Contributed by Rachel Duffett
As the war ground on, food supplies became increasingly restricted and concerns regarding their management and distribution more pressing. The government hoped to control the food situation through voluntary action and in February 1917 it appealed to citizens to restrict themselves to four pounds of bread a week. The King himself exhorted the population to eat less bread in a royal proclamation of May 1917, a document read from the pulpit in every parish. A propaganda poster from that year illustrates the problems the nation faced in trying to import sufficient grain to meet the demands of the bread-based diet of the majority of the country, by 1917 400 Allied ships a month were being sunk by German U-boats.
Traditionally, British workers relied on the ‘staff of life’ to provide the necessary calories and alternatives to the preferred white bread were not welcomed.
In order to maximise grain usage, the consumption of wholemeal bread had been encouraged, but if the responses of the villagers of Great Leighs in Essex can be regarded as representative, it wasn’t popular. The local vicar, Andrew Clark, kept a fascinating diary for the duration of the conflict and refers to the food difficulties experienced in his community, many of which are related to bread. On 2 December 1916, he wrote that one elderly woman had complained to him about the new, brown bread comparing it to ‘the black stuff the Germans eat. Fancy bringing English people to eat that stuff. It ain’t fit for pigs.’ In the April of the following year, Reverend Clark noted that many of his parishioners were suffering from ‘severe pains in the front of the body in the region of the midriff’ and that a Braintree doctor had diagnosed the complaint as being caused by the latest form of war bread.
The biggest concern, however, was the price which by the spring of 1917 had risen to a shilling for a four-pound loaf, more than double its pre-war cost. Aware of rising discontent, the government stepped in with a subsidy in September of that year which fixed the price at ninepence – an indication that their belief in voluntary restraint amongst producers and consumers was about to give way to a national rationing system.
James Munson (ed.) Echoes of the Great War. The Diary of Reverend Andrew Clark, 1914-1919 (Oxford, 1985)
National Farmers’ Union and WW1:
Originally posted on 18th July, 2016