Days of hunger: Flanders and wartime food shortages


An exhibition in Brussels looks at one of the everyday hardships faced by soldiers and civilians in Belgium while the First World War raged on

When the cupboard was bare

A blurred black-and-white photo shows five smiling faces. A group of German soldiers, recognisable by their helmets, have laid their hands on a pig somewhere in occupied Belgium. One plays a tune on the accordion, in celebration of the feast they’re about to enjoy. Presumably, the local farmer who owned the pig didn’t find it quite so funny.

This theft of livestock was a common reality for farmers during the First World War. It was one of many hardships for the people of Belgium, both at the front and in the occupied territories. As well as the direct impact of the war, the country was plagued by food shortages. Imports were stalled, many farms were destroyed, and the Germans confiscated much of what was produced.

An exhibition at Brussels’ Mill Museum focuses on the story of food during the Great War. “The choice of this subject was obvious for us,” says museum spokesperson Frederic Nain. “It’s an important issue, and a lot of research has been carried out on it. But the general public doesn’t know much about it.”

Food and War looks first at the situation on the frontline. The supply to the soldiers, life behind the frontlines, and the material used to cook and transport food are all on display. There is also interesting information on how culinary terms were used as names for weapons: lemon grenades, for example, which do actually look like lemons.

It also shows how people dealt with the scarcity of food. The way the war dramatically changed daily life in Flanders is sometimes lost among all the military history and tales of the horrors of the trenches. But just a few days after the outbreak of war, Belgium was on the brink of a major food shortage. 

Famine looming

Strangely, the fact that Flanders had a well-developed livestock industry was one of the reasons the situation was so bad, according to Brecht Demasure, historian and researcher at the Centre for Agrarian History in Leuven. His book, Boter bij de vis, features the photo described above on its cover.

“Flanders was dependent on foreign imports, particularly for grain, which was an important daily commodity,” he says. “Around 75% of all grain was imported from the US and Russia, and these imports stopped from one day to the next. The Flemish farmers had already switched to horticulture and livestock decades before and couldn’t compensate for the lack of imported grain.”

The NHVC was tolerated by the occupiers, though there were tensions. Without it, the situation would have been much more dire

- Historian Brecht Demasure

The part of Flanders known as the Ettappengebied, spanning the frontline and neighbouring areas, was hit the worst. Other regions were less affected, but there, too, famine loomed. Food shortages in the cities were much worse than in the countryside because there were few options for people to grow something for themselves. As a result, all Flanders’ biggest cities saw hunger riots during the four years of occupation.

Various organisations tried to alleviate the situation. In Brussels, the industrialist Ernest Solvay set up a committee to distribute food. Other organisations joined in, and, within a month, the National Aid and Food Committee (NHVC) was born. Throughout the war, it provided food to those in need. Goods were shipped in via the Netherlands by the American Commission for Relief in Belgium.

“The Germans were quite happy with this situation because it meant one less thing for them to worry about,” says Demasure. “The NHVC was tolerated by the occupiers, though there were often tensions. Without the NHVC the situation would have been much more dire.”

It wasn’t just civilians, of course: Soldiers also had to eat. But this simple fact was overlooked in the first year of the war, says Demasure. “Supplies for Belgian troops in Flanders only started in the summer of 1915. Until then, soldiers had to rely on themselves: They brought their own food to the front or depended on poaching or fishing. Only later did the army leadership set up a supply chain using their own farms and even a brewery.”

Foreign food aid

However, the largest number of soldiers in the county were German. Food was brought in for them from Germany, but they also depended on confiscated resources. These confiscations put a strain on food security and agriculture, says Demasure.

“We don’t have the exact figures, but it’s estimated that more than half of the livestock in Flanders was stolen from farmers,” he says. “This had a severe impact. Without horses, for example, the fields couldn’t be ploughed. Agricultural products were also confiscated by the Germans, with heavy penalties for those who withheld food. So people became very inventive at hiding food from the occupiers.”

The exhibition includes a selection of wartime cookbooks. These appeared during and after the war with the aim of providing people with guidelines on how to deal with shortages and the lack of common products. Some simply provide tips, while others are proper cookbooks with recipes making use of whatever was available.

A number of these recipes were republished recently. Comeet, the culture department of the Meetjesland area of East Flanders, issued a publication called Cooking in Occupied Territory. It brings together some typical recipes that were used locally during the war.

“Not all recipes will appeal to today’s tastes,” says Comeet co-ordinator Sebastiaan De Coninck. “But other things were surprisingly tasty. The war cookbooks we found these recipes in were issued both by the government and by organisations such as the Farmers’ Union to help people cope with the scarcity and to introduce them to a number of new products that came to our tables through foreign – mainly American – food aid.”

Rice, for example, had only been used in desserts before the war, but during the war it replaced potatoes to some extent. Some of these recipes are still made in Meetjesland, like Jan-in-the-bag, a sweet dumpling-style dessert with raisins, milk, flour and yeast.

Asked about his own favourite war dish, De Conink doesn’t have to think too long. “Sorrel potatoes,” he says. “My grandmother used to make them, and they were so good!”

War soup

Soup is a flexible dish – an ideal way to handle surpluses or substandard products, or to make in large quantities in soup kitchens for the hungry masses. So it became the main dish during the First World War. For those who want a taste, here are two recipes from the time.

Turnip soup: Take eight turnips, 500g potatoes, two litres of water, an onion, some butter, bay leaf and thyme. Wash the turnips, cut them into chunks and saute them lightly for about five minutes in the butter with the onion. Add water, salt and the potatoes and let cook until done. Season with thyme and bay leaf.

Sorrel soup: Sorrel (veldzuring in Dutch) was picked in the wild during the war. Use as much as you want for the soup. You also need an onion, 40g butter, two litres of water and 500g potatoes. First, saute the onion, then add the water and the potatoes. When the potatoes are cooked, add the sorrel and strain everything through a sieve. 

Hungry for more?

The exhibition Food and War at the Mill Museum in Brussels runs until the end of August. Guided tours are available.

’T Grom, a museum of horticulture in Sint-Katelijne-Waver, Antwerp province, has a programme dedicated to the First World War. It has created a war garden that shows how people at the time tried to grow food themselves to overcome the shortages.

The Centre for Agrarian History has prepared a travelling exhibition about food during the First World War that can be seen at various places in Flanders.

Photo: The crew of a Belgian field artillery unit eat before the German advance on Diksmuide during the Battle of the Yser
© WATFORD/Mirrorpix/Corbis


First World War

Claiming the lives of more than nine million people and destroying entire cities and villages in Europe, the Great War was one of the most dramatic armed conflicts in human history. It lasted from 1914 to 1918.
Flanders Field - For four years, a tiny corner of Flanders known as the Westhoek became one of the war’s major battlefields.
Untouched - Poperinge, near Ypres, was one of the few towns in Flanders that remained unoccupied for most of the war.
Cemetery - The Tyne Cot graveyard in Passchendaele is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world.
550 000

lives lost in West Flanders

368 000

annual visitors to the Westhoek

1 914

First Battle of Ypres