The day started with breakfast at Hope Park, the leafy campus home to Liverpool Hope University. Conference organiser, Dr Bryce Evans, welcomed the fifty or so participants. Dr Evans noted that many members of the public had responded positively to this conference over the last few weeks thanks to its exposure on BBC and RTE radio and that many were in attendance. Dr Evans also welcomed members of his undergraduate global food history course, many of whom would have the chance to speak to the people whose work they have been reading.
Dr Evans thanked conference funders the Economic History Society, the Society for the Study of French History, and the Royal Historical Society. He claimed that their support signified The ‘rising stock’ of food history and indeed of food studies and that their funding had provided a unique platform for a combination of well established scholars and early career researchers to speak alongside one another. Dr Evans thanked Hope postgraduates Nina Rogers and Liz Harrison; looked forward to publication in a special edition of the food history journal Petits Propos Culinaires; and alerted Twitter users to the hashtag #foodww1.
Keynote Address: The Stomach for Fighting
‘Our first course today’ concluded Bryce, is ‘mouth watering’ – he was referring to the keynote address of the conference about soldiers’ diets during the First World War by Dr Rachel Duffett.
Rachel Duffett lectures in History at the University of Essex where she completed her doctorate in 2009. Her doctorate was an exploration of the significance of food in the lives of the soldiers of the First World War, both as a physiological necessity and a source of psychological comfort. Her monograph, ‘The Stomach for Fighting’, was published by Manchester University Press in 2012. It has received some very complimentary reviews and has become the leading text on this topic. Dr Duffett also co edited the recent ‘Food and War in the Twentieth Century’ collection published by Ashgate from the proceedings of the International Commission for Research on European food history.
Rachel Duffet’s keynote address was indeed a mouthwatering opening to the day’s proceedings. She criticised the assumption that calorific intake and energy equate to happiness. Rather, the issue in the trenches, as she showed, was not purely nutritional.
This harked back to EP Thompson’s criticism of the “spasmodic school” theories of economic history, whereby price charts could realistically map social tension. And indeed discussion of Thompson’s ‘moral economy’ thesis was to recur throughout the day.
Dr Duffett told the conference audience about the initial revulsion of men at the army mess hall and the rough scramble for food. It’s all about psychological comfort as well as physiological comfort, she insisted. Morale relating to food is often hidden from historians, due to press censorship and the censorship of communications from the front. Food supply, argued Dr Duffet, was neither as reliable nor as plentiful as suggested in the official record.
Another theme that emerged was substitute foods – sardines and rabbit in place of meat – which were usually unpopular with the men. The gap between the ration promised and actual food delivered was a sore point – too often, hardtack biscuit was substituted for fresh bread.
By the time of the 1914-1918 war, corned beef had utterly changed the nature of warfare, as TE Lawrence remarked. Canned meat enabled armies to stay in the field longer during what became very static warfare. The static nature of trench warfare was a source of frustration, with eating and toilet no longer private activities. Bully beef – dense, salty, fatty, and often eaten cold – was not only unpopular but led to a lot of constipation and some cases of scurvy.
Food combated the boredom of army life in the conflict and was one of the few ways in which soldiers could exercise control and agency. Food from home was essential to survival and local fare, stolen or purchased, provided a similarly welcome respite from the mundanity of the ration. Calories were understood but nutritional understanding was still in its infancy.
Controls and Consumption
Professor Frank McDonough, an expert on the origins of the war, chaired the first panel. Dr John Martin of de Montford University spoke of ‘the heroic age of food control’. John pointed out the similarity between the two world wars in terms of British food security and reliance on imports. In terms of the domestic food issue, Dr Martin addressed the established narrative of policy-making ‘sinners and saints’, providing a more nuanced narrative.
In 1914 Britain was heavily dependent on imports, especially wheat. Britain was the world leading wheat importer in 1914 and many sugar supplies came from German sugar beet. While tillage declined in the British twentieth century, the ‘ploughing-up’ campaigns of the world war saw brief but significant reversals in these trends.
Lord Devonport, one of the alleged ‘sinners’ for his mistakes in introducing rationing, has been unfairly castigated according to Martin. Lord Rhondda, his replacement between 1917 and 1918, and by contrast a ‘Saint’ in the popular memory, was ‘beatified’ by William Beveridge and others, who eulogised about his success. But Rhondda’s poor health was key, argued Dr Martin, and due to his faltering health he left many decisions to his civil servants. The 1917-1918 rationing system was confused, with interdepartmental rivalries and civil service bickering, but it was the product of civil servants and not just one man.
The next speaker was Josh Sutton, of the Guild of Food Writers, who traced the food riot back to its eighteenth century origins and nineteenth century development. By 1917, with prices and food queues on the rise, exacerbated by the German U-boat campaign, tempers were fraying. Did the queue preempt the introduction of rationing in 1918? Large queues illustrated the need for rationing and it’s flashpoint potential. The ‘all in this together’ approach, with the King’s own ration book displayed in newspapers, was ‘a sop’ to austerity-related unrest, claimed Sutton.
Rationing, though, took time to develop and the ration ticket (a later introduction) emulated in the honing of the system, which sought to eliminate ‘black’ practices. There were prosecutions for food waste including old ladies feeding meal to dogs and farmers feeding old rock cakes to pigs. Beveridge later detailed the degree of upper class fines for hoarding, including vicars, MPs and baronets. There was a drop in black market prosecutions between 1918 and 1919, with the slow decontrol of food by the state. Rationing finished in 1920 and the relinquishing of food supply to the free market, according to Beveridge, was to the detriment of the working class.
The second panel concerned food supply. Chris Philips of the University of Leeds talked about the provisioning of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) between 1914 and 1915, with particular attention to French channel ports. Philips was critical of the ‘lions led by donkeys’ narrative, laying the blame for this alleged misrepresentation not just at the feet of Alan Clarke but at those of wartime prime minister David Lloyd George.
Philips argued that British shipping experts had scoped out Le Havre and Boulogne pre-war and that logistics were well planned. Bakeries were established early on, providing bread for the troops, successfully baking bread en masse in ovens before issuing it to the troops.
The development of the war, and the pressures on French manpower, meant that the responsibility for the early logistics of provision were given to the South Eastern and Chatham railway. There followed well-laid plans to match as efficiently as possible the loading of ships in Britain with the consequent transfer of supplies to rail in France. Allowing civilians of practical experience to operate the port of Boulogne displayed civil-military cooperation and an impressive flexibility from the army, argued Phillips, in sourcing technical expertise from civvie street.
The continued growth of the BEF and the war, however, put the system under strain. By late summer 1915 congestion of food supply was a major problem. No one had been planning for a four year long war. The decision, in 1915, to shift the home port from Southampton to Folkestone (a speedier route) only resulted in the further exacerbation of pressure on the railway company and by late October 1915 control had reverted to the military.
Professor Eric Grove of Liverpool Hope University followed this by contending that British dependence on its mercantile marine was a major strength, not a weakness, in the war. Yes, Britain was a long way from self sufficiency at the war’s outset. Yet foreign food imports were cheap which kept wages down and, with Britain dominating global trade through its maritime empire, the reliance on imports at the outbreak of war was not necessarily a weakness.
Britain hoped that the German economy would be destroyed by the British maritime stranglehold, as demonstrated by Nicholas Lambert’s research. The Admiralty’s total blockade plans were opposed, though, by the British Board of Trade and other departments of state. When it came to it, argued Professor Grove, the secret of the success of the Allies was their flexibility in reallocating food to different routes. The proportion of food coming from the North Atlantic was the big shift in supply which had previously been centred on the Dardanelles.
The 1917 U-boat campaign was much more successful than its Second World War campaign. But the German home front would ultimately let them down. The Germans had a high fat diet and most of this fat did not make it in due to the success of the British blockade, leading to a dip in morale at home. ‘There were limits to what you could do with turnips’ proclaimed Professor Grove, and the German rationing system, which predated the British one, struggled to cope with the widespread reversion to the black market. With the German state forced to recommend, in some circumstances, that people get food from the black market, it was a sign of British naval resilience. The food queues in the cities saw German morale slump and, what with the monotony of the diet, according to Grove, ‘no wonder people mutinied’.
Professor Frank McDonough and Dr Mike Benbough-Jackson of Liverpool John Moores University discussed food supply and distribution more locally, detailing the ‘Merseyside at War’ project, an interactive project which encourages people to upload their own family stories. Frank introduced a video with actor Paul McGann which advertised the initiative, outlining the importance of preserving stories through this online archive.
Mike explained how all information gathered would be duly credited and emphasised the applicability of food to other ‘types’ of history, economic, political and so on. He mentioned the food supply rivalry between Liverpool and Hamburg and the rather odd rivalry in the commodity of pine kernels! Soap, too, was an issue in local food production and Mike detailed the strikes in the Isle of Man in the war and the disruption to resource supply that this posed. Mike cited a local history of Widnes in which food queues loomed large, with accounts of ribs crushed and eyes popping out, and even babies born! These imagined realities illustrated the psychological pressures wrought by disruptions to food supply.
The Representation and Production of Food
After lunch, the conference heard from Leanne Green of Manchester Metropolitan University. Leanne’s presentation looked at food advertising in the war, which arguably marked ‘an epoch in the field of advertising’. State and private commerce shared strategies during the conflict. Commercial adverts became infused by a wartime rhetoric, with big companies seeing the financial reward in ‘doing their bit’.
Traditional allegorical imagery (think John Bull) was present but not dominant in British wartime advertising. Wartime advertising also broke with tradition in depicting newer social conditions and phenomena such as working women (witnessed in Quaker Oats adverts, for example). The war front and the Home Front were often juxtaposed (Fry’s Cocoa, for example) with advertisers appealing to consumers’ perceived emotional desires.
Scientific understanding also aided state advertising drives urging frugality, asserted Green. Nutritional efficiency was stressed in this sort of pictorial campaign, which contrasted with some of the more traditional and atavistic myths sometimes witnessed in state propaganda. By eating less, the individual was saving the nation. Green sees some of the state advertising output as Foucaultian in nature, with propaganda acting as an instrumental link between the state and the masses. Advertising was inescapable in the First World War, ushering in the beginnings of a more familiar and later consumerist society.
Elizabeth Harrison of Liverpool Hope University spoke about the national food supply problems facing Britain at the outbreak of war. The transition in Food controller from Lord Devonport to Lord Rhondda in 1917 was again emphasised. These trends were demonstrated in satirical imagery relating to the food issue, as found in ‘Punch’ magazine and other pictorial organs, which emphasised the class disparities which persisted despite the state’s increasingly influential role in food supply.
The Daily Mail newspaper which, Dr Mike Benbough Jackson revealed, had broken the unlikely story of a “twenty stone boy” during the conflict, also did its bit in championing frugal consumption (in its inimitable fashion), declaring war on people not masticating properly and terming indigestion ‘a crime’.
The domestic food issue was reflected satirically both nationally and locally. The Liverpool Echo characterised ‘Lord Spud and Lady Bacon’ as part of a new ‘food aristocracy’ which had to be respected by the public. In contrast, there were also local images which reiterated the class issue and the black market, attacking spivvish so-called ‘food hogs’. With the introduction of full rationing in 1918, censored papers (both national and local) subscribed to the new direction in food policy.
Dr Nick Mansfield of UCLAN talked about his oral history work talking to farm workers in Norwich a generation ago. British agriculture was in reasonable condition following Victorian depressions. However, farms ran on cheap labour and their were great regional disparities in pay and conditions. Agricultural trade unionism was a reaction to these poor conditions; indeed the the poverty of agricultural labourers was often assuaged by the food available in Lord Kitchener’s army. Farmers, on the other hand, generally did well out of the war. A quarter of British land changed hands immediately after the war, with farmers who had had a profitable war able to buy more land and consolidate their holdings.
The state encouraged women to return to the land to help in the war effort, a phenomenon resented by some agricultural unions. Inflation compounded these hard times, as Nick showed, and unions agitated for proportionate increases in higher wages. German prisoners of war in their tens of thousands were, though, recruited into the rural war economy. More scandalously, perhaps, child farm labour underwent an upsurge. Another major factor in agricultural production, as Dr Martin outlined, was the Army Labour Corps, a semi-militarised form of battalion labour which nonetheless included many unionised labourers. Mechanisation also occurred and the Women’s Land Army appeared for the first time.
Wages were controlled by local agricultural Wages Boards but, interestingly, union activity increased towards the end of the war, which also coincided with the growth of the Labour Party. Agricultural flying pickets were witnessed, with men back from the trenches taking their military experience to the front line of industrial relations. Post-war slumps, though, saw a fall in membership along with wages.
Agitation in Ireland
Ireland was the subject of the afternoon session. Dr Ian Miller of the University of Ulster spoke first. The Department of Agriculture urged an increase in tillage in the cattle and dairy-dominated Irish agricultural economy. In 1916 compulsory tillage was introduced. This was criticised by some nationalists, who pointed to the forced changes benefiting Britain more than Ireland. Advocates of Irish exclusion from conscription also agitated against the British benefit of Irish agricultural shifts.
The memory of famine, of course, hung noticeably over Ireland at this time. Some invoked starvation as a rallying call. Debates about wartime trade gave nationalists the chance to wield the rhetorical weapon of famine. Some even alleged deliberate British starvation of Ireland. The wartime body was increasingly used in this debate. Oliver St John Gogarty, famous surgeon and writer, raised issues of urban starvation and poor milk supply: stories of Irish poverty which were, though, not unique to the wartime period.
Dr John Borgonovo of University College Cork talked about the fear of hunger in Ireland during this period, too, and the upsurge in agrarian radicalism. Fused with republican agitation over conscription in 1918, the food issue was paramount in the country during the conflict. This activity harked back to the nineteenth century Land War and the movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries towards a major transition in land ownership from Anglo Irish elites to formerly peasant proprietors. Land congestion remained, however, and agrarian ‘terrorism’ did not die easily. During the war, armed separatists asserted Irish independence during Easter week, 1916. This precedent was to feed into the welter of republican agitation in the country at this time.
Both speakers noted that emigration from Ireland halted somewhat during the war and overall the economy improved, with farmers doing really quite well, but the economic improvement was not dramatic enough to stall the growth of separatist republicanism. Union membership was on the rise in Ireland, including among Irish farm labourers. Throughout 1917 and 1918 British state legitimacy in Ireland declined. To add to this, price inflation compounded food shortages. Anxiety about famine increased thanks in no small part to British propaganda reports of German starvation, which backfired. Rationing was introduced in mainland Britain but not in Ireland.
Dr Borgonovo detailed how price rises negatively impacted the Irish poor, with the absence of concomitant wage rises, and illustrated how the British administration struggled to cope with the famine anxiety amidst Irish public opinion. Orthodox nationalist interpretations of the causes of the Great Famine being British food export, understandably resurfaced amongst a population possessing a powerful sense of historical memory around the 1845-51 dearth. ‘Never again!’ Was the Sinn Fein cry as bread shortages gripped Ireland. AE Russell wrote that a country which would again leave its people to starve en masse had ‘no purpose or excuse for remaining on the face of the earth’. Sinn Fein created food preservation committees countrywide to capitalise on this situation. People’s Food committees were established by unions which monitored food consumption and distribution.
Dr Borgonovo detailed the so-called ‘cow versus plough’ tension at the heart of the Irish agricultural economy. Royal Irish constabulary reports of agrarian outrage rose from 55 in 1913 to 245 in 1918. The Director general of the RIC reported back to Dublin castle nervously about forcible possession of land by republican agitators, who often openly collided with the police. Most of these ‘cattle drives’ seemed to be bottom up affairs, often carried out ritualistically with mobs complete with bands and flags. Land was often forcibly confiscated ‘by order of the Irish Republic’ and ‘in the name of God’. Civilian morale had dipped and state legitimacy also decreased, aggravated by fears of famine and boosted by a well organised anti-war opposition, who would win the 1918 election in the country.
In 1918, though, the SF hierarchy called a halt to such agitation. Why? Often, agitation was ‘too radical’ for the liking of senior republicans. In some cases, too, radicalism was perceived by the leadership as lacking in anti-imperialist sentiment – some were carried out in the name of British wartime measures aiming at equitable production and distribution. Also, some of the confiscations were age-old affairs harking back to family feuds, and were therefore not easily controllable. A major reason was the replacement of this issue by the Irish conscription crisis and the healthy harvest of 1918.
Alcohol and Temperance
The day concluded with a wine reception courtesy of the Cooperative, but not before a temperance talk! Dr Annemarie McAllister of UCLAN spoke of the nineteenth century temperance movement in the North West of England and the lineage of this movement in the First World War. Notions of class, nonconformist religious beliefs, child protection, and social and scientific progress underpinned the British temperance movement.
Annemarie spoke of one of these voluntary organisations, the Band of Hope, which was formed in 1887 and grew to nearly four million members on the eve of the war. The Band of Hope churned out masses of promotional material and was organised on military lines complete with ‘recruiting officers’ and medals. With the militarisation of society in wartime, they were well equipped to redouble their efforts in what now became a greatly heightened sense of national interest and national duty. There was a strong temperance movement within the services, who would line up to receive their penny a day in lieu of the spirit ration, as emphasised by temperance publicity. During the war, the archetype of the drunken soldier, transgressing his duty to his state, would be vehemently challenged by temperance campaigners.
Personal abstinence was seen as preferable to state coercion in the eyes of many, but this did not stop the state from interfering. The defence of the realm act (intoxicating liquor act) reduced brewing and there were increased taxes on alcohol during the war. There were also the first state owned pubs, with the first appearing in Carlisle in 1916. There were moves to introduce complete national prohibition and complete nationalisation of brewing and pubs. By January 1917, beer production was limited to fifty per cent of its 1915 level. Nationalised pubs in Carlisle, Gretna, Enfield and other centres of armament production started to spring up. David Lloyd George famously remarked that Britain was fighting Germany, Austria and drink, with drink being the worse foe. He carried off a PR coup when he got George V to abstain, along with the staff of royal households and, therefore, visitors. All in all, as Dr McAllister outlined, the constancy of the temperance message was highly significant in helping productivity and reducing drunkenness in the conflict.
Conference feedback forms told a resoundingly positive tale. The conference provided opportunities for networking and general knowledge exchange. Many declared their surprise and delight at learning about the multifaceted nature and central significance of food in the conflict. Many noted the positive media coverage on the government’s centenary website and via the BBC as a reason for attending. Others spoke of how they would take valuable lessons back to primary and secondary school classrooms.