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Themes of World War One:
The Hague Convention of 1907 permitted prisoners of war to be used for labor as long as “The tasks shall not be excessive and shall have no connection with the operations of the war.” Both sides took advantage of this though its parameters were often abused and voluntary labor eventually became forced. Perhaps the most common task assigned to prisoners was that of farm work. Many were peasants to begin with, and there was less room for sabotage on a farm. While hard work, it was probably preferable to digging trenches for the enemy.
The use of prisoners of war in farming helped with their own upkeep and gave them a better chance to eat well. Whenever food supplies grew short, enemy prisoners were the last to be fed. Hunger was a huge problem in prisoner of war camps; not only due to shortages but the withholding of food was sometimes used to enact revenge. A number of postcards depict prisoners with plates or cups ready to be fed and occasionally eating. Postcards of prisoners were all meant to illustrate how badly the enemy was doing in the War, but those that include food are also meant to show that they were well cared for by their captors.
Friendly soldiers were also used to help bring in harvests. Extended leaves of absence were sometimes granted for just this purpose if their presence was not immediately required at the battlefront. They might also be used locally just behind the front lines, especially to acquire much needed fodder for horses. Postcards of soldiers working in fields are not uncommon though they often lack any clear cut story line. Vagueness of narrative was often used on postcards because the ability to read into it extended it audience. In this case amidst food shortages, there was probably a general understanding of the card’s message without having to explain it; soldiers were protecting the homeland in many different ways.
German soldiers also played an important role in bringing in harvests in the lands they occupied since these places also suffered from labor shortages. The food resources gathered from Poland, the Ukraine. Italy and Romania proved essential to keeping Germany in the War. Even after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk took Russia out of the conflict in March 1918, Germany could not transport as many troops over to the Western Front as it would have liked because they were needed in the East to ensure the flow of foodstuffs amidst a growing civil war. Even some Russian prisoners failed to be released so they could continue working as forced agricultural labor. A great deal of food and fodder was also simply looted without any regards to the effect on the local population. While the Allies portrayed looting as an atrocity, German publishers proudly displayed this activity on their cards to show how their army was coming to rescue a starving population at home.
The defining of an atrocity always falls to the victim. While the taking of food out of occupied lands to feed the German people was portrayed as a barbaric act on Allied propaganda cards, the same act is portrayed as a heroic act on German cards Not only is this looting a tribute to German efficiency, it was a thumb in the Eye at Allied attempts to cut off food supply lines to Germany. While this influx of food from occupied lands helped to prolong the War, there was still acute malnutrition to be found in both Germany and Austria-Hungry. By the end of the War, hundreds of thousands had starved to death.
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.
Although the British naval blockade of Germany cut off the normal flow of food imports, it was not airtight. Some food still managed to come in through Norway and the Netherlands, though this hardly made up the difference. Many internal problems contributed to food shortages such as the lack of manpower and a railway system overburdened with military needs. The diversion of nitrates from use in fertilizer to the making of high explosives also lowered harvest yields. Despite a multitude of causes, the German public largely blamed the English blockade. While most German cards deal with the positive aspects of victory, the largest exception seems to be those that chasten Great Britain over the blockade. It was seen as crossing the line of civilized warfare, and was thus used to rationalize Germany’s own actions against enemy noncombatants. Many cards were emblazoned with the phrase Gott Strase England! (God Punish England!), from the nationalist poem by Ernst Lissauer. Others showed divine justice bestowed on the Royal Navy.
Fearful of drawing neutral nations into the War, Germany was forced to put limits on U-boat activities. This changed for good in February 1917 when they took the risk that it could destroy enough vital shipping through unlimited warfare to knock Great Britain out of the War before America could build enough new ships to make a difference. This effort nearly succeeded since Allied warships hunting for U-boats caused little damage to their fleet. This momentum only began to shift in May with the introduction of the convoy system, and it was further strengthen by an extensive program of ship building. Even though more U-boats were sunk and more supplies reached their destination, submarine warfare continued to be a very significant menace until the end of the War. Great Britain, which never went beyond price fixing finally had to instituted food rationing in 1918.
When the Great War began, most food shortages only arose as a direct result of hoarding by a nervous public. The first signs of real problems only occurred in 1915 with increasing inflation in the West and real food shortages by summer in the East. While Germany had to start rationing Bread, many in occupied Belgium were already beginning to starve. The situation in Germany grew substantially worse the following year, and as meat became scarce, a War Food Office was established in May 1916. At first rationing was largely taken in stride as the public viewed compliance as a patriotic duty. Many postcards made light of the new food dictator in an effort to keep up morale.
Before food shortages grew severe, there was little regulation of it outside of voluntary efforts to persuade people from eating certain foods. These programs had varying success; while many felt these simple moves gave them a personal chance to help the war effort, patriotism was not an overriding reason for others to change their cherished habits. The British royal family set themselves up as a good example of how the burdens imposed by war must be a shared responsibility. Parisians on the other hand resisted all efforts to change their diets, which created a vastly different social environment from the rest of the country. Most postcards tying food to patriotism and offering guidelines come from Germany where shortages were most acute. Such publicity efforts would eventually follow in Allied nations.
One of the new realities people in Germany had to face in 1916 was the introduction of ration cards. Postcards in prewar years had boasted of Germany’s rising food production, and cutting back must have come as a shock. Even so most people took to rationing stoically, realizing that it was a necessary part of the war effort. Early cards that dealt with rationing were more likely to be lighthearted, poking fun at the public’s new responsibilities. People usually do not respond well anytime they are forced to alter their diet, but these feelings probably coexisted with some sense of adventure early in the War.
Ration cards were eventually needed to buy butter, meat, milk, potatoes, and sugar in Germany. Even though these meat and butter cards grew to become a greater part of people’s lives, they were still a novelty of sorts that made them the subject of numerous postcards. While rationing was instituted in other nations, there seems to be no equivalent interest in them on postcards. It is difficult to say if this is due to different attitudes toward sacrifice, which is unlikely, or because German printers just produced more attractive ration cards.
For all those who saw food rationing as an unwanted inconvenience, postcards were produced to remind the public of their purpose. Only by allowing more food to go to those at the battlefront, will our soldiers will be fit enough to achieve victory. Those less patriotically inclined were also reminded that all the foods they desired were still available provided that they made use of ration cards.
Many postcards related to food shortages were meant to be instructional though they often acted more like propaganda. A number of them played up the point that shortages were nothing to worry about if ration cards were managed properly. While the War Food Office did a fairly good job in setting up a system for the distribution of food, it was incapable of supplying more food and shortages only grew more critical. Postcards however played up the positive, often through clever artistry than anything that might hint at the truth.
The Great War brought food shortages to varying degrees to many neutral nations. This was most severe in places where submarine warfare threatened all merchant ships. Neutral countries that bordered the Central Powers also suffered for the Allies feared that any food allowed in might make its way to the enemy. While this did happen, it also clearly shows how important food had become as a legitimate weapon of war. Special consideration was given to the Netherlands by both sides in that the Germans did not invade because it was an important source of food while the British did not cut off this flow out of fears the Germans would then move in and use Dutch ports to expand their U-boat operations. While this unique situation prevented the Netherlands from suffering as much as other neutrals, there were still shortages of food. The card above show the reconstitution of powdered milk, a food that can be easily stretched by dilution. The production of powdered milk had a long history in the Netherlands under the Dutch Girl label.
Many types of instructional cards related to food shortages were produced. In better times the wasting of food is not uncommon; and while it may seem obvious that this is an unwise practice during a time of shortages, old habits are hard to break, especially when related to food. A common reminder was that food scraps should be saved for animal feed. Some used scrap to feed the few backyard animals they might keep but larger collection services were also set up to aid farmers. Such reminders were placed on numerous posters and postcards.
The possession of a ration card did not always mean it could be redeemed for the designated product. Some foods not only grew scarce, they became totally unavailable and were replaced by adulterated products. While some of these ersatz products were harmless beyond their lack of nutritional value, others sometimes led to poisoning with long term use. Fats and oils were particularly in short supply, which even caused soap to be rationed. Some tried to extract fat from cockroaches, rats, snails, old shoes, and even hair clippings with little success. These efforts did not go unnoticed by illustrators, and they joined the inventory of dark humor subjects placed on postcards.
Putting up with a single meatless day per week was acceptable to most and so voluntary programs to cut consumption were rather successful. In Germany further shortages led to rationing, and when this even failed to provide enough food people resorted to obtaining meat from places that they would never before consider. While the biting black humor of the German card above might seem like an exaggeration, it is not far from the truth. Nearby parks and countryside were ravaged for their berries, mushrooms and meager inhabitants. Zoo animals could not be fed so they in turn were slaughtered for their meat.
Hunger was a burden carried by almost everyone no matter what nation they lived in. Even though criticizing one’s government for food shortages was seen as unpatriotic and not tolerated by authorities, it was a reality that could not be hidden away or ignored. Propaganda can be used to persuade people of many things but not that their stomachs are full. Humor was at least one way of releasing some of this tension. Any bad situation could be acknowledged and satirized without casting blame unless it was toward the enemy. A great number of comic cards were produced during the Great War, and many of these deal with food.
Early on in the conflict, people were officially discouraged from wasting food through traditional activities like feeding bread crumbs to pigeons on the street. Pets however were a tricky matter because of emotional ties. It is unclear what happened to many household pets during the Great War. Cats were often important for clearing vermin, and all helped relieve their owners of stress, but if people eventually starved to death, it is very likely that their beloved pets met their demise much earlier. This was a difficult subject to tackle on postcards, and most publishers only approached it early in the War by showing the dissatisfaction of pets with meat rationing.
As food in German cities grew scarce, rumors began to spread that those in the countryside were living high off the bounty of the land. Many farmers certainly had more access to food at its source, but many were suffering as badly as those in urban environments. Desperation however encouraged imagination to run wild and many left cities in a quest for food. While subjects such as food riots were not deemed acceptable by most publishers nor censors for coverage on postcards, it was no secret that people were going to great lengths to obtain food. If tackled with humor, it could be acceptable to authorities. The German card above shows farmers protecting their land with a machine gun from hordes of city folk arriving by train.
Food bought through the black market threatened to disrupt the careful work of the War Food Office, and efforts were made to curtail it. Police did not have the means to scour the countryside, but they were posted at train stations on the lookout for suspicious activity. This became the subject for many comic cards such as the fine set drawn by G. Ritzer pictured above. Here a woman arrives at the train station under the watchful eyes of authorities carrying a pig ready to roast disguised as her baby. Today the humor in many such cards can be cryptic if the background story is not known, but all the people of the time knew the story all too well.
Arthur Thiele, who was a well known illustrator before the war, produced a wide range of military postcards ranging from scenes of naval combat to propaganda cards depicting the good German. These were accompanied by satirical and comic sets closer to his peacetime output. One of his most popular sets uses satire to attack those on the home front for not doing their fair share to support the war effort. This usually revolved around the hoarding of food and efforts to smuggle it in from the countryside.
Although Russia was a major exporter of food before the Great War, the large amounts of peasants inducted into the army combined with a poor rail system led to food shortages early on. The more fluid nature of the Eastern Front also made it more difficult to establish depots and secure supply lines. These deplorable conditions did not go unnoticed by German publishers who produced many cards showing their soldiers enticing Russians to surrender with the offer of food. While these cards were issued for propaganda, they do capture a certain reality. One of the reasons that Germany declared war on Russia in 1914 was that many thought it would be impossible to defeat Russia once it finished upgrading its rail system.
While food supplies in France were not nearly as short as on the Eastern Front, the diet of the French soldier was still notoriously bad. This was largely due to an unwillingness by authorities to spend money on their army since the republic was already seriously in debt. This situation was first accepted purely out of patriotism, but as the war dragged on it became one of a number of mounting grievances that led to mutinies in 1917. While Germany never learned of the revolt in the trenches, they were well aware of the poor French diet. Even if the diet of German soldiers was only marginally better, German comic cards exploited the situation to show the public back home that their soldiers were fairing better than the enemy.
It was common to exaggerate the enemies deprivations while downplaying their impact on one’s own life. German publishers produce many overt cards that showed how well their nation was holding up to the British blockade. Soldiers are often depicted posing with armfuls of fresh vegetables. Some cards even questioned if the British were doing any better in the face of U-boat retaliation. What is strange about these cards is that the defiant message is directed against the Allies that never have a chance to read it. While supposedly a morale booster for the home front, people knew what was really available and how much they were eating. There was no propaganda that could cover up this fact.
Even though there was already difficulty in bringing in harvests in Germany, the one in 1916 was particularly lean. Bad weather nearly destroyed the entire potato crop, which was the main food staple in Germany. Turnips, a crop normally used to feed livestock was used as a substitute, but even this was usually half rotten. Turnips were not only less palatable than potatoes, they were more difficult to digest and had far less nutritional value. This also lowered the quality of bread that that had been using potato flower as a substitute for wheat. The season that followed was dubbed the Turnip Winter, and many French publishers made light of this desperate situation on postcards.
The Turnip Winter greatly increased the death rate from starvation in Germany. French postcards not only took delight in the German plight, they hinted that the German people would blame the Kaiser for their troubles. While this was just another way for the French to denigrate the much hated Kaiser, civil unrest was breaking out in Germany. Food shortages led to a number of labor strikes, and riots broke out at food markets in Berlin, Dusseldorf and Hamburg. Even Vienna and Budapest was not immune from civil unrest. Food shortages had grown even more acute in Austria-Hungry after the Russian Army occupied much of their fertile farmland in Galicia. Where there were protests there now were strikes. There were even mutinies in the German Navy after rations were cut.
Initial food shortages were only an inconvenience that most people put up with due to patriotism, but when hunger turned to malnutrition and then starvation, a general rise in lawlessness within Germany began to rise. Warehouses and shops began being broken into at such an alarming rate that they had to be more carefully guarded. While postcards often tried to lighten the situation with humor, they were not of much consolation to many. Even so, the fact that they do exist at all in theres troubled times is testament to people’s ability to cope with hardship.
By 1917 the increase in U-boat activity was putting serious stains on the food supplies of the Allies; France was still free of rationing, but there was now a severe shortage of sugar and inflation was rising dramatically. In Italy, which always imported large quantities of food, only price caps had been imposed that did nothing to increase supply or improve quality. Efforts were only put into organizing food distribution after bread riots broke out. Some blamed the Italian defeat at Caporetto that fall on poor morale, which was in part caused by poor rations. Only now that disaster struck were any efforts made to improve the situation. A bad harvest in Britain finally caused officials to establish the Food Productions Department that put more land under cultivation. They still resisted rationing but encouraged food management especially when it came to bread. Publicizing any of these problems would be considered defeatist bringing harsh punishment down on any publisher who dared to do so. If the topic was breached at all, it was in a positive light such as the help being received from the United States.
Printed public service announcements were common to many nations during the war years. They are a reflection of the growing use of advertising in daily life. After Herbert Hoover was appointed the head of the U.S. Food Administration, a number of Hooverizing campaigns were launched that asked Americans to conserve and grow gardens so that more food could be shipped over to Europe to help the Allies. While some messages discouraged waste along with breadless and meatless days, others promoted eating more fresh produce that might spoil before reaching Europe. Local food boards were also established to help guide Americans though the unaccustomed change in diet. Many of these announcements first appeared as posters and were later disseminated in postcard form. This only increased once the United States entered the War. It is not unusual to find an American poster reprinted on a postcards with a French or Japanese back. An effort was obviously made to share propaganda between Allied nations.
Food exhibitions had been opened throughout Germany in 1916 to instruct those at home how to prepare the best meals possible with the limited amount of ingredients available on the market. By 1917 they were being replaced with thousands of war kitchens to feed the hungry. Despite the fact that hunger was severely touching all parts of the nation, postcard publishers still put a positive spin on relief efforts. They helped create the illusion that there were mechanisms in place to at least prevent starvation if not hunger.
Late in the War, many German cards featured children receiving food aid. Up to this point many mothers sacrificed their own well being by making sure their children were fed as well as possible while they in turn went hungry. This of course could only be a temporary solution, for as the War continued and shortages grew worse, food ran out for all.
By 1918 food shortages grew even more severe. Restrictions on food consumption were finally put into place in France though those with money could always find whatever they wanted. Despite the declining effectiveness of the U-boats war against Britain, price fixing finally turned to rationing by January with the introduction of ration cards for sugar. By April meat, butter, cheese and margarine were also being rationed, and customers for these items had to register with a local butcher or grocer to receive them.
Food was now so scarce in Germany in 1918 that ration tickets became worthless. All were now starving on diets of less than 1000 calories per day. Malnutrition was also contributing to growing cases of scurvy, tuberculosis and dysentery. German publishers begin doing the unspeakable, they depict outdoor markets that are practically devoid of food.
When the Germans broke through the British lines in Flanders during their spring offensive in 1918 they made great headway before grinding to a halt. While it is not uncommon for offensives to loose momentum as they press forward, some have speculated that at least part of the reason for not advancing further was due to German soldiers pilfering British provisions. Despite shortages back home, the British soldier was eating far better than his German counterpart. Even when their diet did not include the prescribe fresh or frozen meat, there were plenty of tins of beef and vegetable stew available. There are countless stories of Germans astonished by the bounty they discovered. Even their postcards that had often displayed captured weapons as war trophies now began showing the capture of food supply dumps as important achievements.
The British card above is from a series entitled After the War in which civilians and soldiers alike dream of a better future. Here we have the situation from a pets perspective, where the end of sugar rationing will mean the resumption of receiving treats. The card of course is meant to reflect the desires of people who miss the comforts of what had been ordinary life; expressed through the eyes of a dog to seem less selfish. Food shortages however did not immediately end in Europe as it took some time for economies to recover, and some items continued to be rationed to the dismay of many.
The Armistice signed by Germany in November 1918 may have put an end to the fighting, but the British refused to end their blockade of foodstuffs until a final peace deal was negotiated. By continuing to starve the German people the Allies were able to further pressure Germany to agree to unfavorable terms. The United States began sending food to Germany in March 1919 but under strict Allied supervision. All restrictions were only lifted after the Treaty of Versailles that formally ended the War was signed that July. It is estimated that another hundred-thousand Germans starved to death during these months alone. Food shortages did not immediately end in Europe as it took some time for economies to recover, and some items continued to be rationed. A number of cards published in the new Weimar Republic show the continuing state of desperation for many in Germany.