HUNGER: HOW FOOD SHAPED
THE COURSE OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR
Rick Blom
Uniform, £17.99 (pbk)
ISBN 978-1912690190
HUNGER: HOW FOOD SHAPED THE COURSE OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR Rick Blom
Uniform, £17.99 (pbk)
ISBN 978-1912690190

Add salt and pepper and enough water to ensure it covers everything, if desired a splash of white wine, and tomatoes. Leave to simmer, but for a very long time, 6 to 7 hours.’

On first reading, the meal in question sounds almost appetising. But it is in fact one of the countless recipes interspersed throughout Rick Blom’s Hunger, about food in the First World War. And you find your tastebuds drying up on learning that the recipe is for camel-stomach stew.

Where soldiers were supposed to find a camel in the muddy plains of the Western Front, I am at a loss to know. At any rate, instructions on how to cook a rat would have been more helpful. They were everywhere, and there was no way of dealing with them.

The vermin were well fed, even if their luckless trench-fellows were not. Some were as big as adult cats, with hairless heads and winding tails.

They would crawl over sleeping soldiers and pinch the food hanging in their knapsacks. Or they would venture into no-man’s land and nibble at the corpses. Eyes were known to be a delicacy.

Hunger is breezy in its approach, but the subject Blom discusses is a serious one. Indeed, the spectre of food – or lack of it – haunts the First World War.

It was the notorious Schlieffen Plan that promised ‘breakfast in Paris and dinner in St Petersburg’, based on the belief that the German Army could knock out France and then Russia and be home in time for tea.

Yet it soon became clear that the war ‘would not be a picnic’ – to borrow Lord Kitchener’s phrase – and that troops would not be returning home in 1914 to enjoy Christmas with all the trimmings.

DIG FOR VICTORY

As well as original recipes, Blom includes large helpings of soldiers’ testimony, which remind us that the reality of war is often long periods of boredom punctuated by intense and exhausting fighting.

A good diet was essential for either of these activities. But the soldiers were chronically undernourished by their superiors, having to attack machine-gun nests with little more in their stomachs than burnt apple slices or mouldy bread.

Yet there was still a concerted effort to keep the men from starving. In fact, it is fair to say that the concept of ‘dig for victory’ emerged during the First World War and not the subsequent one against Hitler.

Swathes of fertile land behind the lines were put to good use in growing much-needed produce.

One Allied farm measured almost 20,000 hectares. Another kept soldiers on pork for months on end, until an epidemic of swine fever devastated the livestock.

The Allies could also import food from Britain – though a great deal of it ended up at the bottom of the Channel.

The Germans had a harder time of it. Their soldiers starved due to congested supply lines, while civilians back home were hit by a naval blockade and successive harvest failures.

This is why Blom’s argument – that food was a major factor in the outcome of the war – is well worth considering.

Countless incidents back it up, the most notable being General Ludendorff’s complaint that his 1918 Spring Offensive had stalled because his men preferred to look for food in their newly captured land, rather than extend their advance any further.

DOUBLE BIND

In his research, Blom was prepared to get his feet dirty. He spent three days in a trench re-enactment in Bayernwald, where a replica of a German trench has been restored in meticulous detail, right down to the type of wood.

It was here in 1917 that the British hatched a plan, only partially carried out, to dig deep and mine the German trenches from below.

The Germans became suspicious and proceeded to tunnel themselves. This is what the war had done to both sides: men had become moles, burrowing deep into the earth, living on whatever scraps they could get hold of.

British soldiers eating in the trenches during World War I. Food was extremely difficult to acquire on both sides of the front.
British soldiers eating in the trenches during World War I. Food was extremely difficult to acquire on both sides of the front.

Some of the research is a bit off. Blom discusses interviewing both Harry Patch and Henry Allingham, the elderly veterans of the war, as if they were still alive – not mentioning that both men died in 2009. Perhaps misplaced in the otherwise excellent translation from the Dutch?

Other topics go under-discussed. Blom almost ignores the Bolshevik Revolution, which was brought about by his two subjects of war and starvation. This is very much a history of the Western Front.

But his book does illuminate one important fact: whether in the wintry depths of Russia or the relative quiet of the English countryside, both citizen and soldier were essentially caught in the same double bind.

We cannot know for certain how many botched manoeuvres and failed offensives could have ended differently had the men and women of the First World War been better fed, let alone better led.

But it seems reasonable to assume that the conflict may have been less appalling had those involved had more to go on, so to speak, than some gruesome camel stew.

Review by Calum Henderson

This article was published in the August/September 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.




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