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A Love for Kai

Kai helps us to unite, it produces gratitude, helps us to share in each other’s cultures, and yields fond memories. The smell of a certain kai can even invoke emotion. During conflicts overseas, many soldiers enjoyed eating kai sent from home. It boosted soldier’s morale and brought people together. Read on to hear some of the NZ Army’s best, and worst kai experiences.

The effect foraging armies can have on civilian populations cannot be underplayed. It is estimated 8 million died from starvation due to foraging armies during the Thirty Year War. The creation of ration packs saved lives, both military and civilian. The quality of their content has also improved vastly over time. Today’s 24-hour packs are knuckled out with nutritionists and contain everything a soldier requires for a healthy balanced diet. At the initial planning conferences undertaken by NZDF kai is the first kaupapa on the list.

With mistakes come some of the biggest lessons. On the Gallipoli peninsula, the NZ army learned some tough takings about kai preparation. Officials believed we would only be there for a few weeks. We underestimated the soldiers of the Ottoman Empire. Though largely outnumbered, they fought hard to defend their territory. The New Zealanders arrived with iron rations – tea, hard-tack biscuits, and jam. Hard-tack biscuits required soaking before consumption to avoid breaking teeth on them and there were water shortages. Some soldiers preferred to turn them into postcards or art. It did not take long for malnutrition and disease to set in and many lives were lost because of this.

It is amazing how little food a person can survive on. During the fiery hell of WW2, many prisoners of war in their initial escape crossed large swathes of difficult terrain on next to nothing. Some who were aided by the French Resistance could never thank their hosts enough for the warm meals provided in their homes.

Having food and a piece of home in times of conflict abroad was morale raising for soldiers. Many joyful kai experiences were had and shared by the 28th Māori Battalion, New Zealand’s most celebrated and decorated fighting force of WW2. The tradition of the hangi was enjoyed far from the shores of home. A huge effort on the home front was made early in 1941 by the children of the native schools of New Zealand. They raised a thousand pounds (a huge amount of money in those days) by growing vegetables for sale, putting on concerts, and digging into their money boxes. They used these funds to purchase and equip a mobile canteen truck for the battalion, given the name of ‘Te Rau Aroha’. The canteen truck was then stocked with canned seafood, sweets, hygiene essentials, and other treats from home. The gift of love arrived at the front in North Africa November 1941. Driven by Charlie Bennet of the YMCA, known amongst the men as Charlie YM. Regardless of unit, Charlie would issue chocolate and tobacco to any soldier who came by. Charlie managed to acquire a wireless set and when not in the near vicinity of the enemy many men would gather around to listen to broadcasts and their favorite song ‘Lili Marlene’. Food parcels sent from home would be shared amongst other soldiers, regardless of their rank. Te Rau Aroha survived assaults and at El Agheila a British officer was gobsmacked at seeing Te Rau charge into battle. Cared for as though she was a living soldier, many cherished experiences were born out of this truck.