The sun rises, and it's a new day beginning with a nice slice of buttered bread, a biscuit wrapped in a coloured cardboard box, a croissant or pastry purchased when walking by the bakery… Behind these products, we find one of the most ancient food combinations in the history of humanity, flour and water. The bread resulting from this mixture has been the basis of several civilizations worldwide, and has undergone many transformations with the discovery of new combinations and new tastes. We therefore see the progressive addition of flours from cereals of all kinds (wheat, corn, buckwheat, rye, millet…), butter, yeast, dried fruits, fats, salt, sugar, cream and even chocolate. From basic white bread to the delicacies of the finest pastries, there are food habits that have been maintained across Europe to this day. In the case of Belgium, this is one of the many stories of the Great War: namely that of the shortage with regard to the preparation, distribution and, especially, the possibility of buying bread, the greatest difficulty for the population. The harvests, the transportation of cereals and flours, as well as the number of grams that each person was entitled to receive, were all strictly controlled by the German authorities, and organised by the CNSA (National Relief and Food Committee) in collaboration with the CRB (Commission for Relief of Belgium).
The Belgians who lived through the 1914-1918 war needed to receive nutritional supplements on a daily basis, which could be found in a sufficient quantity of bread. In comparison with today, where the diversification of the food market offers consumers the possibility of finding the benefits of cereals in other products, that are gradually replacing this daily habit of eating bread. During the conflict, the German occupation resulted in an essential concern throughout the country, notably the continuous access to this basic food.
All of the orders and the many controls related to nationwide breadmaking regularly informed the civilians and country people of the price of bread, the quantities authorised for its consumption, its sale and its marketing… Daily life was affected by the quantity of bread received, and this firstly depended on the grinding of the wheat and, in case of shortages, on wheat flour that was often mixed with rye, potato flour and/or corn flour. The best-suited mills in the Belgian provinces had, for their parts, signed production contracts with the CNSA that was attempting, on its side, to ensure that they would receive sufficient supplies.
Whether imported or borrowed, Belgium needs flour
Before 1914, Belgium already had to purchase one third of the foodstuffs needed for its population. Regarding cereals needed for breadmaking, the CNSA, with the help of the CRB, was forced to import significant quantities of wheat. For example, in 1916, Belgium received 50,000 tonnes of wheat (mostly from the United States and Canada), and 62,500 tonnes in 1917. The arrival of bags of wheat stamped with a large "CRB" on the side, in order to ensure German authorisation, was welcomed with joy and relief by the Belgian population, that expressed its recognition in surprising ways.
From the hands of women or schoolchildren from the various provinces, words and drawings embroidered or painted on the empty wheat bags were sent back to the United States, or kept in homage. We will therefore find several decorative objects such as paintings, trousers, shirts, tablecloths, umbrellas and handbags made from wheat bags that had been cut up and sewn together. Living testimonials of how breadmaking flours were provided to "Poor Little Belgium" (which is how Belgium was known in the press at the time). The Germans had every interest in authorising this distribution, since it constituted the nutritional basis of the Belgians as much as their own. As suggested in a press article from the Nieuwsblad van Antwerpen in March 1918, "without fortifying food, with a ridiculous quantity of bread, what are people going to have to eat? How will they stay alive? With beans or with some fat?"
From the hands of women or schoolchildren from the various provinces, words and drawings embroidered or painted on the empty wheat bags were sent back to the United States, or kept in homage.
Starting in 1916, the quantities of circulating foods were no longer the same as before the war, or even in the initial months of the occupation. Life was becoming more difficult with each passing day, with growing uncertainty surrounding the possibility of maintaining the distribution of a fixed quantity of breadmaking cereals for Belgian mills. In the collective memory, the bread from the war period is grey. Given that its aspect and texture depend on the bolting – a procedure that involves removing the grain's envelope, the bran, crushing it and sifting it so as to extract impurities – the more finely the grain is milled, the whiter and healthier the flower. Inversely, bread made from flour with a large proportion of bran or mixtures of flour consisting of wheat and rye (sometimes easier to access) end up by being grey. It's harder to digest, but also much less expensive. An official communiqué from April 1917 indicates that "the National Committee is no longer able to produce white flour."
This bread has nothing to do with the grey bread currently available through organic food stores, for which the high prices are justified by the techniques and quality of the mixtures that comprise the bread, while providing nutritional contributions. Its production and colour are no longer dependent on impurities or notions regarding needs during times of shortages, nor poor quality flour mixtures. It consists of nutritionally enriched combinations intended to reproduce ancient breadmaking techniques.
Starting in December 1914, the CNSA and the CRB were required to add flour and breads from the Netherlands on top of the imports coming from the American continent, as a short-term solution. More will still have to be done. In response to periods of shortage, certain provincial committees were obliged to take the initiative and to request flour directly from the German authorities. These were "loans" in order to stave off the threat of famine. Here is a statement from the CNSA Chairman, drafted in December 1914, which was followed throughout the conflict by letters sent to the German authorities in order to ask them to please be patient for the return of bags of flour, or simply to be patient with regard to receiving the quantities that they continually demanded from the country people…
"Mr. Francqui, the chairman, indicates that communal administrations, deprived of certain products, and notably of flour, are turning to the German authorities for supplies. The latter, undoubtedly withdrawing these products from the quantities sequestered in other communities, agree to provide flour to the communities in question, provided that the latter undertake to return the loaned quantities once the National Committee has carried out its product distributions"
Gram per gram: distribution in the bakeries
Every three months, the Provincial Harvest Commission (Provinzial-Ernte-Kommission) and the CNSA require reports on the production of cereals, and on the imports and manufacturing of flour in all Belgian provinces. There is no question that the strictest verifications as part of this daily life - that is subject to continual uncertainty and to significant shortages - applied to retail distribution operations. Unlike the other products that could be acquired only by non-militarized Belgians through the Communal Stores in exchange for the presentation of a Household Card (document listing the foods distributed to each family), the rationing of the bread produced and distributed by authorised bakeries was controlled by means of Bread Cards, or "Brotkarte" (control document for bread distributed per person / household).
As had been established since April 1916 - during one of the most pronounced periods of shortages in the countrysides - Belgians and foreigners (including Germans) had access to this card, with one exception: "All foreigners established in Belgium before 4 August 1914 are entitled to receive a bread card and a household card. All foreigners arriving in Belgium after 4 August can receive a bread card if they are non-militarized civilians. They will not be provided with a household card. Foreign labourers of any nationality, brought to Belgium in order to work under the direction of the occupying authorities, are entitled to neither a bread card nor a household card."
Bakeries established in the country's main cities and villages and that had a contract with the CNSA, such as the Boulangerie Maison du Peuple or the Nouvelle Boulangerie Nationale in Brussels, had another obligation: providing bread to the national food charities such as the School Soup and the Popular Soup. Before 10:30 AM, bakers sent the oven-fresh bread by horse or by dog-drawn carts. The 400 g loaves, marked with the baker's initials in order to maintain quality control, had to arrive at the premises used for the distribution, to children, the unemployed and the population most affected by the conflict, of a hot and nutritious serving of soup and a ration of 250 g of bread that was constantly weighed by the authorities.
In the case of private restaurants, hotels and the Economical Restaurants intended for the middle class, the Committee attempted to ensure sufficient supplies while striving to limit the trafficking of these foodstuffs within these establishments (which was commonplace…). The Household Cards and Bread Cards recorded the quantity of bread received by each recipient of the Committee's meals, subject to penalty in case of any violation. For example, each Belgian receiving this portion directly from the baker's hand had his or her ration decreased.
In an urban or rural bakery, the figure of the person kneeding the dough remains one of the most important figures in the history of wartime foods. To a large degree, the efforts of the CNSA and of the CRB to combat hunger in Belgium depended on this person's creations. The baker had to make the bread with the flour purchased from the Committee, and was not authorised to make his own mixtures. Combinations were sometimes prepared in flour mills or falsified by merchants or "profiteers". Mixtures resulting from the shortage and from the need to produce the best possible bread contained flour from rye, potatoes, corn or rice.
Each beneficiary of the Bread Card had the right to receive the "Household Bread", for which the weight, consistency and price were theoretically set at 40 centimes per kilogram. For people who still had a little money in their wallets, there was a certain variety of "luxury breads" or "fancy breads", as they were administratively identified in the sales list: French bread, bread rolls, brioche with or without raisins, butter couques, Verviers bread, Greek-style bread, Viennese bread, milk bread…
The ban on sweet treats
The aforesaid sweet preparations take us towards one of the establishments that suffered the most from the wartime restrictions: the pastry shop. The separation of the professions of bakers and pastry makers was strongly demanded and regulated because of the need to separately monitor the Household Breads that met a basic nutritional need, and pastry creations that used harder to find and therefore more expensive ingredients (butter, cream, sugar, chocolate, etc.). In March 1915, the authorities recognised that in the figure of the pastry maker, there was a means to offer the population products to which access was becoming increasingly rare: "The National Committee considers, in principle, that maintaining the activity of this industry [i.e. pastries] offers a great benefit of providing the population – in the form of cakes and especially pies – with foods that it would not otherwise consume without it. This is notably the case for sugar, rice and preserved fruits, that are manufactured in large quantity in Belgium."
The National Committee considers, in principle, that maintaining the activity of this industry [i.e. pastries] offers a great benefit of providing the population – in the form of cakes and especially pies – with foods that it would not otherwise consume without it. This is notably the case for sugar, rice and preserved fruits, that are manufactured in large quantity in Belgium
On the other hand, in December 1917, a national order prohibited the production of pastries; such a measure was also taken at different times of the war in England and France, in view of the shortage of ingredients needed for pastries and in order to respond firstly to the demand for bread, which constituted the food priority.
"Art. 1. It is prohibited to use flour or flour products, for professional purposes, for the manufacturing of pastries, and to exhibit or offer for sale any products manufactured in this manner. Art.2. A pastry is considered to be any preparation that contains flour or flour products and no longer has the distinctive properties of household bread, either subsequent to the addition of butter, fat, sugar, eggs, chocolate, honey, etc., or as a result of special cooking. Art. 3. Any violations of the present order, which immediately takes mandatory effect, will be punishable by police penalties, notwithstanding the right of the police to immediately close any premises were such offences occur."
With this set of changes to the production and distribution, we note that between 1914 and 1918, most Belgians lost the habit of freely obtaining bread from the baker, of occasionally treating themselves to some pastry delight, and even of making their own bread. The importing of flour and baked breads was the decisive element in the constant struggle against hunger. In areas where this food was missing the most, certain episodes involving its distribution left a dark memory in the collective memory of the population. In a study prepared in Huy, one such incident from March 1917 is described: "The distribution of Dutch loaves often led to sickening scenes; the crowd would begin to mass an hour before the distribution and upon the arrival of the lorry bringing the bread, there was an indescribable free-for-all; each person charged the lorry in order to be served first, with women and children being crushed; the spectacle of this mad crowd engaging in combat for a piece of bread was truly lamentable."
An image of this type was not unique during the war. The role played by bread during the conflict goes beyond a personal taste desire. It involves the consequences of the modification of a food habit linked to a nutritional need, that relates directly with the harvested cereals and the manner in which the latter are transformed into a daily food. The shortage of bread, the response from institutions such as the CNSA or the local authorities in an effort to combat the shortage and, especially, the manner in which the Belgians had to deal with it, remains one of the most pronounced food-related memories in the history of the Great War.