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Themes of World War One:
Food and the Great War  pt2


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Not all cards dealing with food deal with food. French cards above all others often use food for sexual innuendo or even intertwine it with the risqué. While some of these messages were cleverly concealed, French publishers generally had no qualms about presenting overtly sexual messages as long as they were somehow disguised in humor. On the card above, French soldiers clammer for cooks, but is it better meals they desire?

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Despite all efforts to prioritize foodstuffs for the use soldiers, food was still in short supply and soldiers were always looking for ways to supplement their diet. Early in the War, this was less likely to be expressed as acts of desperation as much as the extension of kindness. There are many cards showing troops marching off to war being pelted by flowers, but sometimes food is also freely given out. On the Italian card above, peasants working the fields hand out sweet fruit to soldiers fighting for the redemption of Italy. Not only does this card have a strong propaganda message regarding the national cause, it is also full of sexual innuendo. The use of food as sexual metaphor has a long history on postcards.

(See When a Plum is More Than Just a Plum posted May 20, 2010, in the Blog Section for more information on sexual metaphor.)

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There are many simple narratives of civilians passing food over to soldiers and even sailors. These simple gifts are meant to be a patriotic gesture; and the choice in buying a postcard depicting this activity could also be interpreted as a patriotic gesture. While few of these cards are overtly sexual in any way, there is always seems to be some hint of romantic tension, which no doubt was used to further help in marketing.

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A very common theme on postcards shows small groups of cavalrymen interacting with local women. While many of these cards insinuate some sort of romantic tension, they often serve a more important propaganda purpose. Food or drink is often offered to cavalrymen on patrol for the sharing of food has long been viewed as a gesture of friendship. This narrative becomes even more important when set in occupied territory, for it shows the acceptance of enemy solders in a foreign land. This scenario was most often applied to scenes in Poland where Germans wanted to be portrayed as liberators, not conquerers. This message was meant for those back home and not the local population depicted.

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A number of charitable organizations devoted at least some of their efforts in supplying food to soldiers. A common image early in the War is that of Red Cross workers handing out coffee to troops departing for the front from railroad stations. While such actions of appreciation had more symbolic than practical value, private organizations also set up at rest stops to serve more substantial food and drink to soldiers on their long journey. Similar tropes appear on the postcards of many nations.

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The Salvation Army made a name for themselves by setting up canteens known as hutments for American soldiers serving in France during the Great War. Concerts and Bible study could both be found there, but they are most remembered for the doughnuts they dispensed. It is difficult to tell whether it was the doughnuts or the young women serving them that turned the most heads of homesick soldiers, but both were often generously represented on the postcards they published.

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Soldiers also supplemented their diets by finding food on their own. A popular representation depicts soldiers tending to their cow. The lack of fodder caused many dairy cattle to be slaughtered for food, which caused a temporary surplus in meat but a severe shortage of milk. It was usually German or Austro-Hungarian publishers that showed their soldiers in possession of a cow because it was a luxury that only those that occupied enemy lands could freely obtain. These types of cards gave confidence to those back home that their loved ones in the field were not suffering the same shortages that they were. Such propaganda greatly skewed perceptions of reality. Many soldiers returning home on leave were shocked to find civilians who thought they were facing the worst hardships.

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Even if civilians at home thought they were suffering more than those at the front, they were still often generous with what little food they had. The arrival of a food parcel from home was a celebrated moment of any soldier’s day. The many cards that display overjoyed soldiers receiving such gifts were not just meant as a thank you, they were a way of demonstrating behavior desired by governments that could not supply soldiers with all the food they needed.

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Even when food parcels were far and in between, they could often be expected to arrive at Christmas time. A parcel containing food was usually a boon to the soldier receiving it, and it was often shared with other members of his unit. This not only reinforced comradeship, it boosted morale, especially among those who were unfortunate to never receive gifts. This scenario is often incorporated into Christmas themes since gift giving is considered part of the holiday’s spirit.

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Scarcity often evokes conflicting responses. First there is an impulse to share with others in need, and then there is the impulse to hoard as a safeguard to survival. The arrival of food parcels at the front no doubt evoked both these responses. A clue can be found in comic cards where publishers were not afraid of illustrating bad behavior. For the humor in these cards to work we must recognize our own selfish tendencies even if we don*rsquo;t always act on it.

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Reserve units of home guards were often presented as stereotypes on postcards; one of the ways being through food. They were always accused of having it easier than frontline solders, and it was often thought they had much more access to food. On the German card above we have a cautionary tale; there is a soldier hoarding his booty of foodstuffs, but in doing so he has deprived himself of comradeship.

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Early in the War a number of companies tied their products to the military related postcards they published. Some were content with overprinting the backs of cards already printed, but other firms found clever ways of introducing their product into the image. While this made the most sense with firms that produced military equipment, those making food products also took part. The French firm Dubonnet placed billboards for their aperitifs within typical artist drawn military scenes. Hermann Lohler who had used well known illustrators to publicize his sweets for years published a postcard set depicting German soldiers with packages of his famous Keks (cakes) placed within the composition. It is likely that the production of such products quickly diminished with food shortages but there was also a reluctance to tie product placement to the War the more it grew unpopular.

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So many hungry men armed with guns did not bode well for wildlife living near army encampments. While many skittish animals must have fled before the intrusive presence of so many soldiers, those more prone to adapt that stayed often became the prey for hunting parties. Supplements of fresh rabbit and other small creatures must have been a welcomed addition to any soldiers diet but their availability must have been exhausted rather quickly where ever troops were stationed for long periods.

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Soldiers frantically hunting down rabbits is the subject of many humorous postcards. The comedy is obvious; despite all their firepower and military prowess against the enemy, this small creature still proves to be allusive. While it might seem that there is some danger in these narratives expressing the desperation of hunger, hunting was a much more common activity at that time, and most people could relate to the frustration of the hunt. There might also be some play at work here between stereotypes of city boys and their new posting out in the field. The more the narrative on a card was left open to interpretation, the more potential buyers it created.

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The presence of local wildlife was not always welcome. In some sectors rats became a huge problem as their burrowing habits allowed them to easily coexist with the men living in the trenches. Their numbers grew to dramatically whenever excessive supplies of food were at hand of which there was usually a nearly inexhaustible supply from the unburied dead and strewn body parts. Garbage was rarely hauled away and it became a major food source for vermin. Unfortunately for soldiers, rats did not confine themselves to no man’s land and often invaded their underground living quarters in search of stored rations. Many ingenious methods were developed to hide food from rats but few of these fully worked. Rats became a particular problem in winter when the ground froze and sustenance grew scarce. They were fearless enough to eat food from men’s pockets and were even known to attack men for food. Though it is difficult to fathom who the target audience was for this type of imagery, these cards were probably just another form of dark humor that was so prevalent in these years.

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Soldiers often supplemented their diet by scavenging through the surrounding countryside where the many small farms of a rather rural landscape held a bounty. This was typical behavior that could help sustain an army on the move, but when it took place where an army settled down for some time, the land was quickly depleted and the local population impoverished. While there is a long history of armies living off the land, this activity often ran up against political considerations in more modern times. Foraging was sometimes prohibited in places where the good will of the local populace was important to political or military aims. This however was often difficult to enforce when the stomachs of soldiers were empty.

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At the end of the 19th century there was a growing consensus that there should be limits placed on the way war was waged, which resulted in a number of international treaties. Military leaders considered little of this in their planning, and by World War One the concept of total warfare ran afoul of public expectations. The public was constantly outraged by areal bombing, the use of poison gas, and the unrestricted submarine war. Food had also become a weapon with blockades used to starve civilian populations. In this modern environment there was no longer just an army to fight; when entire nations mobilized for war, the distinction between military and civilian targets burred, and all became potential targets of violence.

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To make up for food shortages, enemy occupied lands were often completely pilfered leaving the local population to starve. Since most captured territory was occupied by the Central Powers for the better part of the War, it was the publishers of Allied nations that produced the most postcards depicting the looting of foodstuffs and livestock as atrocities. While military and civilian leaders often had divergent views on how the War should be conducted, the notion of civilized warfare was often played up by the Allies so that the enemy could be criticized whenever they diverged from these ideals. This formula became the mainstay of the Allied propaganda war.

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The feeding of civilians in occupied lands became a contentious issue during the War. The Germans did not believe they had the responsibility of supplying scarce food to enemy populations when their own citizens were going hungry as the result of an Allied blockade. The Allies refused to send relief to Belgium because they were afraid that these supplies might get into the hand of the German military that they were trying to starve. Unfortunately making each other look bad helped them in their propaganda war while civilians went hungry. Few propaganda postcards tackle the subject of hunger as most publishers were interested in promoting sensational atrocities even if untrue. While this approach stirred up anger, it also helped to subvert many of the real problems that Belgium faced.

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Despite strongly held conflicting positions regarding the starving people of Belgium, Herbert Hoover, at the urging of the American ambassador to Britain managed to negotiate through them to form the Commission for Relief in Belgium. Britain reluctantly agreed to let the Commission’s ships pass through their blockade, and the Germans agreed to let the food be solely distributed to Belgian and French civilians as it was considered the property of the neutral American ambassador to Belgium, Brand Whitlock. While such relief efforts saved countless lives, hunger still persisted. The awkwardness of this compromise probably made it unpalatable, for the subject seems to have received little attention on postcards.

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Germany payed little attention to propaganda early in the War, and was caught off guard by the intensity and effectiveness of allied efforts. Labeled barbarians, and accused of countless atrocities against innocent civilians, German artists and publishers countered with the image of the good German. His most common representation entailed the sharing of food with hungry civilians, especially children. It was through this life giving gesture involving food that soldiers could be presented as kindly family men. Such images were also widely produced by Austro-Hungarian publishers; and it became a common trope in later wars to express the human side of soldiers.

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If artist drawn images of the good German can be attributed to pure propaganda, the more matter of fact photo-based cards of the same subject have a hint of truth to them even when posed. This interpretation has little to do with the message as it is mostly attributable to the medium. Photographers have found ways to manipulate their images practically from their inception, but our immediate response to them is that they are an accurate unbiased portrayal of life. Anything drawn by an artist always carries the stigma of misrepresentation no matter how high the fidelity.

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While food relief programs program saved millions of lives, they seldom worked smoothly and shortages remained. Even if the well being of civilians was not a priority of military leaders, no publisher wanted to present his own nation as one that hurt civilians even if they were the enemy. There was still universal public consensus that there was a line to be drawn by civilized nations that separated civilians from harm. Postcards were produced that not only showed Germany’s patriotic resolve in the face of food shortages, but that it was still able to take care of others in occupied lands as well. While this was far from the truth, it is doubtful that anyone on the home front knew anything beyond their own hardships due to strict censorship.

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Although naval blockades and submarine warfare are usually blamed for the lost access to essential food imports, there were a number of domestic reasons for shortages as well. The most obvious reason was that most men that would normally work the fields were now in uniform. More men were plucked from their farms as casualties needed to be replaced, and the burden on their families to take up the slack became overwhelming. Efforts to increase the farm labor force by adding city women to it was a great help, but it never completely made up the difference. Children often accompany these new farm women on postcards to reassure the public that they are not neglecting their duty as mothers.

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Women were specifically targeted for recruitment for many occupations during the War that were traditionally reserved for men, but this did not come without resistance from employers. While German publishers produced many cards showing working women, they are far less common from other nation like France due to cultural opposition to allowing women to work. Unusual occupations for women tended bring the most attention on cards because they were curiosities, though they were not always presented in a good light. Women taking up farm work are less likely to be demeaned because it was a type of labor they had always been engaged in. Even so, images of women working in the fields was sometimes singled out as an aid to the war effort.

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When the War did not come to an early end, it was generally realized that a real food crisis was on hand and efforts to find more women to undertake farm work were made. The most notable example was in Britain where the Minister of Agriculture established the Women’s Land Army in February 1917. Postcards were employed in the propaganda effort to find women volunteers for this service. The hard work involved was glossed over by promoting patriotic ideals and a sense of adventure. Many photographs seem to exist of women out in the fields, but few seen to have been transcribed into postcard form.

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Once the United States entered the War, many women’s groups from suffrage organizations to garden clubs organized themselves into the Woman's Land Army of America. They were not as numerous as their British counterparts simply because there was far less need for them. America was not only self-sufficient; it was an exporter of food. These women however played an important role as the War made food exports to other Allied nations even more crucial at a time when farmers were being inducted into the armed forces. This service did not just fill a national need, it was a way for women to feel they were making an important contribution to the nation and the war effort. Postcards are more apt to capture the propaganda side of these efforts, usually by reproducing posters. In this way they are highly distinguishable from images capturing rural life in America.

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While many women were shipped off to the countryside to grow food, the Woman’s Land Army in Britain was eventually employed in urban settings as vacant land was confiscated for agricultural use. Even flower beds in public parks were turned over to grow vegetables. Despite the widespread use of urban gardens, there are few postcards that capture their existence. This is curious for while they are an unglamorous topic, they were still very important to ordinary people and made those involved feel that they were working for victory. The need for such gardens was however publicized on propaganda posters, which in turn were reproduced on postcards.

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The appropriation of land to grow crops was a common practice in many nations. Even if not organized under national authority, this activity was officially encouraged. Small garden clubs and individuals often began urban gardens on their own initiative to contribute to the war effort. The opportunity to feel involved in important national events at any level created a stronger sense of national unity. The feeling of belonging led to higher morale, and also gave many the strength to sacrifice their comfort for the well being of the nation.




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