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Feeding the troops: the emotional meaning of food in wartime

Camp kitchen with the Australian and Light Horse Regiment Queensland, Queensland 1914. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Author provided

Feeding the troops: the emotional meaning of food in wartime

“Can an egg save a soldier?” So asked a full-page advertisement for Sunny Queen Farms in the The Age’s Sunday Life magazine last month. A young returned serviceman, a veteran of Afghanistan, looks straight into the camera. He is pictured next to a toast “soldier” dipped in a soft-boiled egg, an image replete with childhood nostalgia for many Australians, and one that speaks strongly of mothering.

The soldier, we are told, “knows how tough returning to civilian life can be for veterans suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”. We can now see that, though his white T-shirt reveals a strong physique, the soldier’s eyes are vulnerable. This is a young man in need of care and Sunny Queen Farms promises to support returned soldiers with a modest donation for each pack of its “eggs for soldiers” sold.

World War I advertising similarly drew on maternal feeling. Clarke & Sherwell Ltd, Ministry of Food/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

This advertisement draws not just on the power of maternal feeling, and the nostalgia around childhood food memories, but on the heightened emotional significance of food in wartime. Food is central to experiences of war, and not just for the soldiers for whom it is a daily preoccupation. On the home front, too, food gains heightened emotional, social and political meaning.

The website for Walking Wounded, the organisation supported by the Eggs for Soldiers campaign, draws heavily on ANZAC imagery, and in these centenary years, World War One looms large in the national imagination. Yet we are just beginning to understand the role played by food in the emotional battles of WWI.

The ANZAC biscuit epitomises the link between food and WWI in national remembrance, and it is yet another expression of maternal care, having reportedly been devised to withstand the long journey to the front in “comfort packages”.

In WWI food was the most potent means for mothers to convey their love to sons at the front. On their return, Australian soldiers were welcomed with a hot meal at ANZAC buffets and sometimes another kind of female affection, as this iconic photograph (below) shows.

A wounded AIF soldier receives an affectionate welcome home at the Anzac Buffet in The Domain in Sydney. As men started returning from the front, the Anzac Buffet became the place where men were welcomed home. Australian War Memorial, Author provided

The frisson between the wounded soldier and the young woman are central to this image, but the face of the older woman at left conveys a complex mixture of maternal feelings; delight at the soldier’s return, dismay for what he has endured.

In The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War, (2010) Michael Roper writes that British soldiers’ families were effectively “an adjunct to the army, helping to ensure that the soldier stayed clothed, well-fed and healthy”. In Germany, where the British blockade quickly led to mass hunger on the home front, coping with food scarcity for her family was a mother’s contribution to the war effort.

Food is central to ideas of national and cultural belonging, something that can be used to bolster wartime patriotism, but it also gives a pungent flavour to cultural difference. Food therefore also provides powerful imagery for propaganda, such as in a 1915 Australian newspaper report that equates German food with hatred and bloodlust:

Blood sausage. Brain Sausage. Decaying cabbage pickled in vinegar … only a few of the cheery dishes in which the German rejoices, the delicacies upon which he feeds his hatred.“

In the Central Powers countries it did not take long for hunger to take a toll on home front patriotism. Existing cultural fault lines—between major cities and rural areas, between different nations and ethnic and religious groups—were brought into stark relief.

Scholars such as Hans-Georg Hofer and Maureen Healy have argued that tensions around food supply and distribution contributed in part to the collapse of the double monarchy of Austria–Hungary.

In Germany, rumours of Jewish machinations in food distribution ran rife, and resentment emerged over immigrants from the East placing pressure on scarce resources.

When we look at experiences of wartime through the prism of food we are constantly reminded of its power to to divide us, but also to bring people together. So famously a "weapon” of WWI, food can also occupy a central role in the bridging of national, ethnic and religious divides.

Australian officers having breakfast in a shell hole in Sausage Valley, Pozieres, 1916. Australian War Memorial

Australian soldier Leonard V. Bartlett writes in his Gallipoli diary of frequent visits to the “Indian Camp” for “a feed of curry & chapadies”. During the informal Christmas truce of 1914 German soldiers entered no-man’s land and offered chocolate to soldiers serving in the British army, an event that was made into feature film Joyeux Noel (2005).

In historian Craig Gibson’s Behind the Front (2014), a recent study of British soldiers’ encounters with French civilians, the most touching anecdotes centre upon the exchange of food: a warm cup of coffee offered to an exhausted soldier, or much-needed army rations donated to hungry children.

Historian Rachel Duffett, in her book The Stomach for Fighting (2012), describes how, along the Western Front, soldiers of the belligerent armies were cared for—often tenderly—in billets. In 1922, the German lieutenant Ernst Jünger wrote of the hospitality of one French couple with whom he shared meals and many cups of tea, during which they discussed “the difficult question […] of why men must make war”.

In the article “Fighting a Kosher War” (2011), researcher Steven Schouten describes how Jewish soldiers serving on the Eastern Front with the advancing Imperial German Army were often welcomed into Jewish homes for a kosher meal.

And when the war during which so many had died of hunger ended, Hofer’s research demonstrates, food also became a tool of peace. Food aid flowed into Austria, and one fifth of Austrian children were nourished by families abroad.

In wartime, when cultural differences are amplified, food can be a potent reminder of shared humanity and reinforce a sense of belonging. Feeding is also a powerful act of love.

Indian cavalry troopers preparing a meal Estrée Blanche, France, 1915. British Library/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Scholars have recently begun to examine the significance of food in wartime as an aspect that provides a tangible emotional connection to people from earlier times. As we approach the centenary of the end of the Great War it is timely to consider how food helped to heal some of the wounds of this scarifying conflict.