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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.
Although refined Sugar has worldwide distribution, it is made from raw material that is basically a product of two regions, sugar cane from the tropics and sugar beets from Eastern Europe. The onset of the Great War disrupted most of this trade through U-boat warfare and closed borders. As a result, nearly all nations suffered sugar shortages and had to institute rationing. While not an essential food, it had become such a common ingredient to the Western diet that its absence was sorely missed. Cakes and pastries were the first to disappear, but eventually even a ration card could not even supply a sweet reward. Shortages of sugar also affected distilling and there was a severe drop in the production of alcohol.
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.
Officials sometimes provided people with recipes so they could better learn how to deal with the food shortages they faced. While this was a noble idea, it fell far short of reality. People did not need recipes as much as the needed food. Above is a mock recipe card in which instructions are given to make a faux dish with nonexistent ingredients.
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.
The American Red Cross addressed food shortages by giving advice on their French Assistance postcards. The one above advises mothers to breast feed their children rather than depend on milk from cows. While the message may be sound, it is unlikely that this type of immodest imagery would have been tolerated anywhere else but in France.
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.
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.
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.