The Taste of War by Lizzie Collingham is an original piece of literature written to address and explain the importance of food during the second world war. What distinguishes the text from other pieces is that it does not wish to offer an argument against the work of others, but instead it offers to add an ‘often overlooked dimension’ (pg. 2) to the reader’s understanding of the war. Collingham comprehensively addresses this widely disregarded factor; proving how important it was in the development, process and outcome of the conflict. The author constructs her argument into four parts, each putting forward the impact of food in different areas and periods of the war.
The first part of the book explains the significant role food played in the lead up to war. With specific reference to the Axis powers of Japan and Germany, Collingham shows how their lust for expansion was driven by their need for food. Unlike the imperial powers of Britain and France, they did not have expansive empires of which they could achieve self-sustainability. For Germany, their reliance on imports was becoming a weakness and so its leaders devised the ‘General Plan’, which involved territorial expansion into Eastern Europe and the reform of its agricultural sector. (pg. 28) The Japanese had similar ambitions with a plan to invade the Chinese region of Manchuria in order to implement an agrarian system there. This desire for more territory was a dangerous ideal and Collingham argues that it ultimately brought war to both countries.
In the second part of her book, Collingham predominantly focuses on the struggles each government faced regarding food production and importation. For the British, the author explains that their greatest struggle was the menace of the German U-boats, who sunk nine percent off all food shipments coming into Britain. These substantial losses, Collingham argues, put Britain on the edge of defeat and she explains that had developments such as the convoy system not been implemented, then they would have had no choice but to surrender. When discussing Germany, the author addresses their failure of their ‘Hunger Plan.’ (pg. 190) By starving out the citizens of the occupied territories in Eastern Europe, and using their land to provide additional food supplies, they believed they could sufficiently cover the deficit of food within Germany. This plan however had limited success as the government ultimately failed to cultivate the land efficiently and at a quick enough pace. Collingham argues that this failure had a significant effect on German morale due to more citizens going hungry, and that they were losing their will to fight.
Part three of her work primarily argues the efficiency of each combatant nation in feeding not only their armies but also their civilian populations. With every country employing some sort of rationing system throughout the war, Collingham addresses how the effectiveness of each influenced its outcome. She argues that because Britain rationed equally among everyone, it was able to keep morale high at home which resulted in greater production. Germany on the other hand prioritised its military when it realised it could not cope with its demand for food. The author explains that this resulted in a drop of morale, and a less motivated and hungrier work force. (pg.367)
The final part of her book addresses the aftermath of the war, where food caused several issues. When the allies emerged victorious the world looked to them to fix its hunger problem. Collingham explains that the United States shied away from helping the starving nations and instead lifted its sanctions on the domestic food front. The starving nations of Eastern Europe and Asia were unable to afford to import more food and so had to do without. For more developed countries, it only took to the mid-1950s for freedom of want was achieved. By this time almost all citizens of these countries could afford to eat as much as they wanted, and Collingham puts this down to the numerous advancements the war provided. She finishes her book by addressing the question as to how the world would react to another food shortage. Collingham states that efficiency is key and that it may be those highly calorific foods for example bread and potatoes which make their familiar re-appearance.
When analysing Collingham’s work it is critical that we understand who the author wished to address and what she wanted this audience to take away from it. With regards to an audience it is evident that the author was primarily targeting an academic audience. This is shown in her objective which is thoroughly explained throughout the book and its limits are clearly shown. As mentioned Collingham explains that her work is not aimed at displacing the work of other academics but instead is aimed to provide an additional dimension that she believes the majority have looked past. I believe that this objective is attained as the book comprehensively addresses the impact of food during the second world war in an original manner. Unlike books such as Just and Trentmann’s ‘Food and Conflict in Europe in the Age of Two World Wars’ (2006, Basingstoke), Collingham addresses a much broader canvas in focusing not only on national experiences but also the war a whole. With regard to sources, the author uses an abundance of articles, books, official papers and internet sites in order to reinforce her effective argument.
Collingham’s work however is not perfect and there are areas of the book which must be scrutinised. The main criticism of the book would have to be its arguably over-exaggeration of the impact of food on the war. Although Collingham argues a clear-cut case for the importance of food during the war she fails to properly address other vital commodities such as oil. For example, when addressing the German invasion of Eastern Europe, she fails to mention that taking control of the Azerbaijani oil fields was just as important as seizing the territories for agricultural gain. The same went for the Japanese who invaded South East Asia for rubber and oil, and not just its paddy fields. Other academics are more successful in this coverage, for example Milward’s work ‘War, Economy and Society, 1939-45’ (California, 1992) which addresses many more of these assets although with less depth. Collingham’s impressive work should not however, be overshadowed by these criticisms. Overall her book provides a clear-cut argument on the impact of food during the second world war, it is an original work that addresses a factor that many academics fail, and may regret, to commend.