Bread and the Battle
By Thomas H. Dickinson
[The Atlantic Monthly, July 1918]
Germany has been fighting this war for half a century. The Allies have been fighting it for less than four years. Nowhere is the disparity in preparation more manifest than in the matter of food.
Now, I am not a fanatic about food in war. I look upon it as one factor of the great game of munitions: an important factor, no doubt, but not the only one; a factor to take its place with the other munitions—men, and money, and steel, and chemicals, in their hundreds of death-dealing forms.
But while I am not a fanatic about food, the Germans are, if not fanatics, at least experts in food. I think a good case could be made for the argument that the present war is a food war. And when I find our good American citizens anxiously asking whether perhaps Germany is not going to collapse through hunger, I feel like commending to their consideration the attention that our Teutonic cousins and present enemies have been giving to food for a matter of forty years, and their evident ability to take care of the problem now.
I need not say that a good deal of this matter is 'verboten.'" Some of it I do not know. Some that I do know I cannot talk about. But what I do know and can talk about, when pieced together, makes out a case that leads one to suspect that Cousin Wilhelm has not been so negligent of the need of feeding his people as our hopes had led us to believe.
There is a difference between being a sailor and going to sea and being a landsman and going to sea. If you are a sailor, you may venture on a boat only once a year and still you go like a sailor. But if you are a landsman, you may ride from Cape Cod to Singapore and back twice a year, for the course of your natural life, and still you are a landsman.
That is the way with a war power and a peace power. Germany is a war power, and though she fought only once in forty years, she went to war like a war power. I mean that she did in war just what she had been preparing to do in peace; that she did not change either her strategy or her tactics; that, if she went to war for food, she fought her battles for food; that her tactics were true to her strategy, and that her strategy was true to her imperial plan of campaign.
Germany never forgets that food and war are coordinate. In 1916 there was printed in the Berliner Tageblatt an article by Dr. Lujo Brentano, who had been an official adviser of the German government as to the areas needed to maintain her population independently. After reviewing the two schools of German thought in the matter of subsistence—the high-tax school, which had sought to encourage home-cultivation, and the greater-navy school, which had sought to insure importation by force on the high seas—Dr. Brentano comes to the conclusion that Germany must expand her agricultural lands.
This once decided, the question is, in what direction the expansion shall take place. Dr. Brentano surveys, in order, Belgium, North France, Hungary, Poland, the Baltic provinces, and Russian Lithuania. The first three he dismisses because all are grain-importing countries. Even Poland he finds not entirely self-supporting. But the sparsely settled Baltic provinces, which have populations of from 23 to 44 people per square kilometre, as compared with Germany's 123 per square kilometre, offer a tempting outlet. To these Germany must look, he concludes, for subsistence in the present war and for continued support after the war.
Here we have both the end and the strategy of the German campaign. Bread and the Battle are joined. The German people are asked to go to war now, in order that lands may be provided for the support of their children in time to come. But if the German empire-builder looks to the future, the German general looks to the present strategy. Germany must not starve while she is carrying on her campaigns. Every campaign must as nearly as possible support itself. The power which dictates the expansion in the east; which fights on three fronts to win here a battle and there a campaign; which uses bullets and billets; which directs drives of gas, of heavy guns, of sympathy, and of ideas, does not content itself with a distant goal. The German army is not a caravan pushing through a desert. It is a foraging host, traveling through a fertile country where the bins are full and the fields are ready for the harvest. It has been part of the strategy of Germany to fight always on the enemy's land. By so doing, she secures food for her own army, and to just this extent weakens the force of his opposition. Germany's progress has always been into the harvest-fields of the foe.
Stories of wars are told in terms of diplomatic engagements made and broken, of military victories and defeats. Stories of battles are told in terms of military activities to gain a certain objective, to defeat a certain army, to reach and hold a certain terrain. But behind these formal statements there are often concealed other unavowed purposes. While not the immediate major objective in any one of Germany's campaigns, food has always been a factor in the mapping of the campaign. And in every case Germany has won such subsistence prizes as the campaign offered. The great drives may be looked upon as so many bread forays. Belgium, North Prance, Serbia, Roumania, Bulgaria, Venetia, Poland, and Russia have all made their forced contributions to the larders of German armies.
Nothing in the unwritten history of the war is more dramatic than the struggle between the two great groups of powers for the grain-supplies of Eastern and Central Europe. England has been accused of never playing the romantic role. Those who make this complaint forget the Dardanelles expedition. Looking back from our present experience, it is hard to see how she could have been expected to succeed. But the stake was a great one. The granaries of Russia were bursting with wheat. Bulgaria was wavering between Germany and the Allied powers. Roumania and Serbia were openly friendly with the Allies. The economic interests of all these countries lay in agriculture. By one stroke England might open up the food-sources of a continent; she might close with a blow the ambitions of her rival; and she might secure the friendship of the Balkans. But Germany suborned the beggar who sat by the gateway, and the Turk stabbed the Allies in the back.
The Allies' failure to run the Dardanelles gave the food advantage to Germany. Russia was eliminated as a source of supplies, and was soon to disappear as a military factor.
Even while she was at war with Germany, part of Russia's surplus stocks of wheat were finding their way to the Central powers through Sweden, Roumania, and Finland. Germany had to her credit her position as a compact unit, her system of intensive farming, her highly developed transportation systems, her machinery of distribution. She occupied a position of greater and greater control over Bulgaria, Roumania, Poland, and Serbia and was soon able to subjugate them completely.
At the beginning of the year 1917, Germany claimed to occupy 215,221 square miles of enemy territory. When Germany spread over Belgium in the late summer of 1914, she surprised in Antwerp large stores of grain which she commandeered. It appeared in a debate in the French Chamber of Deputies that through invasion France had lost 800,000 acres of grain-land out of a total of 16,250,000 acres. In these items we have the German system of cashing in on the food-increment of captured lands.
But Germany has not secured much help from the captured territory in the West. This region includes the industrial arrondisements of Lille, Valenciennes, and Douai, and the Longwy-Briey coal and iron region. Even the arable lands have been denuded by battle. You cannot raise bumper crops under fire. Both Belgium and North France are under the influence of the Commission for Relief of Belgium, with which carefully wrought out agreements were made for the protection of civilian populations. But we find Deputy Minister of War General von Wandel commending the services of the economic committees in Belgium and elsewhere in these words: 'We owe it in great part to the skillful and untiring activity of the economic committees that our soldiers in the field are fed as well as they are, and that large stocks, which have made it easier for us to feed our people, have been brought from the occupied territories into Germany.'
At the same time we find an official statement to the press assuring the people that 'no food of any kind has ever been exported from Germany to Belgium for the civil population. The same thing applies to Northern France and to that part of Belgium which is not under the Governor General, but belongs to the lines of communication.'
But it was from the east that Germany secured her real contributions of food-stuffs. When you pity Belgium, you should also pity Poland, whose sorrows stand further from the sympathetic eye of the western world. Belgium lay in the path of Germany's immediate tactics. Poland lay in her path of empire. Poland supplied the first installment of that agrarian outlet to which Germany had been looking since the days of Bismarck. And the rape of Poland was a blow at the heart of Russia. There is no need to tell over the story of Poland's crucifixion. In the second year of the war Warsaw was occupied and the Polish people were driven from their homes. Travelers tell us that the path of evacuation was marked with human skulls, as the American Great West was marked with the bones of the buffalo after the advance of the hunter and the pioneer. On top of their other burdens, the Allies and America would have undertaken to feed the starving Polish people had they been able to secure engagements on the part of Germany to respect the imported food-supplies. President Wilson wrote requesting respect for the imported supplies of the Polish people, and in the request he was joined by Premier Asquith. Germany refused the concession, with the plea that she could not contract obligations on behalf of Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria. The systematic exploitations continued. Crops were commandeered, and on the captured fields cavalry horses from Hindenburg's army were used in raising new harvests. According to an admission of Von Batocki, several million acres were planted to grain in 1916, on fields from which the last native inhabitant had been driven.
Some time some one will write the story of the intrigues by which Bulgaria and Roumania were ravished for breadstuffs. For the present we must piece out the story from the scanty records that come to us between the lines of censored reports. But we have enough to build a structure clearly indicative of the purposes of the Central powers. Brothers in blood, Bulgaria and Roumania have been arrayed against each other like cocks in a pit. Both were agrarian nations depending upon their exports of food-stuffs for their economic prosperity. The closing of the Dardanelles had destroyed the free exchanges of their markets. In the manifesto by which, in 1916, Bulgaria justified her espousal of the side of the Central powers, the admission is frankly made that every economic consideration had forced her to this conclusion.
Said the nameless writer of the manifesto issued by the ministry of M. Radoslavoff, 'To-day we see races that are fighting, not indeed for ideals, but solely for their material interests. The more, therefore, we are bound to a country in a material way, the greater is that country's interest in our maintenance and increase, since thereby that one will profit who helps us and is tied to us by economic bonds.'
There follows in the manifesto a statistical statement of Bulgaria's import and export trade with the various belligerent countries in the war, showing that for the years 1907, 1909, and 1911 the Central powers and Turkey had enjoyed an ever-increasing import and export trade with Bulgaria as compared with her trade with the Entente powers. As a large part of her import and export trade consists in dealings in live stock and dairy products with the Central powers and Turkey, Bulgaria finds her interests inseparably linked with them.
Bulgaria proved a useful ally. Not only were her markets turned over to the Germans—at extortionate rates of, profit, be it admitted—but she served as a useful tool in other and difficult machinations. As early as December, 1915, while Bulgaria had been selling to Germany, she had been seizing the relief stores of Serbia. And from her coign of vantage she proceeded to turn the screws on Roumania. Greatly as Germany needed grain, she brought pressure on Roumania to force the passage of German and Austrian armies to Turkey by threatening to limit the import of Roumanian maize. And Bulgaria came to her aid by placing an embargo on goods to Roumania from Saloniki. Roumania countered by embargoing all Bulgarian goods.
But the little nations could not live on embargoes. In April, 1916, commercial relations were opened between Roumania and Bulgaria, and a treaty was signed with Germany for a free interchange of products. As a result, 60,000 carloads of grain were immediately shipped to Germany, the government of Bulgaria receiving field-kitchens from the Krupps in return. Roumania had in the autumn of 1915 sent some three million tons of grain to Germany, and had been kept from sending food to Turkey only by the Russian fleet which patrolled the Roumanian coast.
One of the chief stories centring around the 'bread and battle' campaign concerns the food imbroglio of 1915-16, in which Great Britain, France, Germany, and Roumania were the chief actors. The events of this food skirmish had large consequences. Upon its results hung Roumania's entry into the war on the side of the Allies, and all that has followed of disaster on the Eastern front.
Great Britain had failed to open the Dardanelles and was in the market for food-stuffs. Germany had been receiving produce from Roumania, and had begun to carry things with a high hand. The story begins with the purchase by Germany, in the fall of 1914, of a large stock of Roumanian wheat at a price said to have been £200 a carload of ten tons. When the price fell to one third of this figure, 40,000 carloads were left by Germany unaccepted in the elevators. On Germany's failure to take up her stocks, Roumania turned elsewhere for a market.
Early in January, 1916, arrangements were made with the Roumanian Central Commission of Export for the sale to Great Britain of 80,000 carloads of grain, amounting to 800,000 tons, at £10,000,000, to be delivered by April 17. Great Britain contracted to remove all the grain by six months after the close of the war. When Germany learned of the purchase, she immediately opened negotiations to buy the remainder of the crop at the price paid by the British. Her immediate purchases amounted to 1,000,000 tons of maize, 350,000 tons of wheat, 150,000 tons of barley, and 1,000,000 tons of oats. Not content with securing the surplus, Germany also exerted pressure to compel Roumania to violate her compact with Great Britain. While Great Britain was not able to remove her grain, Germany was in such a position that she could require delivery to Hungarian ports. This grain Germany attempted to secure. She also undertook to bring about the fall of the ministry in power.
Conditions between Roumania and the Central powers were becoming more strained. They were such that Germany stood to win more through war than through diplomacy. By what measures Roumania was led to her ill-starred declaration of war against Germany probably will not be told until after the war is over. It suffices to say that no act could have played more completely into Germany's hands. The little Roumanian army was quickly driven to the mountains and destroyed. It is said that the amount of cereals left in Roumania when she was defeated was six million tons. It is doubtful whether Roumania left her entire grain-stores for the victorious Germans. Some of the grain was destroyed, some was shipped to Russia, and some was stored on the Lower Danube, out of harm's way. A conservative estimate of the amount of Germany's booty from Roumania in 1916 is three million tons.
Even at this figure Germany won at one blow a twentieth of the total average pre-war consumption of Germany and Austria for a year. The American writer, D. Thomas Curtin, stated that a German statistician had told him that he believed that the conquest of Roumania would add between nine and ten months to Germany's ability to hold out. Besides providing Germany with instant stores, Roumania has also provided grain-lands. Since 1916 Germany has taken the lion's share of her food-stocks. The Food Minister in the Austrian Reichsrath admitted in November, 1917, that substantially the whole stock of wheat had been removed from Roumania and used up.
Here we see the hand of the conqueror consummating his long plans. The end of the year 1916 saw the Balkan states well battered. Serbia was destroyed, Montenegro was conquered, Bulgaria seduced, and Roumania made tributary to the victorious Hun. Thus Germany's pathway was opening to the East.
Even Italy has paid her toll of subsistence to the enemy. For a year she was of little service to the commissariat of the Central powers. But in the victorious thrust into Venetia in the autumn of 1917, the Austro-German armies captured great quantities of potatoes and green vegetables. As much as 400,000 bushels of wheat were taken at one thrust, and through the capture of lines of communication, arrangements were made for extending the fishing industry in the Adriatic. Plans were mentioned in the Neues Wiener Tageblatt of November 6, 1917, for the running of cold-storage trains from Trieste to Vienna for the transport of Adriatic fish. And the province of Venetia was looked to for the supply of maize, rice, vegetables, wine, and tobacco.
The strategy of battle was always turned to the service of the strategy of bread. Germany knows well how to make war pay for itself. Let war always be made on the enemy's territory. By so doing you twice beggar him. You take from him his source of supplies, and you add them to your own stores.
Behind the petty details of the Balkan imbroglios the larger negotiations were going forward. The elimination of Russia from the war, the laying of a track to the east through the sparsely settled rich arable lands of the south European plateau, the splitting of Russia into two parts, the flouting of the cold northern section, the seducing of the richer Ukraine, interpret themselves. They are a part of the present strategy; but behind this strategy the food needs of the Germany of the next generation are being well watched.
The present outlook is serious enough, Courland is farmed for the support of Germany, and fifty-six million acres of Russia's agricultural land, £7 per cent of her total, are made tributary to Germany. How much food does this represent? By some estimates it is said to amount to 58,000,000 tons of food-stuffs and 30,000,000 tons of coal yearly; 37 and 75 per cent respectively of Russia's totals, and enough, once actually annexed to the German power, to solve her pressing food-problems for a century to come. Now the word comes that Germany is demanding 85 per cent of the entire produce of the Ukraine for her own.
Even during Germany's giant offensive of 1918 we read mournful accounts of her food-shortages. We are told that she may at any time collapse through hunger. We read of riots, of sawdust bread, and of synthetic meat. There may be some truth in the accounts of individual hardship. But all the evidence shows that Germany is not anywhere near a general collapse, either through a break in morale or through the pinch of hunger. Every year that Germany fights finds her food-position stronger. Every one of her great engagements has been of the nature of a foraging expedition, save the last, and it is still too early to say that she has not added to her stores in this.
The multiplying of talk in America concerning the collapse of the German fighting spirit has gone past the point of harmless speculation. It has become positive misrepresentation, and, if persisted in, will amount to aid and comfort to the enemy. Let us take care that we do not fight Germany's battle for her.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald