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In the movie 1917 (2019), there is a scene in which Schofield takes a ride with a group of fellow British soldiers in a truck/lorry.

When they see dead cows lying around the road they are travelling on, one Indian soldier (a Sikh with a turban) says that it is clever for the enemy to kill the cows so that they would not eat them.

Why would they not eat meat from cows killed by their enemies?

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    I did not see the movie, so I don't know the state of those cows (that's why I post this as a comment), but in addition to A.bakker answer, I would also add the fact that living cows basically works as 'fridge' keeping the potential meat (and milk) fresh... The moment the cow are dead, meat starts to spoil, adding further risks of diseases.
    – dna
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 9:48
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    I feel like the accepted answer is probably NOT the right answer, as lead poisoning was not widely known. "Guns with extra bullets" is more likely a reference to supply/logistics (that the enemy has extra bullets to waste unloading machine guns on cows). Several other answers suggest spoilage, which is likely more accurate. If the cows were left alive, they could safely be butchered and eaten, thus providing forward food supply for the troops.
    – Doktor J
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 16:08

6 Answers 6

-10

As the other soldier noted, they used machine guns with the other remarking "Guns with extra bullets".

Implying the cows have so many bullets in them they can't be safely eaten, first is the issue of removing all the bullets from the animals' corpses, and secondly, the lead that gets left behind is a high health risk to anyone who eats it.

This article speaks of the dangers of eating animals who got shot using lead bullets from even a single shot: Lead in Game Meat a Health Risk for Hunting Families and Food Bank Recipients - The Allegheny Front.

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    In 1917, the knowledge of lead poisoning was significantly lower than it is today, leading to the inclusion of lead in paint & gas (and many other products) well into the 1960s and 70s.
    – FreeMan
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 13:28
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    I think this entire answer is based on a 21st century idea of what constitutes 'healthy'. I very much doubt lead was even considered by the troops having the discussion, only how long had passed since the animals died.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 17:50
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    If you eat game & get a bit of lead shot in it, you spit it out & thank Murphy it didn't break your tooth. I doubt WWI soldiers would be more fussy.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 18:36
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    Yeah I think this needs some sort of source that shows that people in 1917 knew that lead was toxic. GM engineers added lead to gasoline in 1921.
    – jcollum
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 20:00
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    Shooting an animal with lead bullets doesn't make the meat toxic. You just don't swallow the shot and you're fine. A pigeon killed with a shotgun is no different to a cow killed with a machine gun.
    – OrangeDog
    Commented Oct 24, 2022 at 21:59
102

When an animal is killed for meat, steps are taken promptly to limit spoilage - removing entrails and moving the carcass to the shade at the very least.

Dead animals left in the sun become unsafe to eat fairly quickly. How quickly depends on a lot of factors, but the simple rule of thumb is that if you're unsure when an animal died, it's not worth trying to salvage the meat unless you are desperate.

Even if these cows had just been killed, dressing, butchering, and preserving a lot of them at once would take quite a bit of work. Either they'd need to divert a bunch of troops to do it, or most of the meat would go to waste anyway.

It has nothing to do with lead. Lead shot and bullets are still routinely used for hunting, and would have been even more acceptable at that time.

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Those cows have likely been laying dead on the side of the road in the sun for hours, if not days. The meat is spoiled and likely to cause food poisoning if eaten. They don't want to get sick.

Had the retreating army left the cows alive, the British soldiers could have safely butchered the cows at an appropriate time when they needed to feed themselves. Without refrigeration, you want to act pretty quickly after the animal is dead to either eat it, or take steps to preserve it for later. As it is, without knowing how long the cows have been dead (and it's probably been a while), the meat is unusable.

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Something I haven't seen mentioned in the other answers: even if these cows were somehow freshly killed without using lead bullets, the enemy could still have messed with them in ways that a soldier with no butchery training can't easily detect, like poisoning the cows before shooting them or coating the bullets with toxic gun oil. They could also have boobytrapped the carcass or placed mines around it.

Generally speaking, in a warzone, you should assume that a retreating enemy has taken steps to make your advance as hard as possible: boobytraps, damaged infrastructure, pillaging whatever they can, burning what remains, and so on. That's why any army needs proper supply lines: so trustworthy food and supplies can be provided that don't rely on whatever the enemy leaves behind.

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    My first thought: I wouldn't eat a dead animal in a warzone because I don't know why it's dead, could be poison (boobytrap). This answer makes the most sense.
    – jcollum
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 20:01
  • Exactely, it could be filled with explosives for all the know, or the are around it could be mined.
    – Ivana
    Commented Oct 17, 2022 at 11:17
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I haven't seen that moview, and I am not a historian, but just with common sense and my little history knowledge, I'm pretty sure that's all about the fact that a dead cow is not a fridge, as someone noted in the comments.

Lead? It was a war time, and not the present times. And it was not the "present kind of war" where you've got lawyers waiting for the end of it to begin a class action lawsuit for every single thing that went wrong or not according to the book.. I'm pretty sure that if the army were in pinch and low on supplies, they'd make use of any cattle, pigs, sheeps, horses, whatever, and regarding bullets, yeah, they'd probably not used them, but not due to the fear of lead, but to save the limited supply of bullets for actual combat.

Dragging a living stock along with troops always means slower movement comparing to prepared food (or use more motorized transport, expensive), and also means delegating people to take care of it. Still, that's a very good option, especially if there are any problems with food. A large herd could be held for as long as there's some grass/etc for them around, and even for some time without feeding them, and then they can be used at rate fitting the needs. If a herd was killed all at once, if the meat already started to spoil, it's useless. If they were lucky to find them still fresh, some of that could be used immediately. But unprocessed meat gets spoiled quickly, you can't just keep draggin a dead cow for a day or two and eat it later. You have to process them. If the herd was large, it would be very hard to process all them, not every soldier knows how to do it, and it would be even harder to preserve it for later use.

I've found an article describing some aspects of food supply at WW1:

https://www.armyheritage.org/soldier-stories-information/world-war-i-rations-full-belly-fully-ready/

This article mentions rationed dry food, tin cans, and introduction of field bakeries. No living stock. Nothing about freezing. If I recall well, typical contemporary freezers were invented somewhere around 1900. They could be already in use in long term camps, but I think they'd be useless for mobile troops. Freezing requires power, or fuel, and I think both were at premium. If I'm correct at this, this means that for preserving such fresh meat, they'd have salting (needs salt or chemicals), drying or smoking (needs time, fire, smoking wood, and at least makeshift construction work), or cooking/boiling/roasting/etckitchenworks and putting that in jars/etc. Each gives different period of preservation, each needing some skills at least to start the process (but immediately, can't wait a few days for someone to arrive), and also they'd need some proper containers, relatively clean - so i.e. leftover fuel barrels might not do the trick, and so on.

I'm highly skeptical they could make use of that resources, unless they were well prepared upfront for that for some reason.

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  • As I remember, refrigerated (by ice) railroad cars were used to ship meat decades before 1917 - .wylr.net/2021/02/28/…. -- shipping of meat in refrigerated ships begn in the 1870s - en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…. Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 17:39
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    Those ships barely made it to the war effort. People seem to forget that, leaving out 'official histories' of when refrigeration became available, butchers in the UK were still using ice boxes in the 30s & almost no-one had a domestic refrigerator until the 60s. Those troops would probably never see one in their lives. Their suppliers would have been using ice, if anything. The soldiers we see didn't have the man-power or time to even think about butchering - they were on the move. The supply trains behind them maybe could, but it would then be far too late.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Oct 15, 2022 at 16:18
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I haven't seen the movie yet and from your description I understand that the opponent soldiers were Indians.

Lot of Indians do not consume beef. People there belong to various religion and as a part of those religious dietary restriction, they avoid meat altogether, while some may consume meat, they avoid beef. Others who eat cow meat, may prefer it to be processed in a particular way (like onother answer here suggests).

Wiki says:

Diet in Hinduism varies with its diverse traditions. While Hindu scripture doesn't make a particular ruling between non-vegetarianism and vegetarianism, some of the scriptures deem a vegetarian diet to be ideal based on the concept of ahimsa, non-violence and compassion towards all beings. According to Pew Research Center survey 44% of Hindus say they are vegetarian.

Another link says:

....Methodically, researching scholars have found out that the practice of vegetarianism began spreading in India first among Buddhists, Jains and also some Hindus. But the majority of Hindus did not give up beef eating until 1500 BC....

Coming to Sikh soldier, this site says,

Diet

Sikhs who have taken Amrit (baptised) are vegetarians. They will exclude from their diet eggs, fish and any ingredients with animal derivatives or cooked in animal fat. Dairy produce is acceptable providing it is free from animal fat e.g. cheese made from non animal rennet. It is essential to avoid contamination with meat at all stages of preparation, storage and serving. Some Sikhs will only eat food prepared by their own families. Non-vegetarian Sikhs will only eat meat that has been slaughtered according to their own rites (Ohatka) and not halal or kosher rites.

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    There's one seikh soldier in a group of otherwise [white] British troops. There were many seikhs who fought alongside the Brits in WWI. The enemy, you may not be surprised to hear in 1917, was Germany. No-one was thinking about religion in this.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 17:26
  • Oops, I never saw the movie :) and from the movie clip that the OP shared it was difficult for me to connect their dialogues, subtitles with what the OP was asking. Base on the question, Just shared a possibility why someone could say that.
    – Spectra
    Commented Oct 14, 2022 at 17:47
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    @Tetsujin (since you have used "seikh" in a couple of comments here), the common way to spell it is "Sikh", not "seikh" and it would be capitalized, much the same way as, say, "Christian" or "Buddhist"
    – muru
    Commented Oct 15, 2022 at 13:13
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    @muru - yeah, I don't really do religions, nor do I capitalise them. I suppose I might learn to spell them though, thanks ;)
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Oct 15, 2022 at 14:40

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