Imagine you had to provide the basic needs of an army of three million men in 1916. Quite apart from ammunition and equipment, simply to provide enough rations for such an army would require between 2,400 and 3,700 tonnes of food every single day, and not only would it have to reach the men, it would have to be prepared and cooked too, all while the enemy and nature seemed to conspire to make the task almost impossible. Such was the challenge facing the French army on the Western Front, and the challenge was met by the field kitchen, generally deployed near second line or reserve trenches, perhaps 500 metres or more behind the front line. Basic food was delivered to the kitchen where it was cooked and then taken forward to the front line, and of course also consumed there and then by those troops in the vicinity. As we shall see, this Strelets set has little to do with delivering food to the front lines, but instead concentrates on the scene at the field kitchen itself.
The major piece in this set is the kitchen wagon itself, called a cuisine roulante. The French Army had no standard type in use when war broke out, and used up to 28 different designs in the early years. In 1917 they standardised on just one type, the Geneste-Herscher, although it is reasonable to suppose that the other types already in use were only slowly replaced. The Strelets model here is not of this later type, but as all the earlier models were broadly similar in function, it does generally conform to these, though we were unable to make any specific identification. However it does exactly match an exhibit in the Verdun Memorial Museum, which is unfortunate to say the least as this is a German field kitchen! All field kitchens of the day were basically quite similar – a large metal box into which a fire is started, and one or more large cooking pots set into the top where the rations are mixed and cooked, producing something like a soup or thin stew. The usual dreadful Strelets 'instructions' on the box say the cart should be constructed with the body the other way round – we chose to ignore this and build it in what seemed the more logical arrangement, which does match the exhibit we have mentioned, so we are confident that the instructions are wrong and our assembly is correct. It is safe to say that the model is very basic, and in particular lacks the traces, limber and team that would allow it to move, and the stand which would support it when not hitched. So as provided it leans, which is obviously not how it would be used. It is also extremely small – the top of the wheel does not reach the man’s waist, so very much smaller than any photo we could find of the real thing, and certainly far smaller than implied by the artwork on the box. Even the top of the chimney is well below the eye level of the cook, which just seems hugely unlikely. Photos show a step on which the cook would climb to reach the food, but on this item there is no such step, nor is one needed as they have to reach down to get to the pot (as shown here). We cannot guess what the holes at the back are for (it has been suggested they are the step, but are terrible if so), and it lacks the second side container that is on the real thing, so from all the evidence this is a really poor and inadequate model, and not even French!
The news is much better when it comes to the figures that are included in this set. The helmets and forage caps worn by everyone here tells us that the scene is from well into 1915 at the earliest, and everyone also wears either the usual greatcoat or else are in shirt-sleeve order. Some of the forage caps are of the late war pattern, which were introduced in 1918 although were worn earlier. Puttees and boots complete the uniform, so for the period in question this is all correct. Clearly none of these men are in the front line, so many have no equipment at all, but a few have several haversacks as if they are preparing to carry rations to the front line. One man as a circular water flask which is nothing like the French model of the war, but no other man has any water flask of any description. The few that have ammunition pouches are accurate however.
As we have observed, there is no one here carrying supplies up to the front. Instead we have an assortment of cooks and those receiving the fruits of their labour. The split is a bit arbitrary as naturally soldiers were roped into helping out with the preparation, but this is our guess as to what each man is doing:
- Chopping wood for the fire
- Peeling potatoes
- Carrying a pot
- Holding a fowl aloft, perhaps about to butcher it
- Pouring from a pot – perhaps coffee
- Serving or stirring the soup
- Holding a mess tin and cooking pot
- Pair carrying loaves on a pole
- Nothing much – having a rest?
- Eating something while holding a mess tin
- Drinking from some shapeless thing which might be a bidon
- Sitting with spoon in his mouth
- Sitting on a box holding spoon and mess tin
- Pair sitting smoking and eating
The bird or fowl in row one would not be centrally supplied, but presumably caught locally to supplement today’s ration. It would seem that bread, baked in round loaves, was sometimes skewered on a pole and carried by two men as depicted here. Each also has extra haversacks, so is about as close as we get to a ration party heading for the front line. The men taking refreshment in the bottom row are a nice bunch, particularly the pair on the end. Generally the poses are very appealing, although not all are easy to understand.
The wagon model is reasonable in terms of precision of parts, but made of the same medium flexible plastic as the men, so not as sharp and precise as you would find with a hard-plastic kit. It goes together well enough once you decipher (and to a degree ignore) the pitiful instructions, and there is little flash. The men are fairly well sculpted, though detail is quite soft in places. We were not entirely happy with some of the shapes such as the helmets, but some tricky three-dimensional poses like the potato-peeler have been achieved quite well. The man with the ladle is moulded sideways to the mould so has plastic between his legs (and leans alarmingly to his right), but otherwise there is little flash or excess plastic.
The extra accessories in this set are a very small bench or table. It looks like a table, but to scale it is 115 cm long, 65 wide and 54 cm off the ground, so too low to be able to put your knees underneath, and anyway trying to get two men to sit at it would be an uncomfortable squeeze. However it is too high to comfortably sit on, so we are undecided what this is supposed to be. The other item is a tiny and very lopsided tripod 17 mm (122 cm) tall, from which a pot on a chain is supposed to be hung. However there is no hole to achieve this, so you have to drill your own. Even then there is not enough clearance below the pot to make room for a fire, so that would have to be dug into the ground.
When looking at this set we did wonder that no man here is wearing fatigues, nor an apron, or any other garment that you might expect of men behind the lines doing dirty work. Again however, we could not find out if this is a reasonable expectation or not. While some of the poses we very much liked, we were not impressed by the various tiny accessories, and the size of the basic kitchen wagon suggests it is inappropriate, while the fact that it is German confirms it, so this set is therefore seriously flawed for those that care about accuracy.