By Lauren Bergin
In Europe, most of us are lucky to have a plentiful supply of food, however, this has not always been the case. The First World War highlighted the importance of food in maintaining the morale and health of a population while their nation was at war. So far War & Peas has been focused on what was happening at home in Scotland, but in this post student volunteer Lauren Bergin is exploring how Germany was also affected by food shortages.
Food was not just an issue on the homefront; food had a role in determining the course of the war. Food networks helped to establish communications between allied countries, leading to successful relationships or tension if something went wrong; the intervention of the USA during the First World War came after attacks on American ships transferring food to the UK by German U-Boats. For Germany food became a major issue as upon entry to the war they forfeited trading alliances with the USA, the UK and their allies. This had further major impacts on local production within Germany.
The Schrebergärten (the German equivalent of the allotment) was one of the main food sources of the German nation. First advocated by Leipzig born orthopaedist Daniel Gottlob Moritz Schreber as an attempt to improve the fitness of the nation’s youth in the nineteenth century, they soon became widespread. Schrebergärten are still abundant on the outskirts of major German towns. They can be simple allotments growing vegetables such as cabbage and potatoes or miniature summer homes with many ornaments. Regulated by gardening agencies, they still have a major place in today’s society. Throughout WWI, however, they were not for leisure, they were a necessity; two thirds of the population were dependent upon German based agriculture due to Allied sanctions.
Renowned for growing high carbohydrate foods such as potatoes and rye, the German nation prided itself on its ability to self-sustain in this area of the agricultural sector. However, without additional imports providing foods with other important nutrients, health began to decline. With the needs of soldiers on the front prioritised, the German public was struggling to procure any food. High carbohydrate foods were filtered straight to the front lines, leaving ordinary citizens to supplement their diet by scavenging for berries and leaves, or to buy food on the black market. Rural areas were hit less hard, as well as urban areas where troops were stationed. However, things went from bad to worse. The plantation of potatoes was halted abruptly by drought in 1916 and to combat this, local farmers hurriedly began to plant turnips. These became the staple food source for the German people throughout the winter of 1916 until 1917. But, turnips take a long time to grow and good quality fertilisers – required in order to produce good quality produce that can be grown efficiently – were not available as Germany could no longer trade with the Allied countries. Without the means to fertilise, growing food both for mass production and domestically soon became an impossible task. High nutrient fertilisers are essential to competent production. In times of war, when reliance upon home grown foods increases, it is essential to be able to meet the demand, and good fertilisation is key to this. Continued blockades by the allies reduced German access to imported foods by half.
Undeniably food plays a major role in wartime. Responsible for the upkeep of morale on both the home and national front, it can make or break a country’s war effort. For Germany during the First World War, issues soon arose when Schrebergärten were unable to keep up with the demand for food. This is possibly due to their planting of high starch produce, such as potatoes, that take a long time to grow. Not helping matters was the lack of high-nutrient fertilisers to aid in plant growth. So the next time you happen to visit Germany, don’t take your potatoes and turnips for granted!