How Coca Cola won WW2 while the world starved: The Taste of War by Lizzie Collingham

Lizzie Collingham has written the first comprehensive survey of the role of food in WW2.  While 19.5 million died military deaths, 20 million died of starvation or hunger-related diseases.

Collingham makes it clear that food was a decisive factor in the motives for, and outcomes of, WW2.  Germany had faced starvation in WW1.  Hitler eyed the British Empire and the fertile land to his east with envy.  Jews and East Europeans were condemned as ‘useless eaters’ under agronomist Herbert Backe’s cold-blooded plans to occupy Eastern Europe in order to feed first, the Wehrmacht and second, the German homeland.  Thus it was that Germany exported its hunger to Russia and Eastern Europe.

Great Britain also faced the prospect of severe food shortages, but Collingham makes the case that the full extent of these has been overstated in comparison with the shortages elsewhere in the world.  Nevertheless, Britain also managed to export its own hunger, in particular to India and parts of Africa.

Japan did little if anything to provide nutrition for its Army, and expected soldiers to forage for themselves once they were on active service, by taking over enemy supply dumps or using local supplies.  At first they were successful, christening the supplies they captured ‘Churchill’s rations’.  But in the longer run the Japanese soldiers and civilians suffered severe privations as supplies failed; one example has a soldier ravening cannibalistically over the sight of his colleague’s rump.

Stalin’s Russia made the feeding of the towns and Red Army a priority, even when this meant that the peasants on the collective farms had to go without.  In a fascinatingly different perspective on the success of the Russian collectives however, Collingham makes the point that they were at least able to provide food for the towns.  This was in contract with the small scale farms of Germany, which reverted to self-sufficiency.  Very little surplus was offered up for the wider population, in contrast with the more developed, mechanised, larger scale farms of other countries.

The USA was by far and away the best-fed combatant nation in WW2, but even in America there were problems.  Food was held back from the needier UK to ensure that Americans did not go short; wage and food price inflation tended to exclude groups like black people from the largesse of the booming US wartime economy and Food Aid programmes which had started to tackle disadvantage in the late 1930’s were dropped in the most disadvantaged states as the cost of administration was transferred from federal to state governments.  This underlined the fact that they had in reality been farm support programmes all along.  US troops based in Australia literally sucked the life out of their Australian neighbours in some towns, using up local water and fresh food supplies at the expense of the local population.

Collingham paints a terrifying, but clearly well-researched, picture of the role that food shortages can play in driving a nation to War.

The technical advances must however also be recognised.  The acceptance of nutrition science, the general improvement in nutritional standards in Britain, the acceptance of free school milk schemes by 1941 in Britain until their abolition by Margaret Thatcher in 1971 (pp396-7), recognition of food as a morale-booster, developments in food preservation and logistics and the creation of Army Catering Corps in Britain and Australia, can all be credited to this period.

Rationing also showed interesting variations from country to country.  Americans had the biggest most varied rations, and their Army quickly realised the importance of fresh food in maintaining the health and morale of soldiers.  Germany prioritised soldiers, industrial workers, civilians and useless eaters, differentiating for each group.  Britain originally made no distinction between different groups, other than in favour of servicemen on active service.  However the realisation that industrial workers were being left too short of vital nutrition led to the introductory of compulsory works canteens wherever more than 250 staff were employed in 1943.  This was paralleled by the Rural Pie Scheme for farmworkers.  Lyons Corner Houses opened more bakeries to prepare the pies for distribution by the Womens Voluntary Service to farmworkers (P364).

The first traces of two other developments can also be found.  The tension between human grain and meat consumption can be seen in attitudes towards the American diet, where a great emphasis was placed on ensuring a plentiful grain-fed meat supply.  The mobilisation of vast armies in America and India also faced army caterers with considerable challenges in catering for a variety of different tastes, leading to the popularity of bland recipes which would appeal to the greatest majority without causing offence to minority interests.

This book is a timely reminder of the importance, not only of the resources to provide a plentiful and reliable food supply, but of the  consequences of excessive competition for other basic resources of energy and water, and of the utter horror of living in a world reduced to total war over these supplies.

And Coca Cola?  Wherever the American Army went, so did Coca Cola.  Experts from the company were attached to the Army as Technical Observers with the task of establishing new bottling plants to serve the US Army wherever it served.  The company was exempt from sugar rationing in order to ensure supplies to the forces.  So Coca Cola established a worldwide network while securing its association with the land of prosperity and plenty of the American liberators.

Collingham, Lizzie (2011) The Taste of War, World War Two and the Battle for Food,  London: Allen Lane/Penguin

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