"Despite the alarming rumours that are currently circulating, there's no immediate danger. We recommend the greatest calm… We hope that our customers will understand that our country will never be without supplies and that everyone will always obtain whatever is necessary, provided that calm is maintained without asking for the impossible." This excerpt from the circular sent out on the eve of the occupation, i.e. 3 August 1914, by the management of Delhaize Frères et Cie to its 744 branches in Belgium, reveals the unawareness of the Belgians regarding the future German invasion, and heralds what will prove to be the greatest food shortage in Europe. At the start of the 20th century, like in the rest of Europe, the food supply in Belgium was based on local production, and trade in imports and exports. At the time, Belgium imported one third of the foods needed for its population. The "poor little Belgians", faced with food-related uncertainty since the arrival of the Germans, had to adapt to a new supply system.
We recommend the greatest calm… We hope that our customers will understand that our country will never be without supplies and that everyone will always obtain whatever is necessary, provided that calm is maintained without asking for the impossible.
The efforts of the CNSA (National Relief and Food Committee) and of the Commission for Relief of Belgium (CRB) provided the non-militarized Belgian population with access to Communal Stores that were used for the distribution of rationed basic necessity foods. Alongside these establishments, traditional markets and private stores attempted to overcome the deficiencies of the supply system established by the CNSA since the arrival of the Germans.
Before 1914, the distribution of fresh and processed foods was part of a commercial distribution network based on urban and rural markets, as well as on specialised private stores. Under the occupation, on top of the higher increase determined by intermediaries, there were also alterations in the quantities and quality of available foods, as a consequence of multiple German requisitions, rationing, thefts and price increases after interruptions of means of transportation. However, even with the difficulties imposed by the war, organised food production and distribution centres were opened. Such venues continued to develop while contributing to the remarkable task performed by the CNSA and the CRB in terms of food aid for the population between 1914 and 1918. The most striking example of the food industry in Belgium's history during the 20th century was that of Delhaize Frères et Cie.
Even with the difficulties imposed by the war, organised food production and distribution centres were opened.
From the hands of three of the nine children of Jean-Jacques Delhaize and Joséphine Ransaert (Jules, Edouard, Adolphe, and their brother-in-law Jules Vieujant), a commercial ideal opened in Ransart (Hainaut). In 1867, it was the first time in Belgian history that a food network using a branch-based model (branch system) saw the light of day, in premises located in the place Verte in Charleroi (now the place Albert Ier). In under 30 years, having "conquered" such locations as Marchienne-au-Pont, La Louvière, Mons, Namur, Huy and Châtelet, Delhaize Frères et Cie established its head office, The Lion, in Brussels in 1971. This event marked the birth of the oldest and most extensive network of grocery stores in Belgian history.
As of the end of the 19th century, the company – then known under the name of "Delhaize Le Lion" – represented an ideal model of industrial sophistication. Soaps, chocolates, cans of preserves, vinegars, perfumes, coffees, candles and brushes, these are but some of the products for which "Le Lion" opened independent plants. These production centres constitute the heart of the Industrial City that was made up by all of the Delhaize plants, next to the schools and hospitals provided for the families of the workers at Molenbeek, in keeping with the industrial models that were beginning to become popular in Europe, as was the case with the Krupp plants in Germany. It was located near the railway where all of the imported products arrived, which played a key role in the success of the "Lion" based in the city of Brussels, thanks to its growing industrial and economic potential since the end of the 19th century.
The plants owned by "Le Lion" in 1914 resulted from the need to do away with intermediaries in the food market, and from the necessity of increasing profit and the variety of products offered to consumers. The entire City was very affected by the arrival of the Germans. The infrastructures and workers were particularly affected, and compelled to find solutions in order to be able to remain in Belgium. Emptied or requisitioned, the plants nevertheless had to satisfy the occupier's requirements while continuing to fill the shelves of the stores that could still open their doors. The 800 Belgian branches operated by "Le Lion" in 1915 managed to maintain a clientele that was as varied as their products. Shopping lists from the war period mention Delhaize as one of the main suppliers for top-quality products; an idea of the dynamics of the war at the time can be obtained by looking at the shopping list of a Brussels school for girls, for example. The person in charge of purchases notes, over a duration of several months in 1916: "Market: lard, beans, potatoes", and somewhat further "Delhaize: condensed milk, rum".
Call for help
Arriving at a store's doors, taking a little cart in order to fill it as you wander the aisles in search of foods, is something that the Belgians will not experience before the 1930s. Since the 19th century, the relation between a consumer and the food was made through salespeople who knew their products and, especially, the preferences of their customers. The pursuit of familiarity between the faithful clientele and the purchased foods, and the need to combat falsifications, led to the development of brands. In this matter, products such as the Maggi cubes, alcoholic drinks imported from abroad and the foods manufactured within the national territory by brands such as Delhaize Le Lion could be recognised thanks to their packaging and advertising in the press.
The pursuit of familiarity between the faithful clientele and the purchased foods, and the need to combat falsifications, led to the development of brands.
The importance of such information on the food packaging played a decisive role in the supply of the Belgian population during the war period. After agreements signed between Delhaize Le Lion, the CNSA and the CRB, authorised by the occupier, several of the Belgian company's branches were used as a support for the official distribution of food bearing the "CNSA", "CRB" or "National Committee" label. Intended for distribution only in the Communal Stores, these basic necessity foods found a place on the shelves of the stores operated by the Delhaize brothers in the cities and villages where the official distribution was insufficient to supply all of the needy families.
Delhaize Le Lion was required to manage the stores in the same manner as the Communal Stores: the sale prices of all products, including those of the CNSA, therefore followed the orders of the official decrees and were posted in the windows of all stores. Weekly circulars with information on the situation of the war, prices and new products were distributed in all of the branches: "Articles for which sales must be specially monitored: coffee, cocoa, tea, chocolate, preserves, wines, liquors and alcohols, beers, starch, puddings, spices, matches. Accordingly, only provide the quantities that you know to be necessary for the needs of a household, and avoid any wholesale or semi-wholesale purchasing." (Excerpt from a circular dated 23 March 1917).
In addition to the support provided the Communal Stores, Delhaize Le Lion also contributed to the distribution of foods for CNSA charities such as the School Soup intended for children, and the Popular Soup intended for the destitute. Delhaize Le Lion also had the occupier's authorisation to continue producing and importing foods, which allowed it to take part in the organisation of the food aid for the part of the Belgian population most affected by the Great War: the Canteen for Prisoner Soldiers. In view of the lack of means to feed both the Belgian and German populations as well as the soldiers in the trenches, the occupying authorities authorised the mailing to prisoners, in Germany, of military bread, toast, biscuits, pancakes, waffles, gingerbread, preserved meats and fish, dried fruits, condensed milk, tea, tobacco, cigars and cigarettes; these foodstuffs left from Belgium in packages that were, to a large extent, packaged by friendly hands recruited by Delhaize Le Lion.
Delhaize Le Lion had the occupier's authorisation to continue producing and importing foods, which allowed it to take part in the organisation of the food aid for the part of the Belgian population most affected by the Great War: the Canteen for Prisoner Soldiers.
From Belgian soldiers in Germany through to homemakers in the various social classes, the relationship with food was heavily marked by waiting. During the occupation years when shortages were commonplace, boats filled with foodstuffs imported from each continent arrived in Belgian ports. Plants continued with food production, and stores kept their doors open. Everyone had a common objective: providing the population with everything that was available. The purchasing power varied according to the reality of the daily life experienced by each family at the time of the invasion. Under these conditions marked by changes and adaptations, the Belgian population was also participating in an evolution of worldwide dimension: the initial steps towards mass retail distribution stores, advertising and an agri-food industry as we know it today.