppermost. These were held on charge as fuel wood and could be lifted from the ground if the coke fuel ran out. The water supply was supplemented by two wells built in early 1917, fed by springs found by water diviners.
High temperature was crucial in baking bread with extra thick and hard crusts. Prior to developing these protective crusts at least 20% of the bread arriving at the front had been reduced to crumb during the journey. Further experimental work involved the use and preservation of yeast. Fresh yeast stored at between 30 and 26 degrees Fahrenheit was found to remain in good condition for 24 hours after taking from store, whereas frozen yeast deteriorated immediately. The Senior Master Baker discovered that fermenting yeast for 1.25 hours with a small amount of scalded flour reduced the quantity needed by 50%. Does not sound much, but it saved £12.00.00 [£1,067 in 2020] per day, £4,380 [£389,455] per year.
Further savings were found with the purchase of two sows in 1916. Fed entirely on camp refuse they not only helped solve the waste disposal problem but produced twenty-one piglets. They were subsequently kept for breeding and the piglets were ready for conversion to sausages by August 1917. After purchasing a sausage making machine, £1,194 [£84,708] profit contributed to the running cost of the bakery.
The growth of the Havre bakery and its location made it ideal for training new personnel arriving in France. Valuable training was provided for both experienced and novice bakers on operating a Field Bakery before they were transferred to more forward divisional bakeries.
On 1 January 1918 the first contingent of Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps bakers arrived. Within a fortnight, ninety-one were employed, releasing men to the fighting units in the forward area. Further men were released to the infantry by increasing the mechanisation of bakeries early in 1918 with additional benefit of saving money:
In January 1918, new role of Inspector of Bakeries was created and a lieutenant from the 3rd Leinster Regiment arrived in Boulogne from London. He was deemed qualified for the job by stroke of genius, sense of humour, or pure mistake by having the name, JS Baker!
This was presumably seen as a temporary position as he reported to the Director of Supplies that Lt.Col. A Canning, the 3rd Leinster Regiment CO, had no objection to him remaining on the strength of his battalion. He also received instructions that his role entailed advising local military authorities and not giving orders to obtain results.
After several days checking progress of the bakery extension at Dieppe, it became clear that there was no progress due to a lack of the promised new ovens. Where the ovens were, nobody knew, and on 13 January, he wrote to the supplier, J Baker & Sons, London for detailed invoices, packing lists and shipping details in an attempt to track down the missing ovens.
Two days later, he visited the Royal Engineer’s Park at Ciment Francais where ‘a great many cases’ were found, under cover but impossible to identify. With the markings on the cases mostly obliterated and no records available as to the contents of the shed, work began removing each case and opening it to discover its contents. Eventually, it was decided the only option was to send all those with bakery equipment to Dieppe and have whatever was not needed sent back.
The Inspector of Bakeries diary ends abruptly when signed off with no explanation in the middle of February. It can only be speculation that he was recalled to the Leinsters and that work on the bakeries was halted ahead of the impending German Spring Offensive.
The Havre bakery closed on 8 May 1919 when the stores became a Detail Issue Store. Bakeries had been established at Rouen, Orleans (Indian), Boulogne, Etaples, Dieppe and the proposed new reserve bakery at Calais planned for early 1918 appears to have been abandoned ahead of the German Spring Offensive.
During the war, ASC bakeries baked and issued:
17,072,493lbs (7,621 tons) in 1914
159,283,262lbs (71,108 tons) in 1915
350,317,962lbs (156,392 tons) in 1916
416,297,546lbs (185,847 tons) in 1917
420,957,839lbs (187,928 tons) in 1918
according to Directorate of Supplies records.