"I'm punishing soldier G.K. Hirsch, train squadron 10, to a total of 7 days of average disciplinary arrest, because since July 1917, at which point he assumed his post in Brussels, he has undertaken several affairs involving food products and soap, and has run up debts in a Belgian café." Sent to the German authorities, this memorandum from January 1918 indicates that, despite the number of abuses committed by the occupier with regard to food, certain injustices were reported. The German demands for products made of the producing communities in Belgium had to be satisfied under threat of punishment, or even of an increase of the list of weekly and/or monthly requisitions. The troops were supplied against the backdrop of shared shortages between Belgium and occupying Germany, that could not look after nourishing its own population, its soldiers and the "poor little Belgians". In the struggle against shortages, country people and, to a lesser degree, city inhabitants had to deal with the official German demands and occasional purchases of foodstuffs by soldiers.
Belgium occupied, the usual imports of foodstuffs suspended, the population and the troops all famished… The horrors of the 1914-1918 conflict in Belgium were played out on the battlefields, in the trenches flooded with water and overrun with rats and lice, in farmers' fields, in the inconsistently supplied major cities, and in household kitchens. In these various scenarios, the population had to adapt to a reality of war and shortage, where access to foods outside of the supply system organised by the CNSA (National Relief and Food Committee, created after the German occupation) and the Commission of Relief of Belgium (CRB, international collaborative entity) was very limited. Alongside countless cases of theft, falsification and hoarding, two other reasons continually reduced the food rations made available to the Belgian population, especially within the countryside: the German demands for national products and the purchases made by soldiers that, in theory, had to be carried out at the official prices.
Purchase vouchers reimbursed by whom?
The history of Western Europe has always been marked by different types of conflicts. All of the ones that occurred in the 19th century resulted in concerns that were common to the greatest European powers. In 1899, the foundations of the Hague Convention were based on a series of common agreements regarding the laws and customs of war, jointly determined after the 1874 Brussels Conference. Amongst these mandates that attempted to set common rules that should be considered when occupying a country or attacking the enemy, the relations with private property, the limitation of access to resources – that notably included locally produced foods – and any requisitions had to, above all else, respect the needs of the civilian population.
Here is one of the articles that discusses the principle of demanding resources from the local populations only with regard to any surpluses, a somewhat utopian idea in the most severe cases of shortages: "As private property should be respected, the enemy will demand from communes or inhabitants only such payments and services as are connected with the generally recognised necessities of war, in proportion to the resources of the country, and not implying, with regard to the inhabitants, the obligation of taking part in operations of war against their country." (Article 40 of the Brussels Conference, 1874).
As private property should be respected, the enemy will demand from communes or inhabitants only such payments and services as are connected with the generally recognised necessities of war, in proportion to the resources of the country, and not implying, with regard to the inhabitants, the obligation of taking part in operations of war against their country.
Somewhat later in the document, article 42 presents the rule for carrying out requisitions within an occupied country: "Requisitions shall be made only with the authorisation of the commander in the territory occupied. For every requisition, indemnity shall be granted or a receipt delivered." During the 1914-1918 war, certain German purchases were paid with "receipts" that were no more than short-lived promises. Firstly, one must recall that the German language was largely unknown to most of the Belgian population; the soldiers in charge of requisitions often required the producers to draft purchase lists even as they were emptying their food reserves, and then leaving after having provided vouchers drafted in German. Once the soldiers had left, and having been unable to refuse, the country people were necessarily left with a feeling of impotence and, in particular, with a lack of food. Here is the description provided in a Memorandum for the Deutsche Vermittlungsstelle in October 1916, relative to a requisition of eggs: "They [the country people] are made to take note of these orders in their notebooks, such that the requisition is somewhat disguised. It happens that the military authority obtains, by force, local products in quantities that are much greater than the individual needs of any given agent of the troops."
Requisitions shall be made only with the authorisation of the commander in the territory occupied. For every requisition, indemnity shall be granted or a receipt delivered.
After the widespread shortage of fat that constantly affected the Belgian and German populations as of the end of 1916, butter became one of the foods most often stolen, most extensively sold on the black market, and one of the products most commonly mentioned in the requisition reports and complaint letters regarding abuses by the occupying authorities (the second product after flour). From the smallest producers through to the biggest names in Belgium high society, everyone was affected by butter requisitions; it was commonplace for German troops to visit farms in order to secure the largest possible quantities of resources. Did you know that even one of the founders of the CNSA and one of the most important industrialist in Belgian history, Mr. Ernest Solvay, was also a victim of these butter requisitions?
Here is the story of the German visit to the farm at La Hulpe: "On 2 September 1916, two German soldiers presented themselves at the farm of the castle of Mr. Ernest Solvay at La Hulpe. They asked to be shown the cellar where the butter was kept. In response to this order, the farmer led the soldiers to the cellar, where they promptly requisitioned the butter. On each of the containers, they placed a paper bearing the indication "seizure, 2 September 1916", a copy of which is included herein. With the farmer having indicated that butter was needed both for the château and for himself, the soldiers agreed to deduct 2 kg for the farmer and 2 kg for the consumption of Mr. Ernest Solvay and his family. They declared the requisition of the balance, i.e. 20 kg."
Under different pretexts and in situations that were completely unfavourable for the producing farmers, the problem concealed by these food requisitions – over and above the 20 kg from the Solvay farm – did not consist only of the principle of an abuse of power; these were most notably demands that only rarely took into consideration the food needs of the population itself. The official distributions organised by the CNSA and the CRB were unable to satisfy the needs of the population in terms of quantity and quality, and the Belgians did not necessarily have very good alternatives. The markets were supplied inconsistently, and the private stores – as well as the black market – only sold their merchandise to people who could afford to pay prices that were unthinkable for this early part of the century!
Passing soldiers and requisition habits
Abattoirs, dairy farms, farms producing butter and eggs, and potato fields were undoubtedly the locations most affected by the German requisitions. A large part of the demand made of the country people or managers of locations such as abattoirs and dairy farms, was stipulated in official documents; here is an example: "the large Malinoise vapour-driven dairy farm, located at Malines, Neckerspoel, 25, each week provides the occupying troops with 319 kg of butter." (Report from 31 October 1916) However, in these official arrangements of demands made of the local producers, it could happen that the manner for accessing the products, the requested quantities and the restitutions deviated from the basic agreements between the occupying authority and the occupied party.
Abattoirs, dairy farms, farms producing butter and eggs, and potato fields were undoubtedly the locations most affected by the German requisitions.
Troop movements subsequent to war strategies and military advances triggered new demands that were often satisfied within the framework of the old habits of soldiers, who left empty reserves and famished country people: "Despite having changed garrisons, the soldiers of the 15th Uhlans periodically return to Attert [Luxembourg Province], where they had long been posted, in search of the butter that they had been accustomed to requisitioning from this community. They come on Wednesday and Saturday evenings, spend part of the evening with the farmers and leave the community early in the morning, around 4 AM, while carrying off loads of butter, eggs, ham, bacon and other farm produce." (Complaint letter dated 7 December 1916).
With examples of this type, how could one anticipate a sufficient food supply for a family or village that, to a large extent, depends on the production of local farms? How many times did the inhabitants of Attert – and of other villages in similar circumstances – have to wait before the replenishment of the reservoirs that were emptied every Wednesday and Saturday?
Returning to the shortage of fats, requisitions of this type often focused on abattoirs, such as the abattoir of the City of Liège, from which the central head office of the CNSA in Brussels received the greatest number of complaints during the conflict. In addition to the cattle collected before its arrival at the abattoirs – for rich restitutions were not always provided –, the German soldiers would sometimes insist on being given all of the fats resulting from the slaughtering of the animals. The major problem with this type of demand, that left no space for negotiation, was exactly the fact that the Central Bureau of Oils of the General Government of Belgium, that worked together with the CNSA, depended on this type of animal fat.
Established by national order of 3 June 1915, this institution was in charge of the recovery and distribution of animal and vegetable fats within the Belgian territory. For example, the Central Bureau of Oils distributed animal fats such as lard, to the various CNSA charities including the Popular Soup and the Community Soup, as well as to the Communal Stores in order to be sold. After the passage of the soldiers with their uniforms and weapons, farmers were left with empty counters and dissatisfied customers.
In addition to experiences of this type, the purchases made by soldiers in the Belgian provinces were often characterized by a great difference between the official sale price and what they were paying. For example, we find cases in which a kilo of butter was sold for 4 francs, when the official price was 6.25 francs in Saint-Trond (Limbourg) in June 1917. The country people were forced to decrease their food reserves, which represented the survival of themselves and their families. One of the most striking images of this passage of the German armies through Belgian territory occurred at the time of their arrival in the country's biggest cities during the first month of the occupation in 1914. Here is the list of food demands for their passage through Brussels in 1914: "On 20 August , the Germans entered Brussels. Under the rules of war, for the three days during which the bulk of their troops would be passing through, they demanded, in addition to the coffee, sugar, cocoa, wheat, tea and wine, 88 tonnes of bread, 60 tonnes of flour, 36 tonnes of rice and beans, 15 tonnes of smoked meat and 51 tonnes of cattle. The communal stores barely had enough."
For the foreign army, the power of hunger, need and sometimes compliance with the desires of the higher military ranks determined and justified, in their minds, the abuses regarding the requisitions and seizures made from the Belgian population. As the CNSA itself stated in an official report sent to the Belgian provinces in 1916, "If the freedom of commerce is a constitutional right, in times of shortage, it must be subordinate to the right to life."