METROPOSTCARD.COM GUIDE TO WARFARE ON POSTCARDS 7D
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Themes of World War One:
Food and the Great War  pt4


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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.

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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.

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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.

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In Germany, those who horde food were given the nickname, hamsters because of these rodents well known propensity for storing the food they gather in their burrows. Hamsters were often anthropomorphized on postcards to criticize this practice.

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The use of the term hamster was not a term of endearment. Officials looked down on this practice that challenged their well made plans with much distain. While a great effort was made to go after those evading the proper channels of food distribution, regulations were not enforced equally. As in many societies, those with money were able to acquire all the food they desired while the common man was punished for the slightest infraction. This double standard only strengthen class divisions that increased support for the Socialists, and resentment would lead to civil unrest toward the end of the War.

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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.

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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.

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Marmalade, a fruity preserve made from the peel of citrus combined with sugar was a common part of many soldiers rations. It was not just a sweet treat, the citrus content would have been essential in preventing scurvy. Unlike fresh fruit, marmalade could easily be transported to the front lines, and jars and tubs are often depicted on military postcards. The purpose of these cards are not always clear as there often seems to be a message beyond showing a slice of a soldier’s life. Did sugar shortages make it difficult to produce marmalade, and are these cards denying any shortages?

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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.

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Images of bounty could also be shown on cards as an example of black humor. The shopkeeper on the card above sits content while dreaming that her store is fully stocked with everything customers might ask for. It is only through the context of wartime shortages and rationing that this can be interpreted as a fantasy. The image also evokes a sense of calm, which was probably far different from an atmosphere where shopkeepers had little to offer those desperately seeking food. Middlemen often faced the wrath of dissatisfaction, being blamed for a situation out of their control. If real desperation could not be shown, publishers could at least make light of it.

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Images of bounty could also be shown on cards as an example of black humor. The shopkeeper on the card above sits content while dreaming that her store is fully stocked with everything customers might ask for. It is only through the context of wartime shortages and rationing that this can be interpreted as a fantasy. The image also evokes a sense of calm, which was probably far different from an atmosphere where shopkeepers had little to offer those desperately seeking food. Middlemen often faced the wrath of dissatisfaction, being blamed for a situation out of their control. If real desperation could not be shown, publishers could at least make light of it.

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Images of bounty could also be shown on cards as an example of black humor. The shopkeeper on the card above sits content while dreaming that her store is fully stocked with everything customers might ask for. It is only through the context of wartime shortages and rationing that this can be interpreted as a fantasy. The image also evokes a sense of calm, which was probably far different from an atmosphere where shopkeepers had little to offer those desperately seeking food. Middlemen often faced the wrath of dissatisfaction, being blamed for a situation out of their control. If real desperation could not be shown, publishers could at least make light of it.

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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.

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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.

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On the comic card by Nike above, a German soldier is forced to boil his socks for some nourishment. While it is presented as humor, it allows its audience some sadistic satisfaction, which was often craved for during the War, and is very common on French postcards. Its caption is in both English and French, which is not unusual, but it is interesting to note that the word for German is translated into French as Barbarian.

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On the Italian card above, a starving Austrian soldier prays for food in a church but his only recourse is to eat a prayer candle. Food is also being used as a weapon here, not through a blockade but by way of divine judgement. Scenes of enemy soldiers being punished for their crimes may have been satisfying to those seeking revenge, but it also reflects real hardships. While the British blockade on Germany is fairly well known, food shortages were more severe in Austria-Hungry as well as many parts of Eastern Europe.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.




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