Fighting on the “Kitchen Front”

Bullets, mortars, potatoes? Victory in World War II required the help of every British citizen, and British food. Though the government tried to avoid becoming embroiled in another world war, the British Empire declared war on Germany in September 1939. With the men abroad once again, women re-entered the factories, took up plows and axes in the Women’s Land Army and Timber Corps, and a select few even went behind enemy lines as intelligence operatives. The number of women who fought on the “Kitchen Front” was even larger. British wartime food programs demonstrate wars are not won solely by soldiers in the field. Civilians, especially women, played an important role in continuing the fight. The British Empire went to war, and so did its food.

Napoleon Bonaparte famously said, “an army marches on its stomach,” but this also applies to civilians. One lasting lesson from the previous war was the importance of planning for the possible interruption of supply lines. With its Navy deployed to other fronts, Britain could easily be off from the rest of Europe, and access to food. Mindful of the bread queues that wound around the nation during WWI, the government reconstituted the Ministry of Food in 1940 and appointed Frederick Marquis, Lord Woolton as Minister of Food. Tasked with ensuring the soldiers at the front and those at home were fed, Woolton attacked the problem from several angles.

One of the Ministry’s most important programs involved food rationing. The government began planning a ration system in 1936, but it was not instituted until 1940. Each citizen received a ration book that allowed them to buy a certain amount of a rationed foods per month. The January rations limited bacon, sugar, and butter; meat was added to the list in March; and the list of rationed foods expanded to include cooking fat, cheese, jam, tea, and milk by July. Another system, the points system, was more flexible, giving each citizen a certain number of points to be used on any (and any amount) of points-rationed foods. The ration system ensured food was distributed equitably and meant everyone, from fishmonger to Royal Family, had the same access to food and paid the same prices.

The “Dig for Victory” campaign encouraged citizens to grow their own food to supplement their diet. “This is a food war,” said Woolton. “The battle on the kitchen front cannot be won without help from the kitchen garden.”[1] Home gardening became a patriotic duty, not just a pastime. Gardens cropped up in allotments throughout the country. Other campaigns encouraged eliminating as much food waste as possible and saving oils and fats so they could be used to manufacture explosives.

In addition to overseeing rationing programs and encouraging domestic efforts to grow food and eliminate food waste, the Ministry of Food offered guidance to help home cooks compensate for the dietary changes by promoting nutritious unrationed foods. Cartoon characters Potato Pete and Dr. Carrot were central to marketing this to children, appearing on posters and singing songs on the wireless. The tunes were catchy, and the lyrics were even catchier:

Potatoes new, potatoes old

Potato (in a salad) cold

Potatoes baked or mashed or fried

Potatoes whole, potatoes pied

Enjoy them all, including chips

Remembering spuds don’t come in ships![2]

Government-sponsored radio programs also targeted the children’s mothers. “The Kitchen Front” radio spot gave home cooks recipes and ideas for stretching their family’s rations. Carrot roly-poly, carrot marmalade, carrot candy, carrot sausage roll: the final products did not always match the recipes’ creativity; British home cooks’ ingenuity in rising to the challenge was also unmatched.

The “Kitchen Front” also helped spread one of the British government’s most pervasive and abiding propaganda campaigns. The German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, began an extensive aerial bombardment campaign to break the will of British citizens and force the government to sue for peace. The Ministry of Information began blitz of its own, spreading the half-truth that British pilots had exceptional night vision because of the amount of carrots they ate. The vitamins in carrots do support vision health, but a pilot would likely turn orange before he ate enough carrots for significant improvement. The intended message was British pilots would have no problem responding to German air raids, but the claims soon spread to the home front.

“My first three nights of ambulance driving…were fraught with anxiety that I should have to give up the job through not being able to see well enough,” said Margaret Grant in her February 28, 1941 broadcast. “I resorted to my food chart for guidance, and after taking a large glass of milled carrot and sliced tomato each day for a week, I drove with ease and comfort.”[3] Another host made similar remarks during her August 9, 1941 broadcast, calling carrots “good blackout food.”[4] There is no way to confirm how many Germans were actually fooled by the campaign, but carrots have been linked to better eyesight ever since.

Coping with food rationing and other social changes was difficult, but also helped bring communities together. The Ministry of Food affirmed the value of women’s contributions and the importance of every single citizen in war. Men left for the front lines, but the civilians at home manned the Kitchen Front.

[1] Lord Woolton quoted in K. Annabelle Smith, “A WWII Propaganda Campaign Popularized the Myth that Carrots Help You See in the Dark,” Smithsonian Magazine, August 13, 2013, accessed October 9, 2018, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-wwii-propaganda-campaign-popularized-the-myth-that-carrots-help-you-see-in-the-dark-28812484/.

[2] Song lyrics quoted in “History Cookbook,” CookIt!, accessed October 4, 2018, http://cookit.e2bn.org/historycookbook/20-97 -world-war-2-Food-facts.html.

[3] Margaret Grant, “The Kitchen Front, 28th February 1941,” in “The Kitchen Front World War Two Recipes and Commentary,” from the UK National Archives and transcribed by the World Carrot Museum.

[4] Mrs. Hudson, “The Kitchen Front, 9 August 1941,” in “The Kitchen Front World War Two Recipes and Commentary,” from the UK National Archives and transcribed by the World Carrot Museum.

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Book Review: They Fought Alone

Glass, Charles. They Fought Alone: The True Story of the Starr Brothers, British Secret Agents in Nazi-Occupied France. New York: Penguin Press, 2018.

Spies and spy craft have long captured the imagination. Agent 007. Emma Peel and John Steed. Even Maxwell Smart and Agent 99. Espionage is intriguing, especially when we are privy to the tricks of the trade. It is entertaining, especially when we know our heroes and heroines will be saved from a dastardly fate at the very last second and live to spy another day. Real life is not like the movies. James Bond actor Roger Moore once explained the difference saying, “You can’t be a real spy and have everybody in the world know who you are and what your drink is.” Transparency is a luxury that gets spies killed.

In They Fought Alone: The True Story of the Starr Brothers, British Secret Agents in Nazi-Occupied France, Charles Glass tells the story of two brothers who gathered intelligence for the British during WWII. Adolf Hitler’s September 1939 invasions of Poland and Czechoslovakia prompted Britain’s declaration of war, but that declaration was not an impediment to his march across Europe. Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands were the next to fall. Planning to “set Europe ablaze” by bolstering local resistance movements and gather the intelligence needed to win the war against Nazi Germany, the British created the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in July 1940. Taking his title from Colonel Maurice Buckmaster’s memoir, Glass’s book highlights the experiences and contributions of two SOE spies: George and John Starr. “Theirs would be a lonely struggle, cut off from the wives and children they loved, deprived of the comradeship of a regular military unit, and on their own behind enemy lines,” writes Glass.

If male spies “fought alone,” where did that leave their female counterparts? According to Glass, George Starr disliked female SOE agent Odette Sansom from the beginning, also complaining he was “put in charge of three bloody women” for his first overseas assignment. Starr later complains Sansom made unwelcome sexual advances, implying her espionage was more horizontal than on the up and up. The British and French governments reached different opinions regarding Sansom, however, awarding her the George Cross and making her a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.

Sansom survived torture and imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp. She fought the enemy, but also the prejudices and biases of her own side. Some female spies did use sex appeal to their advantage in gathering intelligence about enemy troop movements and plans, but we cannot say all female spies employed “sexpionage” because of shortcomings in character and moral standing. Sex can be a tool, just like encryption machines and short-wave radios, and the spy who does not use all the tools at her disposal is not that effective a spy at all.

A biography tells the truth about history as it was perceived by that person. Glass is correct to include Starr’s biases against Sansom in his book because it was a true part of Starr’s experience in the SOE. They Fought Alone should be read in conjunction with other histories of the SOE, including some of the recent works that focus on the women who served. This will give the most balanced view of the men and women who fought alone during WWII. The Allies fought against the tyranny of the Axis powers but held onto their own prejudices. The only thing more dangerous than being a spy at war was being a female spy at war. The enemy inherently distrusted because you were an enemy; your own side inherently distrusted you because you were a woman.

KMS, 22 August 2018

 

Book Review: Princess: The Early Life of Queen Elizabeth II by Jane Dinsmoore

Dinsmoore, Jane. Princess: The Early Life of Queen Elizabeth II. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group, 2018.

The only thing we commoners like better than a royal wedding is a royal scandal. The magazines and newspapers who ooh-ed and aah-ed over the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle saw no irony in publishing snarky articles about supposed rows with her new family members a week later. The British royal family lives in a gilded cage, and for all the riches, pomp, and splendor, we would do well to remember they are also people. In Princess: The Early Life of Queen Elizabeth II, author Jane Dinsmoore allows us to see the world’s longest-reigning monarch as just that: a regular person born into unbelievable and sometimes overwhelming responsibility.

Born Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor to the Duke and Duchess of York in 1926, Princess Elizabeth was known as Lillibet by close family members. She was third in line for the throne, but this could all change if her uncle David finally married and produced an heir. She loved horses, participating in Girl Guards activities (the British version of America’s Girl Scouts), and putting up with the theatrics of her little sister, Margaret. She lived a charmed life as the apple of her parent’s eye, and if she begrudged sharing them with their royal duties, she said little. Ten years later, everything changed. With King Edward VIII’s abdication of the throne, Lillibet’s father became king and she became the heir presumptive. The princess began learning statecraft at one of the most difficult points of British history: the abdication threatened the monarchy as an institution while the coming war with Germany would test the monarchy’s place in governing the country.

Pulling from interviews, memoirs, and other writings, Dinsmoore’s writing sometimes resembles a day planner more than a narrative, but her attention to detail is phenomenal. Elizabeth II’s childhood and adulthood could be seen as a type of school for scandal, perhaps preparing her for the issues that would crop up with her children’s and grandchildren’s marriages. George VI’s handling of the continued machinations of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson (made Duke and Duchess of Windsor after his abdication) and discovery of Mountbatten designs on the monarchy (introduced with Elizabeth’s relationship with Prince Phillip of Greece) no doubt impacted how Queen Elizabeth would deal with her children’s affairs, failed marriages, divorces, and remarriages.

“When I was a little boy I read about a fairy princess, and there she is,” wrote American President Harry Truman, but there is so much more to Elizabeth Windsor’s story. The Queen Elizabeth seen during the Trooping of the Colour, royal weddings, celebrations, and memorial ceremonies is also the woman who battled insecurity and loved fiercely. She was once a young girl, a young wife, a young mother. The beautiful grounds of Buckingham Palace and Balmoral Castle were once torn apart by Luftwaffe airstrikes, their lights dimmed and dining tables bare as the royal family stayed true to the austerity measures they asked of their people. When we go looking for fairy stories, we will find them. The truth is harder to locate and often harder to take. Dinsmoore’s Princess Elizabeth is a girl hoping to meet the expectations of her family and nation while also wanting to make her own mark on it all. Perhaps she was not that different from any young woman on the cusp of taking the world by storm.

KMS

Book Review: A World on Edge by Daniel Schönpflug

Schönpflug, Daniel. A World on Edge: The End of the Great War and the Dawn of a New Age. New York: Henry Holt and Co. Metropolitan Books, 2018.

Daniel Schönpflug’s book, A World on Edge: The End of the Great War and the Dawn of a New Age (English translation of Comets years. 1918: the world on the rise) begins with an ominous image: an effigy of Kaiser Wilhelm strung up between two New York City streets. With the Great War at an end, the survivors had to learn how to navigate the world it created. Some, like the man represented in effigy, faded into the background, while others used the lessons of protracted war and fractured peace to claim the spotlight.

Abandoning the traditional focus on disarmament, redeployment, and reparations, Schönpflug constructs his history of the post-WWI period using the stories and experiences of people who lived it. He tells the stories of former political figures (Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, Matthias Erzberger) alongside those of rising political stars (Harry S. Truman, Nguyen Tat Thanh), and trades stories of fading revolutionary movements (T.E. Lawrence and the Middle East) with those just beginning to catch flame (Nguyen Tat Thanh in Vietmam, Terence MacSwiney in Ireland). Each point has a counterpoint, but there is also commonality in the lives lived after Armistice. Russian White Army soldier Marina Yurlowa speaks of the same type of battle fatigue expressed by U.S. doughboy Alvin York. Artists Walter Gropius and George Grosz hoped their art would help them make sense of the new world; Gropius found purpose in construction, while Grosz saw only nothingness. The men would become leaders of the Bauhaus and Dadaist artistic movements, respectively.

Schönpflug’s inclusion of women (Virginia Woolf, journalist Louise Weiss, Moina Michael, the aforementioned Marina Yurlowa) was a welcome surprise. He gives their stories share equal space with those of the men, a huge departure from many historical treatments that relegate women’s wartime and post-war experiences to a separate “women’s” chapter. The inclusion of a female soldier is especially heartening as Russian historiography has only recently restored a place for armed women in its history.

The author’s new approaches towards the post-war period does not preclude him from exploring the ways the Treaty of Versailles laid the groundwork for the rise of National Socialism. Schönpflug prefers to stoke a slow burn, showing the reader how individuals can go from elation over the end of armed hostilities to disillusionment over the world the war made. Nations and individuals alike placed their hopes in salvation through Wilsonian diplomacy and the League of Nations. Wilson’s rejection of the League and its resulting failure would lead them to different ideas and different saviors.

Kierkegaard wrote “life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Schönpflug’s history reminds us that “forwards” contains multiple directions, and people understand their present in multiple ways. For some, the swinging Kaiser represented the freedom to break free from old traditions, ideas, and constraints. Others found the peace did not live up to its promise and inclined towards despair. All agreed a world begot by violence would not easily shake the lessons of its cradle. Post-war Europe was on the edge of a new world; the next few years would determine whether it remained mired in the ashes or rose like a phoenix.

kms 2018

Taking it to the Streets: International Women’s Day, March 8, 1917

One hundred one years ago today, thousands of Russian women took to the streets to protest high prices and food scarcity. “Down with high prices” and “down with hunger,” they shouted. Their voices did not go unheard. Thousands joined them the next day as a labor strike broke out. On March 9 (February 25 according to the Russian calendar), approximately 200,000 workers filled Petrograd. Their new battle cry? Down with the tsar.

In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, one character describes how he went bankrupt as happening “gradually and suddenly.”[1] “Gradually and suddenly” is also an extremely apt way to characterize the 1917 February Revolution in Russia. The revolutionary spark kindled by the massacre of Father Gapon and his followers in 1905 was temporarily dimmed by Nicholas II’s creation of the Duma and other assorted attempts at reforms. The next twelve years saw steady economic decline, rampant inflation, military setbacks and defeats in World War I, and a continued increase in the people’s distrust and disfavor with their autocratic government. All of these factors contributed to the February Revolution, but what caused it to occur at that specific time? Why not in January, or the previous December? The revolution needed a flashpoint, and that came in the form of a loaf of bread. The person who wants to identify the roots of the February 1917 Revolution need look no farther than what was on (and more importantly, what was not on) Russian dinner tables. More than allegiance to any revolutionary dogma or nationalist feeling, Russians of every class and creed shared the experience of persistent food insecurity. Food scarcity does not link to the entire revolutionary movement in a straight line, but it is both a common theme and symbol of the problems within the Russian government, military, and people themselves.

“It all began with bread,” wrote historian Orlando Figes in his social history of the Revolution.[2] As the country mobilized for war, the majority of the nation’s food production was earmarked for sustaining the millions of men (and women) serving at the front (and rear).[3] Even this was not enough, as soldiers complained of the lack of provisions, arms, and other necessities. “In Ivov, before the eyes of 28 thousand soldiers, five people were flogged for leaving their courtyard without permission to buy white bread,” wrote soldier A. Novokov.[4]

Food insecurity was even worse on the home front. As peasant farmers realized they could not buy enough food to support their families, they turned to farming subsistence crops like potatoes and oats instead of traditional grains. In the cities, workers had money to buy food, but near constant food shortages meant there was no food to buy. “We will soon have a famine,” wrote Maxim Gorky to his wife, Ekaterina. “I advise you to buy ten pounds of food and hide it.”[5] Most would not be able to make such preparations. “They say: work calmly, but we are hungry and we cannot work,” wrote a group of female workers in June 1915. “They say there is no bread. Where is it then? Or is it only for the Germans that the Russian land produces?”[6]

Everyone seemed to recognize Russia’s situation was dire except the tsar. While his country starved, the “little father” of Russia dined in style. Describing a typical meal at Tsar Nicholas II’s table, Alexander Mosolov writes of “soup…followed by fish, a (game or chicken) casserole, vegetables, sweets, (and) fruit.”[7] The ruling family washed down this abundance of food with “madeira, white and red wines for breakfast… and different wines served at lunch, as is the custom everywhere else in the civilised (sic) world.”[8] There is no more powerful demonstration of the tsar’s disengagement from the people he ruled than the royal family enjoying the finest Bordeaux while his people could barely scrape enough food together to keep themselves alive. Nero is said to have fiddled while Rome burned, but the Romanovs did feast while the Russian people starved.

The people were hungry, the army was in disarray, and the government seemed out-of-touch at best, but the situation was still not quite ripe for revolution. The people needed a common cause they could rally behind. This cause crystallized in the bread lines of Petrograd. Figes described the Petrograd bread lines as almost “a sort of political forum or club, where rumours, information, and views were exchanged.”[9] As they realized common experiences and concerns, the people began to organize. Put quite simply by Figes, “(t)he February Revolution was born in the bread queue.”[10] Organized civil disobedience took a more violent turn as bread shortages led to bread riots. Strikes and walkouts in factories increased the number of people demonstrating in the streets, making it ever more difficult for the police to regain control. The tsarist government fell, the Romanov Dynasty ended, and a Provisional Government made up of leaders of the Duma was left to pick up the pieces. It should be no mystery why the Bolsheviks captured the imagination of the people. Their promises of peace, land, and bread neatly summed up the needs of every Russian soldier, farmer, and worker, man or woman, child or adult.

When compared to other causes of the Revolution—World War I, failed reforms, tsarist incompetence—bread seems insignificant. Lack of bread, however, is extremely significant. The Russian government could not meet the needs of its people. Hundreds of thousands died at the front lines and at home while the Duma struggled against a tsar who had no understanding of his country’s issues or impending demise. The 1917 February Revolution in Russia continued a legacy of protest that included the 1789 women’s bread riots in revolutionary France and the bread riots in Richmond, Virginia (then capital of the Confederacy) in 1863. Food insecurity inspired women to speak, and gave them a message to which their societies listened.

One hundred one years later, women still wait in bread lines, walk miles for clean water for their families, and struggle to care for their families. Equal pay and equal rights continue to escape even the most modern, “civilized” nations. It is easier to create hashtags and slogans than real change. On this International Women’s Day, we recognize the women who spoke up and walked out. We salute the women who continue to refuse to let the status quo determine their present and stifle their future.

 

[1] Ernest Hemingway (1926) The Sun Also Rises (New York: Scribner, 2006 ed.), Book 2, chapt. 13.

[2] Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 298.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “A. Novikov to A. I. Ivanova, Moscow, “Excerpts from Soldiers’ Letters, Intercepted by Censors, 1915-1917,” in Russia in War and Revolution, 1914:1922: A Documentary History, ed. Jonathan Daly, Leonid Trofinov, accessed June 6, 2016, http://www.snhu-media.snhu.edu/files/course-repository/graduate/his/his630, 12.

[5] Maxim Gorky quoted in Figes, 300.

[6] “Proclamation of Kostroma women workers to soldiers, June 1915,” in Russia in War and Revolution, 1914-1922: A Documentary History, 11.

[7] Alexander Mosolov, “At the Emperor’s Court, Book IV” in At the Court of the Last Tsar, accessed June 14, 2016, http://www.alexanderpalace.org/mossolov.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Figes, 300.

[10] Ibid.