‘to come up with the rations’: meaning and origin

In military slang, the derisive phrase to come up with the rations and its variants mean, of military medals and decorations, to be awarded automatically, without regard to merit.

These are the earliest occurrences of the phrase that I have found, in chronological order:

1-: From The Winning of a D. C. M. 1, by Arthur Guy Empey 2, published in many U.S. newspapers in January 1918 and following months—for example in The Ephraim Enterprise (Ephraim, Utah) of Friday the 4th January 1918:

Our gun’s crew, as was its wont, was sitting on the straw in the corner of our billet, far from the rest of the section. […]
[…]
[…] I slyly kicked Sailor Bill, who immediately got wise, and then I broke the ice with:
“Sailor, I heard you say this afternoon, while we were building that traverse, that it was your opinion that darn few medals were really won; that it was more or less an accident. Now, just because your D. C. M. came up with the rations, and, as you say, it was wished on you, there is no reason in my mind to class every winner of a medal as being ‘accidentally lucky.’”

1 D.C.M. is the abbreviation of Distinguished Conduct Medal, denoting a British decoration awarded for bravery.
2 The U.S. author, actor, screenwriter and film producer Arthur Guy Empey (1883-1963), who volunteered in the British Army in 1915, published an account of his war experiences, titled Over the Top” by an American soldier who went (New York & London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1917).

2-: From an article published in the Victoria Daily Times (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada) of Monday 1st December 1919:

Nearly a quarter of a million war honors were conferred on the Imperial and Colonial forces during the Great War according to a despatch just received from London. […]
The Military Cross, Military Medal and Order of the British Empire were created during the war and have quite an interesting history. The D.S.O. 3 and D.M.C [misprint for ‘D.C.M.’] were reserved for distinguished service on the part of officers and distinguished conduct on the part of N.C.O.’s 4 and men but when the war assumed such gigantic proportions it was discovered that numerous acts of bravery were being performed which did not come within the scope of these awards and yet were entitled to some recognition.
For instances the story is told of a baker at the base in France who stuck to his task of making bread for seventy-two hours. He was unable to receive any assistance during the early days of the war and the demand for bread was extremely heavy. This man worked on until he collapsed. His effort was rewarded with the D.C.M. This medal calls for bravery in the face of the enemy, but there was no other award to give to this baker.
Following this, the British War Office decided to strike the new medals, the Military Cross for officers, and the Military Medal for N.C.O.’s and men. The boys in the line always referred to the M.M. as the Mulligan Medal and if anyone asked a chap how he got it, the reply was “It came up with the rations the other night.”

3 D.S.O. is the abbreviation of Distinguished Service Order, denoting a British decoration for distinguished service awarded to officers of the army and navy, instituted in 1886.
4 N.C.O. is the abbreviation of Non-commissioned officer.

3-: From The Pathway (London: Jonathan Cape, 1928), a novel by the English author Henry Williamson (1895-1977):

‘Jean,’ said Mrs. Ogilvie, ‘Mr. Maddison is just going—’
‘“Mr. Maddison,”’ he said in a whisper. ‘So formal. Oh dear, why are you so cold with me? […]’
‘Don’t take any notice of Mother,’ said Jean brightly. ‘Besides, it should be Captain Maddison, M.C.’
‘Did you get the Military Cross?’ asked Mrs. Ogilvie.
‘Yes, it came up with the rations.’
‘Oh!’
‘A soldier’s joke, Mrs. Ogilvie!’

4-: From a letter in which ‘First Fourth’ responded to ‘Sphinx’—letter published in The Halifax Daily Courier and Guardian (Halifax, Yorkshire, England) of Tuesday 19th November 1929:

It was certainly a common saying amongst the troops that decorations and medals came up with the rations, but he [i.e., ‘Sphinx’] cannot mean to acknowledge this as actual fact. Everyone surely realises that it was not possible for all brave deeds to be recognised.

5-: From this letter, published in the Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Thursday 3rd March 1932:

Medals That “Came Up With The Rations”

My letter on the subject of the M. M. League seems to have upset quite a number of your heroic readers. No less a personage than the secretary of this league interrupts his task of organising his fellow-heroes in order to castigate me. He informs the world that I have Insulted all soldiers who were decorated and every general and officer who recommended them. But his sarcasm is wasted and pointless to me. It has merely amused me, as it may Mr. Lewis, when I inform him that I also am a Military Medallist, and a hero like himself; but with that modesty that characterises all true heroes I omitted to mention the fact. Should he doubt my word, I can show him my pawn-ticket.
When I was a small boy I believed in Santa Claus, that babies were found under gooseberry bushes, and that medals were won by soldiers for bravery. I hate to have to shatter the illusions of those civilians and schoolboys who still believe this, but surely even Mr. Lewis must know what the ex-soldier’s opinion of these medals always has been. They were always referred to as having “come up with the rations.” At one time every officer in my unit had a Military Cross. Hundreds of Army chaplains had them; with, of course, the inevitable D. S. O. for the Divisional Chaplain.
Mr. Lewis’s statement that not 1 per cent. of the troops serving in the war zones gained medals convinces me that that gallant gentleman has never gained any for accuracy. The figures for the 55th Division, which are by me as I write, and which we may take as representative, show that 2,860 medals (excluding bars) were awarded. As, according to the authority of Mr. Winston Churchill there were two soldiers behind the line for every one in it, it does not require a mathematician to see how absurd Mr. Lewis’s figures are.—“Modge.”

The phrase continued to be used of military medals and decorations awarded during the Second World War—as illustrated by the following, by Valentine Bromley, from The Banbury Advertiser (Banbury, Oxfordshire, England) of Wednesday 1st July 1953:

FORMER 8th ARMY MEN SEE NEW DESERT FILM
His M.M. “Came Up With The Rations”

[…]
Four local men, one of whom fought with “Popski’s Private Army” 5 and was later awarded the coveted Military Medal, were the guests of the management of the Grand Theatre, Banbury, on Monday evening to see “The Desert Rats,” 6 showing this week.
[…]
Sgt. Frank Riches, who served with “C” Sqdn. King’s Dragoon Guards, and “Popski’s Private Army,” was at Tobruk in the long range desert patrol. Their job was to strike deep into enemy territory and create havoc behind the enemy lines in their small armoured vehicles, commonly known as “armoured mess tins,” most of which were appropriately named!
[…]
I asked Frank how he came by his Military Medal. “Oh, that came up with the rations later at Casino,” he replied, and like most Servicemen who have been in the thick of it, adroitly changed the subject.

5 The No. 1 Demolition Squadron, PPA, colloquially known as Popski’s Private Army, was a unit of British Special Forces set up in October 1942 by Major Vladimir ‘Popski’ Peniakoff (1897-1951).
6 The Desert Rats (1953) is a U.S. war film.

The English author John Gerard Braine (1922-1986) used the variant to be given with the rations in his novel Room at the Top (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1957)—the following is about the part that a character played during “the Second European War”:

Lampton has no decorations apart from those which all servicemen who served his length of time are given, as they say, with the rations. And Lampton was, of course, merely a Sergeant-Observer from start to finish. He is not, it may be seen, officer material.