Before the start of the First World War, Britain relied heavily on imported grain from America for the production of bread. With the availability of grain limited by unrestricted German submarine warfare from January 1917, combined with a poorer than expected harvest in 1916 and the continued depletion of man power following conscription, resources were rallied to the important cause of providing the populous with bread.
As a nation, white bread was preferred over brown, but as this used more flour than wholemeal bread, economies had to be made. Advertisements in the press promoted the making of homemade and wholemeal bread, rather than white, in an attempt to redress the problem of shortages. Whether for homemade bread or that of the commercial bakery, bread flour could be bulked out using alternative non-wheat ingredients, such as cooked rice, potato and rye. To maximise production from the limited wheat resources available, ‘standard flour’ was introduced by the Wheat Commission in Britain, which included more of the coarser husk that was extracted from the grain. Germany instigated similar changes in January 1915, with a law passed stipulating that wheaten bread must contain at least 10% rye, and rye bread must contain at least 12% potato flour. Known as war bread, this was darker and had a different texture than the usual fare due to the change in ingredients.
On the front lines as well as back in Blighty, bread represented an important part of the diet of soldiers of all nationalities. Field bakeries were constructed to provide vast quantities of fresh bread for the troops, with the illustrated periodicals in the archive here at Mary Evans testifying to the impressive logistical feat alone that was the production and delivery of so many loaves. In November 1915, The Graphic described the production of the Russian army’s staple, black bread, in an illustrated piece: “Huge stores of rye flour are accumulated for the Army. At the rear field-bakeries are established, the ground being excavated for the purpose. Ditches are lined with brick or stone, and a little sheet iron chimney is provided. When the bricks are sufficiently heated and the ashes removed, a military baker puts the dough on a long-handled wooden shovel and thrusts it into the hot oven.”
Efforts were made to reduce bread consumption through government campaigns promoting voluntary rationing, with images used on posters to discourage wastage for the sake of the war.
The Bread Order of May 1917 prohibited the sale of bread that was less than 12 hours old, in an attempt by the Ministry of Food to reduce consumption. Less appetizing and easier to slice thinly when stale, the Bread Order enabled limited resources to be stretched further. Another benefit of the Bread Order meant that rather than baking bread overnight so it could be sold fresh in the morning(as men had traditionally done before the war), women performing this role whilst the men were away at the front would not have to make their way home in the dark in the early hours. Cooking in the daytime also saved fuel, as lighting was not required, providing further economies welcome to the government in wartime.
In the same month as the Bread Order was introduced, National Kitchens (also known as National Restaurants) were established to sell nutritious food at cost to the public; the building that today houses Mary Evans Picture Library served as a National Kitchen during the Second World War. Though I stopped short of recreating our own field kitchen out on the heath, in keeping with our building’s role in wartime food economy, and in honour of the ninth annual Real Bread Week a fortnight ago (6th-14th May), I recreated a bread recipe that appeared in The Bystander very shortly after the outbreak of war in their issue dated 19th August 1914. Under the title ‘Economical Cookery for the War Time’, the recipe for homemade bread was followed by a less enticing one for sheep hearts, but didn’t yet feature the non-wheat additives seen later as the war progressed. Though compulsory food rationing wasn’t introduced until January 1918, with bread never officially being rationed as it was considered an essential, this recipe reflected an expectation even at the very start of the war that food economies would have to be made.
Whether through reducing bread consumption, altering flour composition or making your own bread at home using flour substitutes, many tactics were employed during the First World War on both sides to stretch wheat supplies to feed the people and the troops. One hundred years on, national wheat shortages in Britain are thankfully a thing of the past, but even today the effects of war and climate still can leave a country’s wheat and other food resources dangerously depleted, such as in South Sudan which today faces famine. Here in Britain, wheat-free alternatives are still in the public mind, though this time inspired by the advent of gluten-free eating for its perceived health benefits, rather than due to the economies of wartime. As they were in wartime, ingredients such as rice flour and potato starch are still used today as substitutes for wheat in commercially produced gluten-free bread. Some things don’t change…
To see a wider selection of Great War bread pictures, follow the link https://www.maryevans.com/lb.php?ref=39438
© Lucinda Moore/Mary Evans Picture Library