Tag Archives: war

Roman gladiators were war prisoners and criminals, not sporting heroes



File 20170626 32738 9mcc7p.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
The helmet of a heavily armed ‘secutor’, first century AD.
Rógvi N. Johansen, Department of photo and medie Moesgaard

Alastair Blanshard, The University of Queensland

For centuries, the bloody gladiator conflicts that the Romans staged in amphitheatres throughout the empire have engrossed and repelled us. When it comes to gladiators, it is almost impossible to look away. But the arena is also the place where the Romans feel most foreign to us.

The gladiator was the product of a unique environment. He can exist only within a very particular set of religious, social, legal, political and economic circumstances. It is not surprising that this is a form of spectacle we have not seen either before or since the Romans. To acknowledge this is also to acknowledge that they are only ever going to be partially comprehensible to us.

Statuette of a Gladiator from Murmillo, first century CE.
Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo – Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

Sadly, this is not a view shared by the Queensland Museum, which last week opened its new exhibition, Gladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum. The exhibition brings together 117 objects from Italian museums, most notably the collection of the Colosseum at Rome. Highlights include some extremely well preserved and intricately decorated gladiatorial helmets and pieces of armour from Pompeii, as well as some very fine carved reliefs depicting scenes of combat.

Yet, while the quality of the individual objects is without question and certainly worth the price of admission alone, the intellectual framework of the exhibition is far more problematic.

This is not an exhibition that is plagued by doubts or uncertainties. It firmly knows who gladiators were and what they stood for – gladiators, the opening panel of the exhibition proclaims, were the “elite athletes” of the ancient world. The antique equivalent of today’s fighters in the popular sport MMA, if you like.

Sporting analogies pepper the exhibition. Spectators are routinely referred to as “fans” and the catalogue promises that this is an exhibition that “touches on many issues that have parallels with modern-day sport and sporting culture”.

At times, the exhibition also feels like it has taken its cues from contemporary video-game culture. The special weapons of the various types of gladiators are spelled out and visitors are invited to contemplate who would win between a gladiator fighting with a net (known as a retarius to the Romans) and one heavily armed (secutor). A video-game spin-off from the exhibition is easy to imagine.

Rogues not heroes

Gladiatorial combat was certainly popular among the Romans. Evidence for gladiators is found in every province of the Roman Empire.

These fights initially began as contests of matched pairs as part of funeral rites honouring the dead. However, over time their popularity grew. By the time of the Roman Empire, hundreds of gladiators might be involved in spectacles that could last as long as 100 days.

These games were never just displays of gladiatorial fighting. At their most elaborate they involved beast hunts with exotic animals, executions of criminals, naval battles staged in flooded arenas, musical entertainments and dances.

The Queensland Museum is not the first to try to understand gladiators as sporting heroes. However, this analogy causes more problems than it solves.

The vast majority of gladiators were either prisoners of war or criminals sentenced to death. Gladiators were the lowest of the low; violent murderers, thieves and arsonists. Even your most badly behaved football team at their most morally blind would have had no trouble in rejecting this crew.

Gold glass medallion with a scene of a fighter killing wild beasts. fourth century CE.
Rógvi N. Johansen, Department of photo and medie Moesgaard. All rights reserved.

Gladiators in Rome were regarded as fundamentally untrustworthy and outside of legal protection. It is more useful to think of gladiators as prisoners on death row than as David Beckham with a net and trident. The section in the exhibition where children are encouraged to dress up as gladiators would have appalled any respectable Roman parent (that said, it’s great fun).

The Queensland Museum can’t escape the lowly, servile and criminal origins of the gladiators, but it does attempt to moderate our opinion of them by suggesting that some free citizens wilfully chose to be gladiators in search of “eternal fame and glory”. In fact, the evidence of such citizen gladiators is extremely slim. It was almost certainly extreme desperation that forced them into the arena rather than a desire to be remembered by posterity.

At another point, the exhibition suggests that the crowd saw reflected in gladiators the virtues of the soldiers who guarded the empire. Such talk would have had any self-respecting Roman legionary reaching for his short sword.

Gods and monsters

Representing gladiatorial combat as sport also inevitably underplays the religious dimension of the fighting. The exhibition includes some fabulous tomb paintings from the city of Paestum, which illustrate the origins of gladiatorial combat in the funerary rites for the dead. These are wonderful works, which deserve to be much better known; however, they are a rare intrusion into an otherwise secular narrative.

Gladiatorial combats never stopped being religious events. Every day of the games would begin with a “solemn procession” with sacrifices on altars. The gladiators themselves were deeply implicated in the Roman theology of the divine, death, and the relationship between mortal and immortal. These spectacles were Roman sermons written in blood.

Painted Slab from the Tomb of Andriuolo XXVIII, circa 340-330 BCE.
© Laboratorio fotografico del Parco Archeologico di Paestum Foto: Francesco Valletta e Giovanni Grippo

The final problem with focusing on gladiators as sporting heroes is that it tends to isolate their combat from the other elements that made up the games. Beast hunts and the executions of criminals were just as popular, possibly even more so. They were not precursors to the main event or entertainment for the intervals.

The executions of criminals could involve extravagant mythological tableaus. Prisoners were dressed as Hercules and burnt alive. The fatal flight of Icarus towards the sun might be re-enacted for the audience.

Certainly, these elaborate, gruesome affairs captured the attention of ancient writers far more than the gladiators who accompanied them. Wealthy Romans seemed far more preoccupied with obtaining suitably rare fauna for their spectacles.

For the poorer members of the audience, the beast hunts had an added attraction. Often the animal meat was distributed to the audience members to take home. They were literally watching their dinner being butchered in front of them.

One of the most intriguing items in the exhibition doesn’t relate to gladiatorial combat but to one of these beast hunts. It is a second-century CE mosaic that features what appears to be a female hunter facing off a giant tiger. Who is this woman? Evidence for female hunters (like female gladiators) is practically non-existent. Is she part of some mythological tableau? A woman pretending to be an Amazon? Or a man dressed up as a woman? Is this a scene from real life at all?

She is an enigma and a worthy reminder that the real secret of the appeal of Roman combat spectacle is that it raises more questions than it answers.


The ConversationGladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum will be on at the Queensland Museum until January 28 2018.

Alastair Blanshard, Paul Eliadis Chair of Classics and Ancient History Deputy Head of School, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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What happened to the French army after Dunkirk



File 20170713 11780 dtkewf
French POWs being led away from the battlefield in May 1940.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Nina Wardleworth, University of Leeds

The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in May 1940 from Dunkirk by a flotilla of small ships has entered British folklore. Dunkirk, a new action film by director Christopher Nolan, depicts the events from land, sea and air and has revived awe for the plucky courage of those involved.

But the story of the French army after Dunkirk is altogether less glorious, and perhaps because of that, less widely remembered. Of the 340,000 allied soldiers evacuated by boat from Dunkirk, 123,000 were French – but thousands more were not rescued and were taken prisoner by the Germans.

French media coverage of the premiere of Nolan’s film has presented the events as a British story in which French soldiers were involved, not a shared wartime narrative.

Operation Dynamo (the code name for the Dunkirk evacuation) took place between May 26 and June 4, 1940. The Germans entered Paris on June 14, but fighting continued in the east of France until June 24. General Charles De Gaulle made his now famous radio broadcast, calling on the French public not to accept defeat, on the BBC on June 18 from London, but very few of his compatriots are likely to have heard it on that date.

It is estimated that between 50,000 and 90,000 soldiers of the French army were killed in the fighting of May and June 1940. In addition to the casualties, 1.8m French soldiers, from metropolitan France and across the French empire, were captured during the Battle of France and made prisoners of war (POWs).

That early summer of 1940 in France was also marked by a mass exodus. At least six million civilians took to the roads to escape the advancing German troops, with frightening World War I stereotypes of German brutality at the forefront of their minds. They moved south and west through France, although most returned home following the June 22 armistice with Nazi Germany.

Such mass population movement both helped and hindered the French army. It made moving men and equipment much more difficult on crowded roads and railways. However, for the ordinary soldier who could procure civilian clothes, it allowed them to slip away from their units and rejoin their families.

Colonial troops massacred

The French army of 1940 included soldiers from across its empire in north, west and central Africa, the French West Indies and Indochina. These troops found it more difficult to disappear into the crowds. There were numerous massacres of west and central African troops in eastern France by the German army, who after separating them from their white officers, shot them.

There were 120,000 colonial prisoners of war captured during the Battle of France. They were housed in different camps from their white, metropolitan French counterparts, all on French soil and French run, because of Nazi racial fears of them mixing with German civilians.

Colonial POWs from the French empire under guard by German soldiers, June 1940.
RaBoe/Wikipedia

French POWs were sent to camps in Germany where they were quickly set to work on farms, in industry, mines and on the railways, to replace German men away fighting. The POWs lived and worked alongside the German population, leading to both tensions and friendships. The fate of these POWs became central to the propaganda of the French collaborationist government, based in Vichy.

Numerous government programmes tried to encourage young French men and women to sign up for work in Germany in exchange for the return of a POW to France. But, most prisoners – about one million – only returned to France following the end of the war in May 1945. They were often greeted by widespread indifference, even sometimes hostility because of their supposed links and sympathies to the Vichy regime. In reality, they were no more pro-Vichy than many other parts of French society.

A difficult history for France

The very swift German victory in May and June 1940 and the humiliating armistice that followed, meant that post-war French society and the state sought to minimise and forget the defeat, preferring to concentrate on more glorious stories of the Resistance and the Free French. There was an unsuccessful campaign in the French press in 2015 for a state commemorative event and memorial to honour the war dead from France and its then empire, who the campaign labelled as “the first Resistance fighters”. Former French president, François Hollande, increased the number of state commemorative events for key moments from France’s 20th century history, but still ignored the events of 1940.

Despite official silences, the fighting of the summer of 1940 has been the subject of French novels and films ever since. Robert Merle’s 1949 novel Weekend at Dunkirk was adapted into a successful feature film, with an audience of three million on its release in 1964. The protagonist, Julien, is a French soldier desperate to make it onto one of the boats of the British evacuation in a town shattered by bombing. Claude Simon’s 1960 novel, The Flanders Road, painted a picture of an outdated French army, ground down by months of a phoney war, fighting against a much better equipped, more modern German enemy.

The ConversationFor French POWs, Dunkirk and those battles of May and June 1940 marked the beginning of five years of humiliation and hardship, before many returned to a country that wanted to forget them and their fighting experiences.

Nina Wardleworth, Teaching Fellow in French, University of Leeds

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Roman gladiators were war prisoners and criminals, not sporting heroes



File 20170626 32738 9mcc7p
The helmet of a heavily armed ‘secutor’, first century AD.
Rógvi N. Johansen, Department of photo and medie Moesgaard

Alastair Blanshard, The University of Queensland

For centuries, the bloody gladiator conflicts that the Romans staged in amphitheatres throughout the empire have engrossed and repelled us. When it comes to gladiators, it is almost impossible to look away. But the arena is also the place where the Romans feel most foreign to us.

The gladiator was the product of a unique environment. He can exist only within a very particular set of religious, social, legal, political and economic circumstances. It is not surprising that this is a form of spectacle we have not seen either before or since the Romans. To acknowledge this is also to acknowledge that they are only ever going to be partially comprehensible to us.

Statuette of a Gladiator from Murmillo, first century CE.
Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo – Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

Sadly, this is not a view shared by the Queensland Museum, which last week opened its new exhibition, Gladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum. The exhibition brings together 117 objects from Italian museums, most notably the collection of the Colosseum at Rome. Highlights include some extremely well preserved and intricately decorated gladiatorial helmets and pieces of armour from Pompeii, as well as some very fine carved reliefs depicting scenes of combat.

Yet, while the quality of the individual objects is without question and certainly worth the price of admission alone, the intellectual framework of the exhibition is far more problematic.

This is not an exhibition that is plagued by doubts or uncertainties. It firmly knows who gladiators were and what they stood for – gladiators, the opening panel of the exhibition proclaims, were the “elite athletes” of the ancient world. The antique equivalent of today’s fighters in the popular sport MMA, if you like.

Sporting analogies pepper the exhibition. Spectators are routinely referred to as “fans” and the catalogue promises that this is an exhibition that “touches on many issues that have parallels with modern day sport and sporting culture”.

At times, the exhibition also feels like it has taken its cues from contemporary videogame culture. The special weapons of the various types of gladiators are spelled out and visitors are invited to contemplate who would win between a gladiator fighting with a net (known as a retarius to the Romans) and one heavily armed (secutor). A videogame spinoff from the exhibition is easy to imagine.

Rogues not heroes

Gladiatorial combat was certainly popular among the Romans. Evidence for gladiators is found in every province of the Roman Empire.

These fights initially began as contests of matched pairs as part of funeral rites honouring the dead. However, over time their popularity grew. By the time of the Roman Empire, hundreds of gladiators might be involved in spectacles that could last as long as 100 days.

These games were never just displays of gladiatorial fighting. At their most elaborate they involved beast hunts with exotic animals, the execution of criminals, naval battles staged in flooded arenas, musical entertainments and dances.

The Queensland Museum is not the first to try to understand gladiators as sporting heroes. However, it is an analogy that causes more problems than it solves.

The vast majority of gladiators were either prisoners of war or criminals sentenced to death. Gladiators were the lowest of the low; violent murderers, thieves and arsonists. Even your most badly behaved football team at their most morally blind would have had no trouble in rejecting this crew.

Gold glass medallion with a scene of a fighter killing wild beasts. fourth century CE.
Rógvi N. Johansen, Department of photo and medie Moesgaard. All rights reserved.

Gladiators in Rome were regarded as fundamentally untrustworthy and outside of legal protection. It is more useful to think of gladiators as prisoners on death row than as David Beckham with a net and trident. The section in the exhibition where children are encouraged to dress up as gladiators would have appalled any respectable Roman parent (that said, it’s great fun).

The Queensland Museum can’t escape the lowly, servile and criminal origins of the gladiators, but it does attempt to moderate our opinion of them by suggesting that some free citizens wilfully chose to be gladiators in search of “eternal fame and glory”. In fact, the evidence of such citizen gladiators is extremely slim. It was almost certainly extreme desperation that forced them into the arena rather than a desire to be remembered by posterity.

At another point, the exhibition suggests that the crowd saw reflected in gladiators the virtues of the soldiers who guarded the empire. Such talk would have had any self-respecting Roman legionary reaching for his short sword.

Gods and monsters

Representing gladiatorial combat as sport also inevitably underplays the religious dimension of the fighting. The exhibition includes some fabulous tomb paintings from the city of Paestum, which illustrate the origins of gladiatorial combat in the funerary rites for the dead. These are wonderful works that deserve to be much better known; however, they are a rare intrusion into an otherwise secular narrative.

Gladiatorial combats never stopped being religious events. Every day of the games would begin with a “solemn procession” with sacrifices on altars. The gladiators themselves were deeply implicated in the Roman theology of the divine, death, and the relationship between mortal and immortal. These spectacles were Roman sermons written in blood.

Painted Slab from the Tomb of Andriuolo XXVIII, circa 340-330 BCE.
© Laboratorio fotografico del Parco Archeologico di Paestum Foto: Francesco Valletta e Giovanni Grippo

The final problem with focusing on gladiators as sporting heroes is that it tends to isolate their combat from the other elements that made up the games. Beast hunts and the execution of criminals were just as popular, possibly even more so. They were not precursors to the main event or entertainment for the intervals.

The execution of criminals could involve extravagant mythological tableaus. Prisoners were dressed as Hercules and burnt alive. The fatal flight of Icarus towards the sun might be re-enacted for the audience.

Certainly, these elaborate, gruesome affairs captured the attention of ancient writers far more than the gladiators who accompanied them. Wealthy Romans seem far more preoccupied with obtaining suitably rare fauna for their spectacles.

For the poorer members of the audience, the beast hunts had an added attraction. Often the animal meat was distributed to the audience members to take home. They were literally watching their dinner being butchered in front of them.

One of the most intriguing items in the exhibition doesn’t relate to gladiatorial combat but to one of these beast hunts. It is a second-century CE mosaic that features what appears to be a female hunter facing off a giant tiger. Who is this woman? Evidence for female hunters (like female gladiators) is practically non-existent. Is she part of some mythological tableau? A woman pretending to be an Amazon? Or a man dressed up as a woman? Is this a scene from real life at all?

She is an enigma and a worthy reminder that the real secret of the appeal of Roman combat spectacle is that it raises more questions than it answers.


The ConversationGladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum will be on at the Queensland Museum until January 28 2018.

Alastair Blanshard, Paul Eliadis Chair of Classics and Ancient History Deputy Head of School, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


‘It makes one feel and realise what a dreadful thing war is’ – a nurse’s story


Janet Scarfe, Monash University

Five thousand Australian nurses served during the second world war. The most famous of these, Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Bullwinkel, survived a massacre on Bangka Island, and Japanese “hell camps” in Sumatra.

For many other nurses, life in WWII was by turns tedious, perilous and adventurous. Dorothy Janet Campbell was one of the vast majority who survived without capture, imprisonment or fatal illness. Her experiences are caught in her extensive diaries and photographs shared here by her niece Janet Scarfe.

Dorothy Campbell, 1940.
Author provided

South Australian Dorothy Campbell (known throughout her life to all as “Puss”) served in the Australian Army Nursing Service from 1940 to 1946, in England during the Blitz, in the Western Desert during the siege of Tobruk, in Papua New Guinea, and in Queensland and South Australia.

She spent many nights in air raid shelters and nursing in a tin hat but she was never directly bombed on land or sea.

Campbell’s diaries and photos record the nurses’ day to day lives, mostly away from the wards. She and her friends took full advantage of their split shifts and days off. There were sherry parties, tennis and golf, and sightseeing.

For all that, Campbell’s “real work” was “looking after our boys”. Long periods of inactivity, such as waiting for hospitals to be set up or weeks at sea became tedious, despite the games and socialising.

Campbell nursed in several hospitals that were state of the art, including the Australian Hospital in Surrey and in the Greek hospital in Alexandria. She also worked in freezing tents in Queensland and grass huts in Buna in Papua New Guinea.

She was devoted to her patients – provided they were genuine. She deplored the “B Class” men she nursed in England in 1940. Deemed unfit for service and awaiting repatriation to Australia, they made difficult patients, malingering, drunk and dismissive of the nurses’ orders. By contrast, the sick and wounded evacuated straight from Tobruk received her complete attention:

How I love to be able to help them, and to listen to their great stories they tell … it makes one feel and realise what a dreadful thing war is …

Occasionally she described cases as “very interesting” or “difficult” but mostly her comments relating to work were “busy”, “very busy” or “dog-tired”. Comparisons between her diary entries and the hospital daily war diary show what an expert in understatement she was.

Campbell was never too tired to sight see. She loved England and Scotland. In Alexandria, she sponged her patients very early one Saturday morning, rushed off duty and caught the train to Cairo with several nurses and officers. They shopped, dined and danced till late, saw the sphinx and pyramids, rode camels and donkeys, had their fortunes told (“damn lot of rot”) then caught a small plane back to Alexandria on Sunday afternoon.

She and the other nurses had a rich social life. In Alexandria, there were sea bathing and sailing, occasional dinners with colonels yearning for some female company, mosques to visit, and customs to marvel at.

The American base near Buna guaranteed a rich social life. She learned to drive a jeep, spent time off socialising with American officers and fell for one who was charming but duplicitous.

Dorothy Campbell (first women on the left) at an American officers’ club, Buna c1943.

Campbell’s diary entries change over the years. Exhaustion and monotony set in as the war ground on. England, Egypt and Papua New Guinea were highlights.

Queensland in 1942-43 and 1945 was dull and she never liked dull. Entries from Townsville in 1945 were brief and largely confined to golf games (nine holes most days between shifts) and the narrow-minded matron. There were few photos. Her exaltation at the news of peace was personal, professional and patriotic. Here are her diary entries for 15th and 16th August 1945:

Wednesday. 15th

Very exciting day PEACE. Every body very excited – Party arranged in Red + Hut for all Hosp. (pts and staff.) – had few drinks in our Mess first, then… went to Sgts Mess – and then to dance, and then on to Officers Mess and spent very bright evening happiest night ever spent in army – felt rather ill and went out for walk…

Thursday Aug 16th [Townsville].

Terriffic [sic] headache., after a few hrs felt better and got busy and arranged party in our Mess – Off [duty] 1–6 – had a little rest and helped to prepare supper… Went off duty 8pm to party, it was one of the best we have had and it kept on until 1 am. every body thoroughly enjoying themselves.

The diaries end abruptly the night before she boarded the train home to Adelaide on 28 November 1945. Her great adventure was over.

Campbell (front right wearing green) in the 1994 Adelaide VP Day Parade. CLICK TO ENLARGE.
Author provided

She had nursed men with battle wounds and serious illnesses. She knew the anxiety of air raids and long sea voyages. But she also relished all the opportunities that came her way, particularly the friendships, the sightseeing and new experiences.

Campbell remained in the Citizens Military Forces until 1958 and was decorated for her work with the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps.

After her demobilisation, Campbell worked as a radiotherapy technician, one of the first women in South Australia to do so. She remained single, explaining to a small boy in an Anzac Day school talk that she “had loved them all and married none”.

She spoke of her time in the war to her family only in the broadest terms (“When we were away …”). She kept her diaries to herself to the end of her life. But kept them on her bookshelves for easy discovery.

The Conversation

Janet Scarfe, Adjunct research associate, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Feeding the troops: the emotional meaning of food in wartime


Heather Merle Benbow, University of Melbourne

“Can an egg save a soldier?” So asked a full-page advertisement for Sunny Queen Farms in the The Age’s Sunday Life magazine last month. A young returned serviceman, a veteran of Afghanistan, looks straight into the camera. He is pictured next to a toast “soldier” dipped in a soft-boiled egg, an image replete with childhood nostalgia for many Australians, and one that speaks strongly of mothering.

The soldier, we are told, “knows how tough returning to civilian life can be for veterans suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”. We can now see that, though his white T-shirt reveals a strong physique, the soldier’s eyes are vulnerable. This is a young man in need of care and Sunny Queen Farms promises to support returned soldiers with a modest donation for each pack of its “eggs for soldiers” sold.

World War I advertising similarly drew on maternal feeling.
Clarke & Sherwell Ltd, Ministry of Food/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

This advertisement draws not just on the power of maternal feeling, and the nostalgia around childhood food memories, but on the heightened emotional significance of food in wartime. Food is central to experiences of war, and not just for the soldiers for whom it is a daily preoccupation. On the home front, too, food gains heightened emotional, social and political meaning.

The website for Walking Wounded, the organisation supported by the Eggs for Soldiers campaign, draws heavily on ANZAC imagery, and in these centenary years, World War One looms large in the national imagination. Yet we are just beginning to understand the role played by food in the emotional battles of WWI.

The ANZAC biscuit epitomises the link between food and WWI in national remembrance, and it is yet another expression of maternal care, having reportedly been devised to withstand the long journey to the front in “comfort packages”.

In WWI food was the most potent means for mothers to convey their love to sons at the front. On their return, Australian soldiers were welcomed with a hot meal at ANZAC buffets and sometimes another kind of female affection, as this iconic photograph (below) shows.

A wounded AIF soldier receives an affectionate welcome home at the Anzac Buffet in The Domain in Sydney. As men started returning from the front, the Anzac Buffet became the place where men were welcomed home.
Australian War Memorial, Author provided

The frisson between the wounded soldier and the young woman are central to this image, but the face of the older woman at left conveys a complex mixture of maternal feelings; delight at the soldier’s return, dismay for what he has endured.

In The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War, (2010) Michael Roper writes that British soldiers’ families were effectively “an adjunct to the army, helping to ensure that the soldier stayed clothed, well-fed and healthy”. In Germany, where the British blockade quickly led to mass hunger on the home front, coping with food scarcity for her family was a mother’s contribution to the war effort.

Food is central to ideas of national and cultural belonging, something that can be used to bolster wartime patriotism, but it also gives a pungent flavour to cultural difference. Food therefore also provides powerful imagery for propaganda, such as in a 1915 Australian newspaper report that equates German food with hatred and bloodlust:

Blood sausage. Brain Sausage. Decaying cabbage pickled in vinegar … only a few of the cheery dishes in which the German rejoices, the delicacies upon which he feeds his hatred.”

In the Central Powers countries it did not take long for hunger to take a toll on home front patriotism. Existing cultural fault lines—between major cities and rural areas, between different nations and ethnic and religious groups—were brought into stark relief.

Scholars such as Hans-Georg Hofer and Maureen Healy have argued that tensions around food supply and distribution contributed in part to the collapse of the double monarchy of Austria–Hungary.

In Germany, rumours of Jewish machinations in food distribution ran rife, and resentment emerged over immigrants from the East placing pressure on scarce resources.

When we look at experiences of wartime through the prism of food we are constantly reminded of its power to to divide us, but also to bring people together. So famously a “weapon” of WWI, food can also occupy a central role in the bridging of national, ethnic and religious divides.

Australian officers having breakfast in a shell hole in Sausage Valley, Pozieres, 1916.
Australian War Memorial

Australian soldier Leonard V. Bartlett writes in his Gallipoli diary of frequent visits to the “Indian Camp” for “a feed of curry & chapadies”. During the informal Christmas truce of 1914 German soldiers entered no-man’s land and offered chocolate to soldiers serving in the British army, an event that was made into feature film Joyeux Noel (2005).

In historian Craig Gibson’s Behind the Front (2014), a recent study of British soldiers’ encounters with French civilians, the most touching anecdotes centre upon the exchange of food: a warm cup of coffee offered to an exhausted soldier, or much-needed army rations donated to hungry children.

Historian Rachel Duffett, in her book The Stomach for Fighting (2012), describes how, along the Western Front, soldiers of the belligerent armies were cared for—often tenderly—in billets. In 1922, the German lieutenant Ernst Jünger wrote of the hospitality of one French couple with whom he shared meals and many cups of tea, during which they discussed “the difficult question […] of why men must make war”.

In the article “Fighting a Kosher War” (2011), researcher Steven Schouten describes how Jewish soldiers serving on the Eastern Front with the advancing Imperial German Army were often welcomed into Jewish homes for a kosher meal.

And when the war during which so many had died of hunger ended, Hofer’s research demonstrates, food also became a tool of peace. Food aid flowed into Austria, and one fifth of Austrian children were nourished by families abroad.

In wartime, when cultural differences are amplified, food can be a potent reminder of shared humanity and reinforce a sense of belonging. Feeding is also a powerful act of love.

Indian cavalry troopers preparing a meal Estrée Blanche, France, 1915.
British Library/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Scholars have recently begun to examine the significance of food in wartime as an aspect that provides a tangible emotional connection to people from earlier times. As we approach the centenary of the end of the Great War it is timely to consider how food helped to heal some of the wounds of this scarifying conflict.

The Conversation

Heather Merle Benbow, Senior lecturer in German and European Studies, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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