Preoccupied during lockdown, part 2: The Covid Diary of Dr James Connolly

Dr James Connolly is a Lecturer in Modern French history at UCL.

In my last blog post I reflected on how the current lockdown situation has made me revisit my past research on occupied northern France in the First World War, thinking in particular about social and physical isolation.  This post will take a similar approach, considering other aspects of the occupied population’s experience, notably the scarcity of food/provisions, and related accusations of profiteering.  Again, the aim is less to claim that our current situation is directly comparable to that of the occupés in 1914-18, and more about how it has made me reconsider, and empathise with, the subjects of my former topic of research.  I may return to notions of community self-surveillance and judgement in another blog post, if this post leaves readers… hungry for more.[1]  Apologies in advance for the number of terrible food-related jokes and puns below; I’m just trying to spice up what can be a gloomy subject.

Food and provisions

At some point in lockdown, many of us have experienced shortages of food and provisions in shops – in my local supermarkets, it has been the ‘classic’ groupings of dried pasta, rice, tinned food, cleaning products, and toilet roll.  Thankfully things seem to be improving for many food-wise, but not for everyone – particularly those who were already relying on food banks before this crisis and those who have lost their jobs in recent weeks. 

Partly because of supply shortages, and partly due to physical distancing rules, we have also had to experience a phenomena almost unheard of outside of wartime in many ‘Western’ countries: queuing to get into supermarkets/food shops.  On top of this, we have been advised to shop as infrequently as possible, to reduce coming into contact with others.  For me, at least, this has meant I have become fixated on food and supermarket visits: keeping tabs on the level of our ‘supplies’ at home, thinking hard about where I can find specific foodstuffs (or non-food provisions) when shopping, meticulously planning all meals in advance, being aware of the food I just cannot find these days or the attendant lack of variety, and feeling weirdly hungry all the time despite eating a normal amount of food.  A lot of this echoes the type of behaviour that occupés engaged in during the First World War, even though they found themselves in a very different (and often worst) situation; it is probably familiar to other historians too, as these behaviours or ways of thinking are also common during military occupations or wartime more generally.

CANF poster regarding the distribution of bread in Lille, 17 May 1916.  Archives Municipales de Lille.

To go back to 1914-18, occupied France and Belgium experienced extreme food shortages that resulted in near-famine conditions.  This was partly because the occupying Germans requisitioned a large proportion of crops and livestock, as well as other food, to feed their own men and horses; partly also due to restrictions on movement making normal economic and agricultural activity either difficult or impossible.  Some pre-war shops, such as butchers and bakers, did remain open, but mostly sold lower quality food that became more expensive, rarer, and locals had to queue to get it.  The situation became so concerning that the largest charitable humanitarian relief effort in history (up to that point) was launched in 1915: the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), with its French subsidiary the Comité d’Alimentation du Nord de la France (CANF, ‘The Committee for Feeding Northern France’).  It was initially presided over by future American president Herbert Hoover, although after the USA entered the war in 1917 it was taken over by neutral Dutch and Spanish benefactors.  The CRB provided tonnes of foods and goods (such as clothes and shoes) to the starving population, and was allowed to transport this through the British naval blockade on the express condition that the provisions did not end up in enemy hands.  Hundreds of storage depots and distribution centres were created across occupied France and Belgium.  Locals were issued with ration cards, but still had to pay a fixed, low price, and food was usually distributed once a week, usually involving a lengthy queue.  There are some great books on this impressive feat of organisation.[2]

Food was therefore hard to come by in occupied France in 1914-18 – you could say that ce n’était pas de la tarte (it was not easy)… The result was that the occupés were obsessed with food and hunger.  Diary entries and memoirs are flooded with reflections on what they were eating or wished they could eat, claims that people were literally dying of hunger, examples of ersatz (replacement) food and drink (such as chicory instead of coffee), times when the author managed to locate rare items, and many details on the rising price of food.  Some of the best examples I have are currently located in my work office, but I will attempt to provide an insight using my notes and the few sources I can access, alongside some related reflections.

Jules Hélot, President of the Chambre de Commerce de Cambrai and German-nominated Sous-préfet de Cambrai, was in part responsible for overseeing food provisioning for the local population.  He therefore often saw the extent of locals’ hunger, such as in January 1915 when he wrote: ‘J’ai dû aujourd’hui donner des pains à des malheureux qui pleuraient de faim’ (‘Today I had to give bread to unfortunate people who were crying with hunger’).[3] On 1 June 1915 he remarked:

La faim sévit surtout sur les populations de tisserands et sur les ouvriers agricoles qui habituellement vont dans les autres régions de France sarcler les betteraves et faire la moisson des céréales.  C’est pitié de voir ces familles qui manquent de tout depuis si longtemps’ (‘Hunger strikes above all the textile workers and agricultural workers who usually go to other regions of France to harvest beetroot and cereals.  It is very sad to see families who have had nothing for so long’).[4] 

Yet even in the face of such suffering, Hélot remained patriotic and thought about the bigger picture of the war, as is visible in this October 1915 entry:

‘Je me suis bien des fois demandé si notre gouvernement n’avait pas eu raison de résister quelque peu à ce ravitaillement par les neutres. Certainement, nous eussions souffert beaucoup plus, mais enfin les Allemands n’auraient pas pu nous tout prendre pour nous laisser ensuite mourir de faim.  Dieu, qu’il est difficile de savoir ce qu’il faut faire !’ (‘I have asked myself many times if our government was not right to resist somewhat this provisioning by neutrals.  Certainly, we would have suffered a lot more, but ultimately the Germans would not have been able to take everything from us to then leave us to die of hunger.  God, how difficult it is to know what should be done!’).[5] 

Here, Hélot is referencing the French government’s initial opposition to allowing the CRB/CANF goods into occupied France out of fear this would effectively mean provisioning the Germans, the enemy; Hélot also shows that this fear was not unfounded, as the occupiers’ logic was that if the CRB/CANF would be feeding the population, then locals did not ‘need’ their existing food… I suppose in our current context, the opposite may be true: that by actively seeking food in supermarkets, rather than having provisions ‘delivered’ to us, we could be aiding the enemy, the spreading of the virus.  Or perhaps this is an overbaked comparison!

Hunger was such a central part of the occupation that Lillois journalist Eugène Martin-Mamy, in the very first issue of the Le Progrès du Nord published after over 4 years of censorship, summarised the occupied population as ‘ceux qui ont passé quatre années terribles avec la faim aux entrailles’ (‘Those who spent four terrible years with hunger in their stomachs/insides’).[6]  The next month, in November 1918, the newspaper produced a kind of ‘mission statement’ under its main header, which included the line ‘Les Lillois refusent […] De mourir de faim, comme au temps de l’occupation allemande’ (‘Inhabitants of Lille refuse […] To die of hunger, as in the time of the occupation’).[7]

Poster informing the population of Lille that it is forbidden to bake cakes or pastries using wheat flour, and that they should be economical in their consumption of bread, 5 March 1915.  Archives Municipales de Lille.

There can be no doubt that the occupation was a time of acute hunger for many.  But what had occupés actually been able to eat during the war? 

Well, the range and amount differed depending on class, wealth, and locality – life under the occupation, as mentioned in the previous blog post, was extremely local, working effectively at the communal level.  But to give just one example, in the occupied part of the département of the Somme, according to memoirist Abbé Charles Calippe, CANF rations included: 300g ‘black’ (i.e. poor-quality) bread a day, kidney beans, lentils ‘filled with stones of all sizes’, peas, rice, malt flakes, sugar, salt, coffee (‘we drank enough to turn windmills for a month’), ‘rancid American lard’, American fat, and condensed milk for the elderly and very young.[8]  Even though this could be and often was supplemented by food bought at shops, re-reading and writing this is an exercise in humility, and has made me think twice when criticising the lack of variety in my lockdown meals.

As seen above, even despite relief efforts there was still little food and little variety – so much so that some of those living near to the Belgian border, which was guarded by armed sentries, crossed the border to engage in smuggling, as it there was slightly more food in Belgium.  Some paid for this with their lives, like a 48-year-old woman from Roubaix killed when attempting to cross the border with a sack of potatoes on 23 August 1916.  Those who succeeded in smuggling food and selling it on (so-called ravitailleurs, or ‘procurers’) faced a mixed reception: some locals felt that they were offering a necessary and potentially life-saving service, whilst others considered them to be greedy profiteers, selling goods at exorbitant prices.[9]  Sound familiar? 

The question of profiteering, and also of hoarding, appeared again and again throughout the occupation.  For instance, in May 1917, the Commissaire Central (Chief Commissioner) of Roubaix was called to investigate a ‘theft’ that had involved three mothers paying less than the asking price for beans in a grocery store; they deposited their money and left with the products.  In his report, rather than criticise the women he lashed out at those profiting from inflated food prices, outlining:

‘on one hand the people who howl in hunger but which a small remainder of conscience still maintains on the correct path [la bonne voie] and on the other hand the exploiters – they are legion – who living well, celebrating without hiding themselves, allow themselves all possible fantasies, increasing at their will [the price of] those essential products without worrying or caring about the teeth-gnashing of the starving population.’[10]

Furthermore, there were both rumours and confirmed incidents of ‘fraud’ among CANF employees, who illegally sold goods at higher than the fixed rate and/or to people who did not have a ration ticket, including Germans – thus jeopardising the whole relief operation.  On the flip side, certain members of the local population stole goods from the CANF depots, taking vital supplies away from their needy compatriots.  I may say more about this in a future blog post, but those interested can find a relevant section in my book.[11]

Poster containing a message from the Mayor of Lille dismissing rumours of profiteering and fraud among CANF personnel, 1917.  Archives Municipales de Lille.

The stain of profiteering outlasted the war: in June 1919, Monsieur Lesaffre, the adjunct to the mayor of Comines, was investigated for ‘intelligence with the enemy’ (treason) during the occupation.  Although the investigation produced no clear conclusion, part of the evidence against him was that he hoarded food – allegedly four carts’ worth, including 50 chickens – and refused to give food to those who asked for it.[12]  As with now, perceptions of hoarding and profiteering certainly left a bad taste in one’s mouth, even if sometimes the accusations were false and had to be taken with a pinch of salt. The hardship of occupation and privation meant that as the situation avait tourné au vinaigre (went bad)locals racontaient des salades (told untrue stories) about one another or cassaient du sucre sur le dos des marchands (gossiped about shopkeepers).  As well as me crowbarring in some bad jokes, that last sentence reinforces the importance of food in French culture (there are many idioms related to food), which in turn reminds us of how the absence of ‘proper’ food was yet another form of suffering for the occupied population.

Revisiting and reflecting

When I first read many of the sources quoted above, I have to admit that I found them somewhat boring.  My understanding of the obsession with food could only ever go so far, and remained rather abstract.  Now, though, I have become someone who is obsessed with food, to the extent that it is annoying my wife!  Once again, I am able to empathise as well as sympathise with historical subjects.  This current crisis has given me a greater insight into how and why musings on food and provisions flood texts from, or about, the occupation; I understand more how when one is hungry or worried about the next meal, that can take up almost one’s entire mental bandwidth, and would naturally bleed into diary entries or memoir recollections.  I understand more how tensions could rise because of access to food, and perceptions of profiteering and hoarding.  I am aware that I am privileged and lucky to have never really experienced these physical and emotional states before – related to access to food and hunger – when this is a sad reality today for far too many people across the world even outside of the Covid crisis.  Hopefully we will all be even more empathetic in future as a result of what is currently occurring, and not just in our relationship with a research.  At the very least, what we are going through offers much food for thought for historians.

[1] If this is the case, check out my book: James E. Connolly, The Experience of Occupation in the Nord, 1914-1918: Living with the Enemy in First World War France (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018).

[2] See, for example, Clotilde Druelle, Feeding Occupied France during World War I: Herbert Hoover and the Blockade (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019); Stéphane Lembré, La guerre des bouches: Ravitaillement et alimentation à Lille 1914-1919 (Lille: Presses Universiatires du Septentrion, 2016); Edward Eyre Hunt, War Bread: A Personal Narrative of the War and Relief in Belgium (Rahway, New Jersey: Quinn and Boden Company Press, 2016).

[3] Jules Hélot, Cinquante mois sous le joug allemande (Paris: Plon-Nourrit, 1919), p.113, 1 January 1915.

[4] Ibid., p.237, 1 June 1915.

[5] Ibid., p.331, 15 October 1915.

[6] Le Progès du Nord, 18 October 1918.

[7] Ibid., 20 November 1918.

[8] Abbé Charles Calippe, La Somme sous l’occupation: 27 Août 1914 – 19 Mars 1917 (Paris: Pierre Téqui, 1918), p.74-5.

[9] Connolly, The Experience of Occupation in the Nord, p.156-9.

[10] Ibid., p.151.

[11] Ibid., pp.152-5.

[12] Archives Départementales du Nord, 9 R 1229, Comines, Procès-verbal of officer Bearnais concerning Monsieur Lesaffre’s suspected intelligence with the enemy, 18 June 1919, witness statements.


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