# Reselling, falsifying and stealing: the black market during the Great War

Clandestine transportation of foodstuffs
 Illustration taken from the series of 100 collectible chromos "La Grande Guerre" produced for its clientele by the Produits de Réglisse Carabro  - Private collection, Nicolas Mignon ©

Clandestine transportation of foodstuffs Illustration taken from the series of 100 collectible chromos "La Grande Guerre" produced for its clientele by the Produits de Réglisse Carabro - Private collection, Nicolas Mignon ©

When the kitchen pantry looks more like the empty shelves of the library than a storage place for foods ready to be cooked, it's time to find an alternative for supplying the household. This was the case for a large part of the Belgian population during the shortages, i.e. for the long years during which the German occupation imposed new food-related dynamics. In the city and the country, Belgian producers and/or consumers were exposed to the consequences – not always negative for everyone – of the actions of four figures who marked the "alternative" to the official food trade: black-market retailers, hoarders, forgers and thieves.

The German authorities, along with the shared efforts of the CNSA (National Relief and Food Committee) and of the Commission for Relief of Belgium (CRB), had as their aim to ensure sufficient and secure supplies for the "poor little Belgians". Without always being able to distinguish the origin, whether Belgian, German or a combination of both, of the countless cases of "disappearances" and clandestine food transactions, injustices for producers, consumers and even for the cheated authorities were the order of the day. The priorities in the list of foods that were "good for stealing" and "good for selling" were not always the same. Whether directly or indirectly, the national manufacturing of certain products, as well as the transportation methods for imported foodstuffs by the CNSA and the CRB, determined the logistics of this alternative trade.

Despite German controls in an effort to decrease the clandestine trade in food as much as possible and the efforts of the CNSA to ensure fair and efficient distribution to the population in all Belgian provinces, the possibilities for commercial leaks continued to exist. Everyone close to the railways, to the roads connecting the country's various producing regions or, quite simply, anyone living near farms rich with local produce were able to see the possibility, every day, of doing something to make up for the food-related deficiencies of their household. Of course, hoarders and profiteers looked further ahead, seizing the opportunity to enrich themselves. It was a lucrative business if they could identify one or two types of very regular customers for the clandestine market during the war. "A private retailer only has two categories of customers: 1) the rich person, i.e. the exception, who is complicit with the retailer by offering ever greater prices in order to be certain of being served, 2) the occupier, therefore an anti-patriotic purpose"." (Report from the CNSA Executive Committee, November 1916)

A private retailer only has two categories of customers: 1) the rich person, i.e. the exception, who is complicit with the retailer by offering ever greater prices in order to be certain of being served, 2) the occupier, therefore an anti-patriotic purpose".

The Germans, whether in Belgium or in their own country, felt the food shortages in the same manner as the Belgian population. The German troops arriving on a regular basis discovered a new country with which, before anything else, they shared the need to find out how to obtain supplies in order to survive. For the Belgians, the dynamics created by need were directed into the set-up of complex marketing networks for foodstuffs, for which the quality, origin, packaging, transportation means and German inspection posts determined exactly what could be stolen, sold, resold, declared or hidden.

The black market and the skill of the profiteers

In general terms, imports – other than the ones organised by the CNSA and the CRB – and especially exports of foods were quite limited between 1914 and 1918. The most well-off and urban part of the population, who could still afford it and who was not satisfied with the quantities and variety of foods available for rationing, obtained supplies out in the country, often through clandestine intermediaries who took advantage of the need. It was therefore with the aim of controlling their activities that the definition of a hoarder became so important for the occupying authorities, and for the occupied. Here is how the CNSA described these profiteers in 1916, in an official letter sent to the main Belgian provinces: "We mean a hoarder to be any group or individual who, generally through some kind of manoeuvre or through his paid presence, helps to increase the rarity of a product or to abnormally increase the price. In other words, any individual or group standing between the producer and the consumer, whether established shops, speculators purchasing the whole of a production even before it is completed or a series of parasitical brokers, both with regard to raw materials needed for production and for finished products or foodstuffs to be consumed."

Speculation within the food market is now one of the greatest threats for producing countries around the world, notably the ones that are forced to take part in the purchase-sale dynamics determined by the major multinational powers, that are especially managed by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The fact of selling products that do not yet exist was in principle intended to provide producers with a guarantee of selling their merchandise; as of the moment when the phenomenon takes on international dimensions and it begins to involve economic exchanges more than true concerns for the food itself and for its producers, consumers and the value of obtaining foods have almost no more weight in the traditional logic of supply and demand.

Speculation within the food market is now one of the greatest threats for producing countries around the world.

When looking at the 1914-1918 war, we see that this principle of food speculation, obviously to a lesser degree, directly determined the products that were marketed. As it became impossible to find products, because their quantity on the market was insufficient or because they were hidden for a period of time sufficient in order to be able to sell them again more expensively, basic necessity foods such as butter, eggs, meat, cheese, coffee and especially flour reached prices that were unthinkable for this early part of the 20th century. Here are a few examples of the increase of these prices on the black market.

The art of falsifying and malice for the sake of hoarding

At a time when the initial months of the German occupation began to foreshadow the consequences on food supplies for the population and the danger of food shortages, several official efforts were carried out in order to combat the above. As such, 1915 saw the creation of the Ligue contre l’Accaparement et la Falsification (League against Hoarding and Falsification) and the Défense des Intérêts des Consommateurs (Consumer Interests Defence League) that attempted to convince – sometimes by force – producers in the country to declare the true quantities produced on their farms and to sell them at official prices. For example, the minutes contained in the official documentation of the CNSA indicate several cases in which country people gave breadmaking wheat to animals or sold bags of cereals at exorbitant prices to profiteers before selling them to the CNSA at "low" official prices.

Before associating such actions with bad-faith behaviour, readers must be reminded that, in many cases, feeding ones animals was the only means of guaranteeing a sufficient quantity of animal protein for the members of the many families living in the country. Also, selling to the highest bidder often represented a sum of money that would be sufficient to access the necessary products that their farm did not produce, and the regulated distribution of which by the Communal Stores was insufficient.

The illegal trade in goods responded to specific needs, of varying types. On the one hand, it attempted to adequately supply everyone who could afford to pay for such supplies and, on the other hand, this supply marketed products that should be easy to transport. For that reason, flour, the most widely marketed product on the black market and the most often stolen from the wagons crossing the country, was followed in terms of quantity by coffee, peas and bacon. In the event of concentrated theft over short distances, for example from a farm to a village's local market, cheese and butter became the most sought-after products for this illegal trade, and therefore the most expensive.

The illegal trade in goods responded to specific needs, of varying types.

Soup, lard, pigs, flour, cereals, bread, potatoes, tobacco, coffee, beans and animals for breeding such as mares and pigs… this is not only a list of the foods that filled the dishes and glasses of the Belgians during the 1914-1918 war, it's also a list of the foods that regularly disappeared during the short and long distance transportation required for foodstuffs. The official and other reports describing the thefts were as numerous as they were varied. We therefore see complaints against bakers who hid kilograms of flour in their private warehouses; young people who claimed to have little brothers who didn't have a Bread Card in order to obtain additional rations of this basic product; retailers who took bags of rice from the CNSA in order to sell them to the German armies; Germans who stole things from schools in order to be able to use them in their own cooking… The description of such irregularities will also accompanied by complaints targeting the inability of the CNSA to monitor its own merchandise.

Another necessary aspect that should be retained regarding the black market in food has to do with the role of German shortages and the difficulties experienced in the neighbouring country. As the measures intended to control imports and exports increased with the continuation of the conflict, the distortions of the regulations shifted to the border areas between Belgium and Germany. This is the case, for example, of this situation explained in a memorandum sent to the German authorities on 23 June 1916: "Considerable trafficking is going on in the border zone at Welkenraedt between Belgium and Germany, carried out by Belgian fraudsters and helped by German subjects. It is well known that, each day and only at this point, more than 300,000 to 400,000 eggs are exported, as well as considerable quantities of ham, bacon, butter, cheese, etc." This often involved basic necessity products, with potatoes and cattle occupying the top places in the list of products illegally exported to Germany.

In addition to the creation of an alternative market that was beneficial both to the people who could afford it and the people who were clever enough to increase their stocks of products before reselling them, the food shortage during the war also had an impact on the development of malice within certain retailers. The falsification of food proceeds, seen in different ways throughout the history of humanity, is in actuality a phenomenon of continuity and an "improvement" in the fraudulent techniques related to the slow growth of the food industry in France and Belgium since the 19th century.

As brands were barely starting to spread throughout the food market in the latter half of the 19th century, it was not always easy, especially in the country, to identify the origin of certain products. This led to the circulation, within this clandestine market, of altered foods such as watered-down milk, butter sold as pure though it had been mixed with margarine, "white" bread manufactured with potato flour, cheese to which starch has been added, wine, oil and flour with which it was difficult to detect that they had been altered. Several chemical analyses were performed in order to prove the nature of the complaints filed by the population and official institutions.

The abuses and falsifications were often unknown, even by certain retailers holding the last positions in the resale chain. However, in various food manuals, Belgian housewives could learn of the different family methods that could be used in order to identify these impurities. Here is some advice by Tante Colinette, presented to her readers in 1915 with regard to the falsification of cheese: "This fraud is quite easy to detect. If your cheese seems suspicious to you, put a little on to boil in some water and pour a few drops of iodine tincture into the mix. If there is fraud, the water will turn blue almost instantly." One therefore has to wonder about the current reasons for these alterations, in comparison with a period that was as difficult as the Great War. How much abuse would we be able to identify today within the agri-food industry, with regard to the quality of what we consume on a daily basis?

Sources Click to view the sources

  • (1915). Heures de détresse. L’œuvre du Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation et de la Commission for Relief in Belgium, Belgique. J.-E Goossens Printers
  • City of Brussels archives, "C.N.S.A" and "Police 1914-1918" collection
  • General Archives of the Kingdom of Belgium, C.N.S.A collection
  • BERGER, A. (1915). L’alimentation en temps de disette en temps de guerre. Bibliothèque des Sciences populaires. Enghien publications office
  • COLINETTE, Tante. (1917). Le coin de la ménagère. Brussels, Grande Imprimerie and Fabrique de Registres
  • DE GERLACHE, A, Commandant. (1917). La Belgique et les Belges pendant la guerre. Paris, Berger-Levrault Editeurs
  • DE SMET, J. (1929). "Pirenne, H. La Belgique et Guerre Mondiale. " In Belgian philology and history magazine, 8, 4, p. 1301 - 1304
  • PIRENNE, H. (1928). La Belgique et la guerre mondiale. Paris, Les Presses universitaires de France

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