WWI Centennial: Starvation Stalks Europe
Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 247th installment in the series.
August 24, 1916: Starvation Stalks Europe
Well before the First World War, Germany had long been known for its apparently orderly society, characterized outwardly by respect for rules and deference to authority – but this regimented appearance hid deep wells of discontent based on class and regional differences. These tensions only grew as the war dragged on and physical privations mounted both in the trenches and on the home front – and soon Germany, like the rest of the combatants, was experiencing civil disorder on an almost daily basis. No surprise, the most frequent cause was food shortages resulting from the widespread disruption of agriculture and transportation during the war (top, a German bread line during the war), while the Allied naval blockade cut Germany off from virtually all its former sources of imported food.
On August 24, 1916, another everyday eruption occurred in the town of Hamborn in North Rhine-Westphalia, where an angry crowd gathered pelted local officials with rocks over chronic shortages. A week before, German coal miners in the Ruhr went on strike over rising food prices, and shortly afterwards, from August 27-30 the major port city of Hamburg was rocked as hungry workers rioted. These disruptions were especially unnerving to German authorities because so many of the participants were ordinary middle and working class housewives – not usually known for making trouble.
Unfortunately things were about to get much worse: beginning in fall 1916 the German potato harvest failed due to the spread of “late blight,” as fungus destroyed the potatoes just as they were about to be harvested or shortly afterwards. The harvest could have been prevented with a common fungicide, but this was no longer available because a key ingredient, copper, had been set aside for the country’s war industry. Further compounding the misery, the winter of 1916 was one of the harshest in decades, leaving peasants especially vulnerable to disease and starvation. By the end of the “Turnip Winter,” as it became known, hundreds of thousands of Germans had starved to death, including around 80,000 children; for the whole war, an estimated 750,000 Germans perished from malnutrition.
Although Germany was hit especially hard – and early – by 1916 food shortages were becoming more and more common across Europe, particularly in Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Belgium (fed by U.S. aid organized by Herbert Hoover), and the smaller Balkan states. In Ottoman Palestine, the young Arab diarist Ihsan Turjman noted with growing despair in mid-1916:
I can hardly concentrate these days. We face both a general war and an internal war. The government is trying (with futility) to bring food supplies, and disease is everywhere… Jersualem has not seen worse days. Bread and flour supplies have almost totally dried up. Every day I pass the bakeries on my way to work, and I see a large number of women going home empty-handed. For several days the municipality distributed some kind of black bread to the poor, the likes of which I have never seen. People used to fight over the limited supplies, sometimes waiting in line until midnight. Now, even that bread is no longer available.
As the war ground on shortages would spread to neutral states like Holland, Denmark, and Switzerland, and eventually even Italy and the Western Allies, Britain and France, found themselves suffering as German submarines sent huge quantities of imported food to the bottom of the ocean.
Hunger On the Home Front
All the belligerents prioritized food supplies for soldiers fighting in the front lines, for obvious reasons, leaving civilians back home to make ends meet as best they could. As so often in war the burden of shortages, and the responsibility for sustaining families, fell disproportionately on women, who summoned all their resources and resourcefulness to make do, now without the help of husbands or sons serving in the army. Piete Kuhr, a 13-year-old German girl living in East Prussia, described a culinary coup by her grandmother in her diary on October 10, 1916:
If only we had a bit more to eat! Bread and flour are so scarce, and it is no better with any other sort of food. There was wonderful smell in the house recent when we came home from school. With a mysterious look on her face, Grandma placed a stewed bird with jacket potatoes on the table. It tasted wonderful. Grandma smiled when we’d eaten it all up: ‘Guess what you have been eating!’ ‘A partridge!’ cried Willi. ‘A young pigeon!’ I said. ‘A crow,’ said Grandma. ‘A farmer from Colmar sold it to me.’
Even wealthy industrialists and aristocrats, as civilians, found themselves forced to accept certain unexpected substitutions. On August 9, 1916, Ernesta Bullitt, an American diarist living in Berlin, recounted an exchange with an upper-class German friend:
Stopped in to see Countess Gotzen. She had just come up from lunch. “Well,” she began, “the waiter brought me a piece of beef to-day which I couldn’t recognize the cut of for some time… I looked at it and I said to myself: ‘Now this isn’t the leg and it isn’t the rib, and it isn’t the shoulder.’ Then I said: ‘I know what it is, it’s the tail! And what’s more, it isn’t a cow’s tail – it’s a horse’s tail,’ so I called the waiter. ‘Now, waiter,’ said I, ‘I am not complaining, this is purely a matter of interest, but I want you to take this piece of meat to the chef and ask him if it is not a horse’s tail.’ In a few minutes the man came back, red to the roots of his hair, and said: ‘Madam, it is a horse’s tail!’”
Official rationing and price controls, implemented by every national government at some point during the war, did little to alleviate shortages; in classic fashion, official attempts to impose maximum prices just drove trade in many goods underground where they could be had on the black market – for a great deal more, naturally. The result was long lines and empty shelves. Arnold Zweig, in his novel Young Woman of 1914, wrote of the shortages already facing the protagonist’s mother by early 1916:
Times were indeed hard. Every German, great or small, had then to live on a weekly ration of four hundred grammes of bread, half a pound of meat, nine pounds of potatoes, ninety grammes of butter (watered), some cheese, and from time to time an egg. In the cities, milk was kept for children and sick persons; but owing to the lack of transport, the farmer was able to feed his young pigs on milk. In addition, everyone received half a pound of oatmeal, groats, barley, beans, or – in summer – vegetables; white or savoy cabbage, spinach, swedes, carrots, seakale. But the dreadful thing was the uncertainty as to what would be available the following week; this was the burden that weighed upon housewives and children. When, after hours of waiting in a queue, customers at least reached the counter, it too often happened that their allotted shares had already gone.
Hunger In the Trenches
Despite their favored positions soldiers were also going hungry, especially if they were in second- or third-tier reserve or territorial units, or part of “pioneer” battalions responsible for engineering projects behind the lines. One German soldier from Alsace, Dominik Richert, described the rations for reserve troops in summer 1916:
The food got steadily worse, and soon we were down to two meat-free days per week. A day’s rations consisted of one and a half pounds of army bread in the morning and in the evening, poor-quality black coffee – often without sugar – some bread or cheese, sometimes a bit of sliced sausage, lard substitute, but mostly jam, and a sort of grey lard which the soldiers called Hindenburg- or monkey-fat. At midday each man was given one litre of soup. Everything was used to put in the soup – noodles, sauerkraut, rice, beans, peas, pearl barley, dried vegetables (called barbed wire by the soldiers), oatmeal, potato meal, and so on. Sometimes we were given green kelp fish: this much was completely unpalatable and smelt like corpses that had been lying out in the sun for a few days.
Frontline soldiers also experienced hunger with greater frequency as 1916 wore on. According to Erich Maria Remarque, in his famous novel and memoir All Quiet on the Western Front, German soldiers would sometimes undertake dangerous trench raids merely in hopes of getting food from their better-supplied enemies:
The corned beef over there is famous along the whole front. Occasionally it has been the chief reason for a flying raid on our part, for our nourishment is generally very bad; we have a constant hunger. We bagged five tins altogether. The fellows over there are well looked after; as against us, poor starving wretches, with our turnip jam; they can get all the meat they want. Haie has scored a thin loaf of white French bread, and stuck it behind his belt like a spade. It is a bit bloody at one corner, but that can be cut off.
Of course, access to food also gave soldiers a key resource that could be traded for other things – including sex. On that note Remarque recounts a clandestine visit paid by him and his friends to three hungry Frenchwomen in occupied France:
The house door opens, a chink of light shines through and a woman cries out in a scared voice. “Ssh! Ssh! camerade – bon ami –” we say and show our packages accordingly... Then we are allowed in… We unwrap our parcels and hand them over to the women. Their eyes shine, it is obvious they are hungry. Then we all become rather embarrassed. Leer makes the gesture of eating, and then they come to life again and bring out plates and knives and fall on the food, and they hold up every slice of livered sausage and admire it before they eat it, and we sit proudly by… The little brunette strokes my hair and says what all French women say: “La guerre – grand malheur – pauvres garçons…”
Food shortages at the front highlighted the yawning chasm between the resources available to officers and ordinary soldiers, with the “grunts” always getting the worst of it. In fall 1916 Evelyn Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat and living in Berlin, wrote in her diary:
A soldier home on leave tells me about the life the officers lead. Why, he said, the officers were having the time of their lives even now. Every day for dinner the tables are decorated with flowers; the officers have butter in quantities, eggs, meat, all most beautifully prepared, and the table laid as if they were in a first-rate hotel… The men get nothing of all this, neither butter, eggs, nor forks and knives; but that was just it – war!
Growing scarcity also exacerbated tensions arising from country-city differences, especially as peasants in more rural, agricultural areas began hoarding food for themselves, at the expense of hungry city-dwellers. The farmers were also able to obtain more favorable leave conditions than their peers. One German soldier, Wilhelm Rütjerodt, wrote home on July 18, 1916:
The only ones not in need here are the farmers. They don’t have to restrict themselves in any way and have the privilege to go on furlough quite often. Agriculture is a trump card and is supported in every respect as far as possible… The farmers have the fat, for the others there is nothing else for it than to watch how they taste it. The comrades are getting more and more fed up, for they watch the farmers living under conditions that are almost even better than those during peace time. The farmers sell butter to the NCOs for a pre-war price.
Longstanding grudges between different regions (or between the provinces and the capital) got mixed up with food politics as well. As privation ground down the Habsburg realm’s internal cohesion, many civilians in the Austrian half of the Dual Monarchy accused those in the Hungarian half, a traditional bread basket, of holding back food for themselves. Similarly Blucher noted tartly in her diary in fall 1916 that relatively well-supplied Bavarians had found a new way to express their dislike for the Prussians in charge of the German Reich: “Prussians were much disappointed on their journeys to the Bavarian Alps this year. The Bavarians never had any food when Prussians were hungry!”
Meanwhile, fearing strikes and even revolution on the home front, governments on both sides of the war tried to fill the gap in civilian diets with man-made substitutes for a whole range of foods – some more plausible than others, and most thoroughly disliked. In his play “The Last Days of Mankind,” the Austrian critic Karl Kraus evoked the tragicomic situation with his character Frau Wahnschaffe, a German housewife who recites menus created with lists of increasingly absurd ingredients:
So far as our food is concerned, since I am an efficient housewife, I have to make do with imagination here, too. Today we were well provided for as far as that goes. There were all kinds of things. We had a wholesome broth made with the Excelsior brand of Hindenburg cocoa-cream soup cubes, a tasty ersatz false hare with ersatz kohlrabi, potato pancakes made of paraffin… For dessert we had ersatz ladyfingers, which tasted fine to us… For tonight’s supper there’s a casserole, as always, and, for a change, liverwurst made from starch past and vegetables artificially colored red. And, as a substitute for cheese, Berlin curds with ersatz paprika. Today we’re also going to try the much-praised hodgepodge with Yolktex brand of ersatz egg made from carbonite of lime and baking powder, and a bit of Saladfix, a delicious additive that I prefer by far to Salatin as well as to Saladol. Because for the German family table the best is just good enough, and there’s nothing lacking…
For young wives rationing provided a novel rite of initiation for the establishment of their households, as recorded by Zweig. After marrying her fiancé, back from the front on leave, Zweig’s protagonist Lenore Wahl declares: “Now let us go at once to the registration office and get my bread and meat cards, potato cards, fat cards, soap cards, sugar cards, and report myself generally…” Another popular joke, recorded by a German local newspaper in September 1917, mocked the government’s ability to hand out ration cards limiting households to certain quantities of every kind of food imaginable – but no actual food to go along with them:
Take the meat card, mix it well with the egg card and bake it with the butter card until a healthy brown crust appears. The potato card and the vegetable card should be steamed until they are tender, and then thickened with the meal card. After-dinner coffee is prepared by boiling the coffee card and adding the sugar and milk cards to the beverage. A very succulent confection is obtained by dipping the bread card into the coffee so prepared and partaking of it in small pieces. At the conclusion of the repast you wash your hands with the soap card and dry them upon the cloth purchase permit.
Although people put the best face they could on the situation with humor, there was no question that discontent over food shortages was fueling growing political dissent in Germany, as in other combatant nations. On August 26, 1916, a German housewife voiced typical sentiments in a letter to her husband, showing how easily anger at conditions on the home front could translate into demoralization in the trenches, and vice versa:
My poor dear Paul! I have received your card from 20 July. If only this misery that has come upon mankind came to a quick end… We are all fed up here and we want peace as soon as possible. Yesterday there was a huge meeting in the Albert hall about peace and it said as follows: ‘Millions and millions of people have to demand with one voice: It is enough! Will you listen to reason and come back to your senses again! Become human beings among human beings again!’ (Storming applause) There were 50,000 people taking part in the gathering… If you were here occasionally, you would have been fed up for a long time… They have opened a war kitchen […] and I have to get the meals form there. You can imagine what kind of much this is! If you were able to see it, you would get an idea what we women are going through… Our main food is bread with cabbage, it is a shame. Just don’t be stupid and let them fool you, everything that I am writing is the truth, otherwise I wouldn’t write it.