Kvill on Blom, 'Hunger: How Food Shaped the Course of the First World War'

Author: 
Rick Blom
Reviewer: 
Kesia Kvill

Rick Blom. Hunger: How Food Shaped the Course of the First World War. Trans. Suzanne Jansen. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2019. xi + 236 pp. $29.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-77112-417-1

Reviewed by Kesia Kvill (University of Guelph) Published on H-Environment (January, 2021) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55559

Rick Blom’s Hunger: How Food Shaped the Course of the First World War is a popular history that retells the events of the First World War through the lens of food. Blom masterfully weaves together an engaging story of food in Germany, England, and France and on the Western Front, combining primary source analysis with discussions of his experiences of archival research, reenactment, and oral history interviews. This book shows the major challenges faced by the three warring nations in supplying their citizens and soldiers with enough food and demonstrates how the fight was won by the powers best able to stave off starvation.

One of this book’s biggest strengths is its use of primary sources. Hunger begins with the menu for the last dinner of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie. This sets up the contrast of the relative bounty of the prewar years and the class structure that would continue to affect access to food throughout the war. The story continues by demonstrating how all nations had been ill-prepared to supply their armies due to their beliefs that the conflict would be short-lived. Blom draws heavily on letters and diaries to reconstruct experiences of food during the war. The logistics of supplying the Allied army is explored through connecting a 1915 newspaper article on a supply line to the letters of the captain in charge of it. Challenges of cooking on the front are shown through contemporary descriptions of cooking equipment. Soldiers’ descriptions of terrain marked by combat showed the difficulty of getting food to the front from the supply line. Lists of rations for each army showed that troops were constantly undernourished. Common attitudes toward army food were garnered through the use of songs and poems. Home front food was similarly explored using written sources. Diaries of rural teachers in France showed the challenges of feeding a nation with fewer experienced farm hands. In Britain, he traces the impact of submarine warfare on the island nation’s food supply through women’s diaries. Letters of foreigners in Germany to their families tell of the rapid decline in access to good food and growing unrest among hungry German workers.

The other major strength of this book is how Blom brings the researcher into the story by including his own attempts to connect with the past. As an experienced journalist, Blom is essentially sharing his process of investigation with his reader. Most chapters begin in the present, with Blom building a bridge to the past through his personal experiences. Besides describing visits to museums and archival research, he sets out to connect with his subjects by reenacting elements of their lives. Blom begins by visiting a Belgian café to try their new “Tommy Tucker” menu with Bully Beef Pie. His reenactments intensify as he joins a member of a field kitchen crew, stays the night at Talbot House (a former soldiers’ club), and culminates with his three-night stay in a reconstructed trench. Attention is paid to where Blom’s experiences do and do not align with the reality of the past, but in connecting these with primary sources, he conveys a more human connection to wartime struggles. Blom also bridges the present and the past through the use of interviews but also through descriptions of his meetings with First World War veterans and former factory workers. In relaying the emotions and settings of his interviews, he questions the ethics of asking someone to share their traumatic experiences.

There are a few things missing in this book. First, there is no discussion of the efforts taken by overseas colonial Allies to increase food production to provide European Allies with more food and the impact this had on the war overall. Second, the recipes included at the end of each chapter are not contextualized; there is no explanation regarding why specific recipes from field and home front cookbooks were chosen and how they related to the contents of the chapter they were following. Additionally, the popular nature of this book means that footnotes have not been included and secondary sources are not directly engaged with. Finally, there are a few issues with translation and editing, including a few odd phrases, a misprinted chapter subtitle, and one particularly jarring transition between the present and past that suggests at least one page was missed in printing.

Hunger uses Blom’s quest to connect with the past through experience and a plethora of primary sources to create a compelling narrative of the importance of food to the outcome of the First World War. Blom demonstrates that the logistics of organizing a food supply was one of the greatest challenges to a war that lasted longer than any party believed it would. This book is a wonderfully engaging narrative but leaves the reader to tease out their own analysis and relate it to the broader literature of the First World War. Themes of class permeate this book as Blom draws on a number of primary sources that show how rank affected food access. Blom also discusses how the war’s environmental devastation affected crop lands and supply lines and demonstrates the importance of home front labor organization in advocating for the end of the war. What is revealed is the ill-preparedness of each nation to supply their forces and citizens with the needed calories to continue a drawn-out war of attrition. Overall, Hunger is an enjoyable and engaging read that serves as a great example of incorporating nontraditional historical research and the researcher into a historical narrative.

Citation: Kesia Kvill. Review of Blom, Rick, Hunger: How Food Shaped the Course of the First World War. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. January, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55559

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.