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Themes of World War One:
Food and the Great War  pt1


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Food is not the first thing that comes to most people’s minds when they think of war, yet the concerns surrounding it are perhaps the largest common denominator between nations. It is fare to say that nearly all in Europe and many elsewhere faced hunger as a direct result of the Great War. Most men in belligerent nations that once toiled in fields now found themselves with gun in hand on the battlefront. This had devastating consequences on food production that could never be completely made up for. Even those in neutral nations suffered as a result of the closure of shipping lanes and the disruption of normal commerce. Suppling millions of soldiers with daily rations was a formidable task that required a huge infrastructure. There were many places where this system could fail and it sometimes did. Perhaps the largest problem was that a war of this duration and scale was unforeseen, so little planning went into sustaining it or worry over long term effects. Whether we connect food to the War or not, it seemed to be on everyone’s mind at the time. This in turn helped generate the publication of many postcards on this subject from many different perspectives.

Postcard

The phrase An army marches on its stomach, is an idea attributable to both Napoleon and Frederick the Great. Since a war cannot be fought without soldiers fit for the task, most foodstuffs were designated for the armed services. Soldiers did not just have to fight; they often carried a great deal of weight over long distances. Even when going into battle they were often burdened with hauling heavy weapons and equipment. All this work consumed a great deal of calories whose supply were essential if the war effort was to continue. Massive systems were put into place to prioritize food distribution within a nation. Food not only had to be transport all the way to the front lines, efficient methods of preparing it had to be arranged. All parts of this massive enterprise were captured on postcards, though some subjects are more common than others.

Postcard

Images depicting the stockpiling and transport of food sometime appear on postcards but these are not very common. One possible reason is that it is an unglamorous subject that too closely resembles peacetime activities. Publishers were primarily concerned with selling their cards, not documenting the war, and so their subject matter was carefully chosen. Military scenes behind the front lines were easier to obtain, and so it often proved tempting only used because of the scarcity of frontline source material. Such scenes are most likely to appear on postcards when they can be combined with propaganda messages such as those that show the perilous and heroic journey of food to the battlefront or on efforts to raise war bonds to pay for it all.

Postcard

Efforts pushing for the prohibition of alcohol had gained much momentum by the eve of World War One and many came to use the conflict as an excuse to push their agenda further. This was helped along by related concerns regarding the affects of alcohol on behavior such as the ban on absinthe, a popular and potent Parisian drink. In the United States there were calls to boycott beer as a protest against German aggression. Despite all this, beer remained a popular drink and the production of all fermented beverages only slowed when supplies of sugar grew scarce. The production and consumption of beer were topics that often found their way onto German postcards, only now the subject was most likely to be presented in the form of kegs destined for the front.

Postcard

Some considered the production of beer essential in keeping up morale. Many armies had a long history of providing daily alcohol to their troops for just this reason. The British switched from beer to rum in the 17th century after the capture of Jamaica but the principal was the same. Russian soldiers received rations of vodka, French soldiers were issued wine. The amount of alcohol provided to troops was strictly limited to avoid abuse, though rations were often increased before a battle to stiffen resolve. Officers however were allowed to bring their own alcohol with them to the front lines, which sometimes caused problems. Ordinary soldiers also sought alcohol from civilian sources when away on leave, but much of this product was far less potent than prewar production. Despite the commonality of drinking, it is only picked up on a few postcards. This may be due to fears of drinking being perceived as a frivolous pleasure in a time of sacrifice or a bad habit that might put a nation’s defense at risk.

Postcard

With so many essential supplies needed to be shipped, the strains on transportation networks slowed them enormously. This often made it difficult if not impossible to ship fresh food, and so many small slaughterhouses were established near the front lines. While one might assume that there was little interest in the depictions of them among the card buying public, a fair number of images do exist on postcards. As butcher shops grew empty on the home front, such images served as proof that the missing meat was being diverted to soldiers in the field.

Real Photo Postcard

When it comes to soldiers posing with livestock or butchering animals, far more are depicted on real photo postcards than printed ones. This most likely represents the limited audience for such images among the general public and even soldiers despite their propaganda value. These cards fit into the general trend of depicting niche occupations that were especially appealing to those working at those jobs. Real photo postcards could be produced in small enough numbers to ensure no financial loss to the photographer. Many of these however are probably one of a kind, taken by someone engaged in the occupation because so few commercial cards were available on this subject.

Postcard

Refrigeration in the years of the Great War was not yet commonplace, and large ships might make accommodations for carrying livestock that could be slaughtered as needed. Even if not an unusual practice, it was certainly not one that many held in their minds. The War however brought many unusual practices to the forefront through the use of postcards. Publishers already knew there was a public appetite for the unusual, and now people were even hungrier to see any type of image related to the War.

Postcard

While meat was highly desired, bread was the true staple of most Western diets, and thus the baking of bread became an important part of feeding armies. Fresh bread still often remained a luxury as many soldiers subsided on a diet of hard dry crackers. Even when supplied, the ingredients for bread were not always up to prewar standards. France was already issuing War Bread in 1914 that was made from rye and potato flower. Germans would eventually resorted to baking bread with oats, corn, barley, peas, and when these grew scarce they added sawdust.

Postcard

Established commercial facilities could have probably furnished much bread, but it had a limited shelf life just as with meat. Even when gathered from more local sources, the supply became inadequate for the size of the growing armies. Even makeshift ovens usually took some effort to build, and they were not suitable to areas where the front lines were in play. In these conditions mobil bakery wagons were often employed that could produce long loafs of bread. If the front line moved forward, these wagons could follow but they were still dependent on having a line of supply behind them.

Postcard

Sometimes individual solders can be found posing with loaves of bread. These cards offer a simple message that the troops are being well fed and that they are happy and able to carry out their difficult duties under their current rations. Such light hearted images must have been meant to help alleviate some of the worry concerning loved ones in the service by those back home. Bread was one of the first foods to grow scarce, with rationing instituted in Germany as early as January 1915.

Postcard

A more common mobil device that was often depicted on postcards was the field kitchen. The front half of the wheeled horse drawn unit contained all kitchen supplies needed to prepare a meal. Attached to it was a trailer that held a stove, easily identifiable by its smokestack. The original design was developed for the German army by Karl Rudolf Fissler in 1892, but it or variants were in wide use by World War One. Even though adopted by other armies, these wagons are most often depicted on German postcards since they produced the most of these wagons. They were often affectionately referred to as a Gulaschkanone (Goulash Cannon) because the unit resembled field artillery attached to a caisson when the stove chimney was folded for towing.

Postcard

A variety of kitchen wagons were already used by many armies before the Great War, and so they can be found on postcards depicting maneuvers. Some also appear on cards from neutral nations that had to deploy troops to their borderers during the War. The Swiss card above drawn by Wilfried Schweizer is typical of these in that the wagon was just used as a generic motif of army life that need not describe any particular situation.

Real Photo Postcard

Although many publishers placed images of field kitchens on their printed postcards, there are still many more to be found as real photo postcards. This shows that the demand for these images did not just depend on their functioning as a curiosity. Sometimes they were just a subject of easy opportunity for anyone with a camera, but most seem to fall into the category of group portraits. They should be considered little different in intent from solders posing with a cannon or just massed together in a trench.

Postcard

While it is reasonable to assume that kitchen wagons appear on so many postcards because they were so common to the daily life of soldiers, the story is probably more complicated. Food did not just satisfy a natural craving, a meal could provide a break from work or boredom and was often the highlight of a soldier’s day. Feeding troops was more than providing nutrition, it was a matter of supporting morale. The lengths that solders would go to bring food to their comrades is sometimes illustrated on comic cards.

Postcard

Mealtime is represented on many postcards by scenes of camaraderie and repose. Other cards however depict meals as more chaotic affairs with soldiers scrambling at the kitchen wagon to get their share of food. The truth most likely lied somewhere in between. Millions of soldiers ate thousands of meals under many different circumstances so it is impossible to come up with a typical scenario. Postcards however had to play to an audience; so they are most likely to capture the romantic, the comical, or just the plain ordinary.

Real Photo Postcard

The preparation of food is another topic that receives scant attention on postcards. Field kitchen wagons were military equipment that the public was unfamiliar with so they generated some interest. Soldiers might also feel some attachment to these wagons but actual kitchen work was not enjoyed when practiced as a day long duty, and the tasks involved were all too familiar to those left behind on the home front. Images that do exist most often come down to us in the form of real photo postcards. No matter what activity a soldier was engaged in, they had some interest in preserving a record of their own participation in the War.

Postcard

America’s entry into the conflict introduced a new level of technology into the preparing of meals. The food may have remained the same but horse drawn field kitchens were replaced by motorized vehicles that were capable of hauling much heavier loads. The extent to which these newer vehicles were used is somewhat in doubt. Their weight probably confined them to areas were there were good intact roads. While no fodder was required for a team of horses, they still needed gasoline for which there was much competition. Many new forms of technology found their way onto postcards because of public interest in them, not their efficacy on the front lines.

Postcard

The downsizing of stoves was more common than mobile kitchens. These could be brought in closer to the front lines where large equipment could not be easily maneuvered or where they became conspicuous targets. There basic drawback was that they could only serve small groups of men. While the high quality of some of the stoves depicted means they would have to have been forged in a shop, others are rather makeshift in appearance. Soldiers no doubt became very adept in configuring small stoves out of found materials.

Postcard

In places where the front remained stable for long periods, mobile kitchens were replaced by larger scale facilities behind the lines that could prepare food more economically and efficiently. This also kept telltale smokestacks from giving away frontline positions to enemy observers. Details were then organized to haul hot food from these kitchens back through communication trenches to the front on a regular schedule. This is a common theme on military postcards.

Postcard

Hot beverages were also prepared behind the front lines and then hauled in. While most postcards idealize even the most ordinary activities, they were in actuality not always carried out with the upmost care. Some war artists managed to capture the more realistic side of life in the trenches, which was very much appreciated by the troops. On the French postcard above drawn by Ernest Gabard we see a large pot of coffee being spilt after a soldier slips in the snow. It is difficult to separate the comedy from the tragedy as this was a real loss when rations were low. Such mishaps were probably common in the narrow trench system, especially in bad weather.

Postcard

There are a fair number of postcards that depict field bakeries, but it is more unusual to find depictions of their product being distributed. As with most cards related to cooking, these were usually issued as generics. They were a way that publishers could show typical life at the front lines without revealing anything of military significance. Such matter of fact scenes actually played a large propaganda role in keeping up morale at home.

Postcard

Most soldiers fighting in World War One were also issued mess kits. Their exact design might vary from army to army, but they were all generally compact consisting of a metal component to heat food in and a matching half to eat from plus utensils. While mess kits are pictured on many postcards, they are rarely the focus of attention since they were too commonplace to attract attention. There are however always exceptions when it comes to postcards.

Postcard

Sharing a meal with friends and family has long been understood as a ritual in creating social bonds. This was no less true in the military where the sharing of meals reinforced comradeship. Many postcards depict such scenes of soldiers eating together in an open camp or within the confines of a trench. These were often the happier moments of military life, and they became choice subjects for postcards. Battle scenes might be more patriotic, but many soldiers preferred to express some sense of normalcy rather than danger when writing home. Note that on the German card above one soldier remains vigilant as a sentry to remind those at home that not all at the battlefront is play. This same format is often used on cards depicting holiday celebrations.

Postcard

The vast majority of postcards showing soldiers sharing a meal in the trenches are artist drawn. While this is true of almost every subject due to the censorship of photographs, it also gave publishers a chance to insert propaganda or appealing comic themes. Photo-based postcards may not exhibit the same relaxed idyll but they often still capture the same sense of comradeship. They were also somewhat comforting to those back home because they expressed some sense of normalcy within a believable wartime setting. Most photo-based depictions of soldiers early in the War showed them within the safety of camps. It took a couple years for censors to risk allowing the public to view more gritty images taken near the front lines, but even then there were strict limits on what could be shown.

Postcard

On the Italian card above we see two soldiers happily eating their meal just as a battle erupts. A shell may explode behind them but that is not enough to cause them to put down their food. While meant to express humor, the card relies on the accepted idea of how important food was to the soldier at the battlefront. The same formula was widely used when depicting solders reading letters from home. It was a message to the home front that articulated what soldiers wanted most even if they could not personally articulate their needs. In this case it is meant reinforce the idea that those at home should sacrifice through rationing so that those fighting at the front can protect them and the nation.

Postcard

After the United States entered the War, the first American troops were sent to France did not have all the weapons, training, and reinforcements they needed to be organized into effective fighting units. It was largely a symbolic gesture to reassure the French people that help was really on its way. With few glamorous scenes to capture, French publishers were limited to representing ordinary camp life. While meals are certainly an everyday part of soldiering, many cards seem to emphasize the first meal of American soldiers on French soil. This speaks not only to their arrival but the inherent symbolism to be found in a meal. These soldiers are breaking bread with France, a symbolic act of friendship.

Postcard

After the great loss of life caused by the Neville offensive in 1917, many units in the French Army mutinied. While the revolt centered on the belief that their lives were being needlessly thrown away, the idea that little care went into their well being was reinforced by the general poor conditions they were forced to serve under. With the Treasury low, French politicians cut costs by issuing inadequate rations to their troops. Providing a better diet became one of the essential ingredients in quelling the mutiny. This entire affair was one of the best kept secrets of the Great War, and there are no postcards that directly make any reference to it.




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