This November marks one hundred years since the end of the First World War.
Growing vegetables and related gardening skills were of paramount importance during First World War Britain, as people were forced by shortages in food supplies to produce their own. In this blog, I’ll be taking a look at some of the most popular vegetables to grow in the war, the gardening techniques used during this period and what impact gardening had on the war itself.
The need to grow
“We will frighten the British flag off the face of the waters and starve the British people until they, who have refused peace, will kneel and plead for it.” – Kaiser Wilhelm, 1917, ruler of Germany during WWI.
The human cost of the conflict was immense. Huge numbers of men were required to fill the ranks of Britain’s Armies, leaving many women to take up the traditional roles of men in factories and farms.
With so many people involved in the war effort, the nation struggled to provide food for its population, especially with the onset of unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans in 1917, which ravaged shipping carrying the vital imported food that provided 60% of the nation’s diet.
With food supplies running short, the nation’s favourite pastime: Gardening, became a method of survival. Everyone, from soldiers at the frontline, to the people back in Britain, took up gardening and began to grow food and rear livestock.
The government called on all people to do their part and authorities were given permission to requisition land for the growing of produce. Allotment ownership in Britain, rose from 450,000 before the war, to 1.5 million by May of 1917 and was a catalyst for the popularity of allotments and gardening, which continues to this day.
Grow your own
“The country has appealed to all who cannot share in the fighting to see that our food supply is secured.” – Walter Brett, 1915, author of Wartime Gardening.
Almost every available plot, whether that be a disused garden, land alongside a railway line or a royal park, was turned over for the production of food during the First World War.
Next time you go into your garden or for a walk in the park, you may be trudging over ground that once grew the food that fed the nation. Some of the most popular vegetables to grow in 1915, were potatoes, artichokes, turnips, onions, marrows, horseradish, beetroot and cabbage.
Today, the most popular vegetables are broccoli, sweetcorn, tomato, mushroom, carrots and peas—a large difference to the heartier vegetables favoured over one hundred years ago. This shows the modern trend of using more salad-like vegetables in cooking, as opposed to the heavier vegetables preferred one hundred years ago.
On the home-front
“They started allotments in different places to grow food. That’s naturally how we kept going. We had nothing else; we had no hope for anything.” – Mrs Adams, a resident of Walsall during the First World War.
Photo courtesy of the IWM
The majority of the growing occurred on the home front, where ordinary people were encouraged to grow their own food to supplement the food grown on farms. One type of food that became increasingly hard to come by was flour. In 1914, Britain imported 81% of its wheat, so bread shortages would become an increasing problem as the German U-boats closed in on British shipping.
One of the more unusual solutions to this problem was the use of turnip flour, which was made by ground dried turnips— a solution that was exceedingly unpopular due to the taste and uncomfortable digestive problems it caused.
Today, there are many alternatives to white flour, including banana flour, coconut flour and soy flour. These are often used in gluten-free diets and it should be noted, that turnip flour is almost never offered as one of these alternative options!
Fortunately, November is a little too late to begin sowing turnip seeds, which should be sown between April and August. However, there are a number of other vegetables you can plant at this time of year that can be grown over winter. These include broad beans, peas and pea shoots, and onions, which can be grown into seedlings indoors, before being transplanted outside, or sown straight into the soil outdoors.
For more ideas on growing vegetables over winter, take a look at my top four winter vegetables.
Behind the lines
Vegetable growing wasn’t just confined to the home-front. Behind the lines on the Western Front, vegetables were grown on military camps to provide food for soldiers serving in France and Belgium. To encourage the production of vegetables, the army hosted the Le Havre vegetable show, out of the large base at Le Havre on the French coast.
The base commandant encouraged all permanent units to cultivate the land and proposed they show off some of the produce that was grown. Regimental bands provided the music and money, donated by the officers, paid for the prizes.
Awards were won for categories such as best garden, largest vegetable and who could grow the most vegetables. The latter was once won by a depot of German prisoners who had an astonishing yield of 26 tonnes per acre. Competition was so fierce that vegetable theft became an issue—a giant marrow was stolen from one unit’s garden and entered into the competition by another!
Other vegetables grown for the show included potatoes, radishes, kale and tomatoes. Some of the medals won in the garden show are still exhibited at the Imperial War Museum in London.
On the front line
“As far as the eye could see was a mass of black mud with shell holes filled with water. Here and there broken duckboards, partly submerged in the quagmire”. – Private H. Jeary, 1917, British soldier at the battle of Ypres.
On the front line the situation was extremely different. Units could find themselves under artillery fire and were rarely in one position for more than a few months. This meant they had little opportunity to grow their own produce, having to live off the rations they were issued instead.
Photo courtesy of the IWM
Soldiers serving in combat theatres were issued with rations that would have to sustain them when access to cooked food was limited. These rations usually contained hard biscuits, cheese, condensed milk, tea, sugar, jam and a stock cube.
They would also have a tin of meat, such as either bully beef (corned beef) or Maconochie meat stew, which was widely unpopular with many soldiers due to the small fatty cuts of meat it contained, among other things. One vegetable that was sometimes grown on the front-lines, was celery.
This was an easier choice for soldiers to grow in the trenches of the Western Front, because it thrived in dank, wet conditions, very much like that of a trench. By adding celery to the rations, the repetitive taste was improved, with the added benefit of providing a fresh source of nutrition and fibre. You can easily grow celery yourself at home, just as soldiers in the trenches may have done during the war.
The best time to grow celery from seed is between February and March, but at this time of the year, you can actually re-grow celery, using the base of a celery stalk. All you need to do is take the base of the celery stalk and place it into a shallow cup of warm water. Then leave it on a windowsill and replace the water daily. Within eight days, you should see new green leaves begin to emerge from the centre of the base, followed by significant re-growth, by which time you can transplant it to a container or into the soil outdoors to continue its growth.
Gardening techniques in 1915
While most of the gardening techniques used in 1915 would still work perfectly fine today, there are some that have not aged as well. For example, in order to produce a compost heap at home during the war, you were advised to do the following things:
Pile garden waste and cuttings upon a bed of ashes and old stone rubbish. Don’t be afraid to add refuse from the house—potato, turnip and onion peelings. Bones vegetable leaves and bits of meat are also good. Also add slops (human waste) from the house. As your heap is built up, spread over it a layer of lime, then add more rubbish and another layer of lime and so on.
Never throw on weeds of a woody or fibrous nature to this heap, instead make them into another heap and burn them. Their ashes can be put on the first heap. When the heap has stood for a month or so you will have a valuable manure. Just as useful as horse manure costing 6d a load.
Today, the RHS advise that, while some people do add lime into a compost heap, there is actually no need to do so. The use of lime, may however, have been a method of reducing the potability of the slops, as well as a way to mask the smell. Using human waste or slops in compost at home, is also heavily discouraged, as it contains dangerous bacteria and could present a significant health risk if not done properly, especially if used in the production of food.
Another gardening technique used over 100 years ago, was the method of making ‘manure water’—what we would now call a liquid fertiliser. This method is actually still applicable today and can be used to provide rich nutrients to your flower and vegetable beds.
To make manure water, stand a barrel on some bricks, upon a wooden crate. Firstly, fill about a fifth of barrel with straw at the bottom.
Then fill with manure to the half way point. Then pour in your water to fill the other half of the barrel.
After several days, the water will filter through the manure and can then be applied to your crops. Dilute until it is pale yellow in colour, if necessary.
Many other gardening techniques, such as trench planting and vegetable forcing, remain exactly the same today as they did all those years ago.
The only difference is that today, most people grow vegetables as a hobby or pastime, whereas during The First World War, it was a matter of national survival.
We have a lot to thank the generation that lived and, in many cases, died between 1914 and 1918. Over the next few days, in the lead up to the centenary of the Great War, I will be exploring how gardening helped during the war, how it is used in remembrance of the conflict and how it continues to help military veterans to this day.
David Domoney is a Chartered Horticulturalist, Broadcaster, and Author. David has worked with a number of the UK’s leading garden retailers as a plant buyer and strategic consultant. With more than 30 years experience, in horticulture, David is as passionate about plants now as he was when he bought his first plant at a village fete.
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