You wouldn’t think that a museum would jump at the chance to add a crumbly broken biscuit into the collection, but this particular example has survived a century and began its journey amid the horror of the battlefields of the First World War.
It survives tucked inside its original wrapper, which was addressed to a Mrs Maxwell of Meanwood in Leeds. Written on one side in blue ink is the message:
‘Christmas dinner in the Army.
“Give us this day our daily bread” and please put a bit of butter on. From Max.’
The sender is likely to have been Private William Maxwell (service number 4492) who served with the 9th (Queen’s Royal) Lancers and was the son of G.E. and Margaret Maxwell of Meanwood. He only saw one Christmas in the trenches as he was killed in May 1915 and is buried in Hazebrouck Communal Cemetery in northern France. He was luckier than his younger brother Arthur Maxwell who died on 30th August 1914 during the first month of combat.
The inked message is typical of the black humour of soldiers at the time and reflects a common criticism of the food that was offered to British troops on the Western Front. Although biscuits such as this were not the only food on offer, they did form a significant part of the diet alongside tins of corned beef and bread. It was difficult to get fresh food and these biscuits were usually stale.
This is not a unique object as many soldiers seemed to have felt that stale biscuits better served as a medium for writing messages home than as palatable food. Leeds Museums have another First World War biscuit in the collection which was decorated, sent as a Christmas card and subsequently framed.
Above all this is a poignant link to a very grim Christmas a century ago and a very timely addition to the Leeds collections.
By Kitty Ross, Social History Curator