Words of War: Messages and Meanings
Propaganda Poster

'Save the wheat and help the fleet. Eat less bread.' (Designated Food Committee poster no.21)
© National Museums Northern Ireland

ENQUIRIES:

  • What are the propaganda messages in these two posters: 'Save Wheat and Help the Fleet' and  'Food... Don't waste it.'  How are they related to the war? What does the loaf of bread represent?

  • Who is this third poster – 'Help to buy an Aeroplane' – aimed at? How is it different in both style and content to the other two posters? What incentives are being offered here?

  • Why were there food shortages in the First World War? Who was affected? Did everyone suffer in the same way? Why was food rationing introduced? What was the aim of food rationing?

Why were food controls  introduced in the First World War?

At the outbreak of war, Britain depended heavily on food imported from other countries  – including Argentina, Australia, the USA and Canada. Despite protection from Royal Naval warships, merchant ships and their vital cargoes were prey to constant attacks from deadly German submarines. As supplies at home diminished, the government launched a massive poster campaign to persuade people that food controls would help to win the war.

At one stage in 1917, only four days’ supply of sugar remained in Britain and a few weeks’ worth of precious wheat flour. Posters were displayed on buses and walls, in newspapers and shop windows for everyone to see. The messages were urgent and emotive:

'Women of Britain … Our soldiers are beating the Germans on land. Our sailors are beating them on the sea. You can beat them in the larder and the kitchen.'

'Look well at the loaf on your breakfast table and treat it as if it were real gold because the British loaf is going to beat the Germans.'

'Save Your Bread and Your Bread Will Save You.'

The Ministry of Food issued ideas for making bread and cakes using potatoes, or ground-up turnip. People were told to eat smaller portions, to grow their own vegetables; and above all, not to waste valuable food.

Because imports were reduced, and so much food was being sent to the troops, prices in the shops rose dramatically. National kitchens offering cheap food were opened. In 1918, rationing was introduced throughout Britain. Anyone found cheating or hoarding food could be fined, or even sent to prison. Ironically, some of the poorest people were better fed than before the war.

Long queues of women and children waiting outside shops were a common sight in cities all across Europe.  In Britain, no one starved, but in Germany and Austro-Hungary the continuing naval blockades imposed by the Allies caused real suffering.

Some people – including shopkeepers and wholesalers – profited from these controls and rising demand for food. Farmers were encouraged to grow as much as possible. They were helped by thousands of women who joined the agricultural labour force as members of the Women's Land Army

In Ireland – a predominantly agricultural country – exports of food, especially beef, were increased to meet the demand for food elsewhere in the British Empire.

FOLLOW UP ACTIVITIES:

  • Find out what food was rationed in the First World War and how much was allowed for a) adults and b) children. How did these amounts vary? What did people eat less of as a result of the war, and what did they eat more of? What wartime recipes were developed? Why might some people have eaten better during rationing? What else was rationed in the First World War? In your opinion, was rationing during the First World War a success?

  • Look at this government propaganda poster. How and why were people being encouraged to help 'buy an aeroplane'? What else were people encouraged to invest in during the war? How was the war paid for?

EXPLORE RELATED OBJECTS:

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Charles Pears, Maintaining Export Trade, from Transport by Sea portfolio, 1917

' The Great War: Britain’s Efforts and Ideals'  Presented by the Ministry of Information, 1919. Germany…

First World War propaganda poster

'Food -  don't waste it'. (League of National Safety Poster No.23)
© National Museums Northern Ireland

First World War propanda poster

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Poster no.76

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Yarta and Ida Saxby of Halligarth House 'Digging for Victory', Baltasound, Unst, Shetland Isles, during the First World War

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