The extreme impoverishment of the Belgian population is known to all. During the 4 years of war, it suffers extensively from a lack of food. Harsh winters lead to very meager harvests and foodstuffs are sold for a king's ransom to anyone who can buy them, only to resell them later for even more when nothing remains on the market. The poorest Belgians quickly come to rely on the aid provided by the United States of America to the CNSA (National Relief and Food Committee). But what about the Germans in Belgium, how are they eating? Are they also subject to the Belgian harvests and to their exorbitant prices? Or are their food supplies coming directly from Germany? At the end of the war, the German soldiers will be affected by the shortages as much as the Belgians. The situation in Germany is catastrophic, and civilians there are even closer to famine than in Belgium. No one can therefore help the German soldiers, who find themselves gradually affected by shortages just as much as the civilians. Just like civilians, the battalions posted to the countryside have easier access to food, and it is especially the troops in the cities that will have the most trouble finding any. They can nevertheless rely on force in order to oblige vendors to comply with the imposed prices, which civilians cannot do. But this technique has its limits and, quite quickly, when they attempt to buy anything at a reasonable price, they're told that the storerooms are empty…
At the end of the war, the German soldiers will be affected by the shortages as much as the Belgians.
Are the Germans better off than the Belgians?
Until the end of 1915, the battalions complain very little, and are even pleased with their treatment. As such, in September 1915, the food report from the Augsburg battalion is enough to cause envy: posted to Aubel in order to secure the border, it has its own vegetable garden. In addition to the regulatory rations, the men also enjoy salads, sometimes even seasoned with oil and vinegar, vegetables or soups. The use of vegetables is a particular source of joy, particularly in view of the aged teeth and stomachs of the older men. Foods that they cannot produce themselves are available at correct prices in the stores. Rations are distributed at noon. In the evening, as a supplement, the men receive any remainders of sausages, eggs or cheese. The battalion has its own smokehouse, and cuts its meat itself. The finances are such that, from time to time, each soldier can be provided with a bottle of wine or litre of beer! The officer finishes his report as follows: "It's quite possible that most of the battalion's men are treated better than at home in peacetime". The men in the battalion also produce vegetables that result in major savings, while providing for 4 to 5 hot dinners per week. The only minor problem is the quality of the drinking water. The battalions regularly receive supplies of tea or coffee in order to improve the taste. Thereafter, German troops seize the sources and themselves organise the trade in water. Also, the occupation authorities occasionally carry out seizures in order to improve the daily fare, with the wine cellar of one Belgian now in exile pillaged for its 71 bottles of red wine and 38 bottles of white wine.
At the end of 1915, food prices explode. The first indication of this problem appears in the archives of a German battalion on 6 November. At the end of December, the command structure orders the companies to adhere to the maximum prices with the list of all foodstuffs and their prices. They are also asked to be extremely economical with potatoes; indeed, one company was unable to obtain this starchy food at the price ordered by the government. As of the day after this first shortage, the battalion asks the civilian administration to seize an entire wagon of this tuber, that will be gradually replaced by rutabagas on the plates. Even the Belgians seem to notice this impoverishment of the German army. However boisterous the German Christmas of 1914, the 1915 Christmas is much more parsimonious. Civilians notice the growing misery within the German army, of the soldiers whose pay is reduced on many occasions, and who are having the same difficulty finding food as they are.
Even the Belgians seem to notice this impoverishment of the German army.
All in the same boat!
Food restrictions for the occupier begin in 1916. In January, the prices of potatoes, meats and dairy products skyrocket. At the same time, the sum allocated to the meals of the men is decreased. One of the first decisions to counter this phenomenon is to distribute leftover foods – previously reserved for pigs – to the poorest civilians. The distribution of food is reorganised and controlled. Firstly, there is a call to denounce stores that do not adhere to the maximum price and individual vegetable gardens are encouraged, with the largest parcel nevertheless having to be reserved for growing sunflowers, as this edible oil that is cruelly lacking in Germany. Drastic measures are very quickly implemented. Meat consumption is initially prohibited on Fridays, and then the portion is reduced from 250 to 200 g per day. Finally, meat must be replaced by fish one day per week. Meat becomes a rare and precious dish, and the subject of envy. Rumours of poisoning abound and investigations are carried out in search of strychnine (a lethal poison causing spasms followed by cardiac arrest and death by asphyxiation) in American bacon. The men at the border arrest smugglers with foods that have become impossible to find in Belgium, both for soldiers and civilians. Butter is a good example: it suddenly disappears from retail stalls once the maximum price imposed by the occupiers no longer allows the vendors to generate a profit.
Despite these difficulties, the battalions do not complain. Their midday meals remain sufficient thanks to their vegetable gardens and sometimes to the pigs that they raise, ensuring a regular supply of meat. The soldiers know themselves to be well off: "The population is rather well supplied within the territory managed by the battalion [Aubel], thanks to the presence of many wheat farms. Here, we have enough meat to eat as well as milk and everything that results from that. But in the villages where most of the workers live, there are increasing numbers of poor people who complain: they complain primarily about potatoes and constantly increasing prices for eggs (1 for 30 centimes), butter (1 kg = 7.30 francs, which is much too high) and meat (up to 7 francs per kilo of pork, with beef having almost totally disappeared). Most of all of these foods go to Liège where they can be sold for even more money. The result is incredible irritation / exasperation of the population relative to the farmers who have the lands and harvests, as well as against the big retailers. On the other hand, the population's supply of wheat and bread by the Supply committee is satisfactory. "
1917 brings few changes. The battalions have increasing trouble obtaining foodstuffs, and they learn to be satisfied with less. When potatoes become exceptionally rare, a bread ration is used to replace them. When bread becomes harder to find, the ration is decreased by a third and requests are made for aid in kind, in other words for direct shipments of food from Bavaria. Up to that point, the soldiers sent to their pay to their families in order to help them. Now, Landsturm units (occupation soldiers) need their entire pay to feed themselves, and a very great number of vacationers (soldiers going home on leave) return with their arms filled with coffee, bacon or grease. With the increasing scarcity of bread, great disparity results in the fates of the soldiers, some of whom receive nothing from their families.
The food-related difficulties undoubtedly peaked in the summer of 1917. In July, we note that scarcity is growing when, for the first time, an officer speaks of undernourishment in his reports. Meat is now present in only one third of the meals and the men no longer have enough money to make up for this shortfall with personal purchases. The officer calls for prices to be lowered by all means, since the men no longer have the necessary funds. He recalls that each man must ingest an absolute minimum of 1647 calories per day and that, based on his calculation, the battalion's men are only consuming 1437. Even the quantities at the midday meals are insufficient, and the men must manage on their own to find food in the evening.
Discontent gradually grows and when the potato ration is decreased from 500 to 300 g per person in November, offices are obliged, as a proof of good faith, to set up a Kantinenkommission (canteen commission) and to provide the men and non-commissioned officers with access to the supply records. With the supply problems at the end of 1917, the first thefts of food are seen within the battalions. Two first Landsturm soldiers are placed under arrest for four months for successively stealing 8 and 21 loaves from the battalion storerooms. These loaves were hidden and eaten in secret.
A soldier's daily pay allows him to buy a maximum of 60 g of meat.
From bad to worse
Things don't get any better, and 1918 is worse yet. In January, in an effort to reestablish balance between the men who can count on support from their families in Germany and the others, meat is no longer distributed but rather sold, and each man's salary is increased. A soldier's daily pay allows him to buy a maximum of 60 g of meat. In April, the end of the postal service brings equal hunger to everyone. The lack of grease is being felt more and more, and the distributed soup no longer manages to fill stomachs.
In September 1918, the situation becomes even more difficult. The daily rations now include no more than 500 g of bread. Butter, meat, cheese and honey can no longer be purchased.
Given this flagrant deterioration in the living conditions of German soldiers, no one is surprised to see popular uprisings first in Germany, which is overwhelmed by hunger even more than in the trenches, and then in the occupied territories. In case anyone thinks that civilians are the victims of an occupation army that is keeping all the food for itself, such an idea must be discarded. The men in the units are in the same dire straits as the Belgians, and while the German defeat can be explained by many reasons, the growing shortage of food is doubtlessly one of the most significant.