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Food in a Time of Siege

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The whole point of siege warfare is to force surrender while incurring a minimum of casualties. However, the besieged people have sometimes proved difficult to subdue through starvation.

Siege of Jerusalem during the First Crusade of 1099.

Siege of Jerusalem during the First Crusade of 1099.

Siege Tactics

In siege warfare armies surrounded communities denying the inhabitants access to food. Inside the besieged city or fortress, desperately hungry people became willing to eat anything.

As armies advanced across their lands people naturally fled for the supposed security of a walled city or castle. But, the sanctuaries were also traps. The attacking forces simply had to set up camp outside the fortress and wait for those inside to run out of food and water.

Siege of Malta in 1565.

Siege of Malta in 1565.

The invaders could plunder the surrounding area for all the supplies they needed, and they could bring in food and water. The besiegers also used their siege engines, such as trebuchets, to lob infected animals or humans over the walls to hasten capitulation by spreading disease.

Sieges go back 4,000 years and are currently part of the military tactics of the Syrian Army to defeat opponents of the dictatorial rule of President Assad.

Let me be clear: The use of starvation as a weapon of war is a war crime.”

Former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon

The Siege of Paris, 1870-71

The Franco-Prussian War broke out over France’s attempt to assert its dominance of Europe. The North German Confederacy (Prussia) was having none of that and invaded France in July 1870. By September 1870, Paris was surrounded and more than two million people were trapped inside. What followed was the development of “siege cuisine.”

By December, Parisians were getting tired of eating cats, dogs, and rats. Where was the Coq au Vin, the Boeuf Bourguignon, and the Cassoulet? Nowhere to be seen was the sad answer. On offer was a thin gruel of horse bone soup.

A vendor during the siege advertising the food choices available.

A vendor during the siege advertising the food choices available.

The French, of course, are renowned as creative culinary geniuses. With Christmas approaching Alexandre Étienne Choron at the Voisin Restaurant decided to put on a banquet like none other. For his ingredients he turned to the zoo in the Jardin d’acclimatation. On December 25, the 99th day of the siege, The menu at Voisin included the following items:

Hors d’oeuvres

  • Beurre, radis, tête d’àne farcie, sardines―Donkey’s head stuffed with butter, radishes, and sardines

Potage

  • Consommé d’éléphant―Elephant soup

Entrees

  • Le chameau rôti a l’ànglaise―Roast camel, English style
  • Le civet de kangourou―Kangaroo stew
  • Cuissot de loupe, sauce chevreuil―Haunch of wolf with venison sauce
  • Le chat flanqué de rats―Cat garnished with rats.

More mundane offerings included watercress salad, buttered peas, and Gruyère cheese.

By the end of January 1871, the siege was over and the French had to agree to somewhat humiliating peace terms. Parisians could go back to the more important matters such as eating Coquilles St. Jacques.

The Siege of Leningrad, 1941-44

For almost 900 days, the people of Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg) had to endure what The Los Angeles Times calls “one of history’s greatest and most gruesome tragedies.”

In early September 1941, the Nazi army closed the last road leading into the city, which had just a 90-day stockpile of food. The Germans lacked the forces for an all-out assault against the Russian defensive perimeter so decided to lay siege to the city. With the help of Finnish troops to the north and some Spanish soldiers, the Wehrmacht choked off the food supply to Leningrad’s three million citizens.

As the available food dwindled to nothing, the city’s population of birds, squirrels, rats, cats and dogs went into a rapid decline and disappeared. People removed wallpaper and scraped off the paste, which could be turned into a broth. Leather belts, hats, and briefcases were boiled down into an edible jelly. Grass, pine needles, nettles, and other weeds were used to make a barely nutritious soup.

Some supplies were brought into Leningrad across Lake Lagoda but the journey was subject to German bombardment and was extremely dangerous.

Some supplies were brought into Leningrad across Lake Lagoda but the journey was subject to German bombardment and was extremely dangerous.

Folk resorted to eating non-food items if they could extract a tiny bit of nutrition from them; the list includes lipstick, cough syrup, window putty, and carpenter’s glue. And, in the winter, they burned everything in an often futile attempt to keep warm in temperatures that were apt to plunge to -30ºC (-22ºF).

Then, there were those that took the final step into dealing with their gnawing hunger―cannibalism. The city set up a special police force to deal with the cannibals, and, during the course of the siege, 260 Leningraders were convicted of eating fellow citizens.

It wasn’t until January 14, 1944, that the Soviet Red Army broke through the cordon and got supplies into Leningrad. It was too late for a third of the population as a million Leningraders had died during the siege, mostly from starvation.

Blockade of Britain, 1939-45

Britain imported 70 percent of its food and this created a vulnerability that Adolf Hitler hoped to exploit. His strategy was to starve the whole of Great Britain into surrender during World War II. Convoys of merchant ships under naval escort delivered vital food and other supplies to the beleaguered nation. German submarines attacked the convoys to ensure those provisions didn’t reach Britain by sinking 3,500 vessels.

More than 36,000 merchant seaman lost their lives bringing supplies to Britain.

More than 36,000 merchant seaman lost their lives bringing supplies to Britain.

Within Britain, food rationing was introduced in January 1940. Each adult had a weekly allowance, among other items, of:

  • Bacon or ham―four ounces
  • Butter―two ounces
  • Cheese―two ounces
  • Milk―three pints
  • Fresh eggs―one plus some egg powder
  • Sugar―eight ounces

Bananas and lemons were not rationed for the simple reason they were completely unavailable. Oranges were reserved for children only.

The rationed food was not free; coupons simply entitled the holder to their allowance from a grocer with whom they registered.

The supply of veggies was not a problem, so vegans were unaffected by shortages, although there were not many of that species around in the 1940s.

The Ministry of Food put out pamphlets giving tips on how people could make thrifty, nutritious meals out of next to nothing. Lord Woolton Pie, named after the Minister of Food, was one delicacy that included parsnips, carrots, cauliflower, and potatoes under a pastry crust.

Bread came in the form of the National Loaf, made from wholemeal flour and described as unappetizing; it got the nickname of “Hitler’s Secret Weapon.”

Carrots were plentiful, so the ministry promoted using them to create Carrolade (a unappetizing blend of juice from carrots and rutabagas), curried carrots, and carrot jam. And, there was a push on to get people to eat Spam; eventually, some grew desperate enough to try it.

Sausages were available but it was best not to inquire too earnestly about their contents. The Ministry of Food had to pass a decree saying that British bangers had to have at least ten percent meat content.

It was recognized that the thought of the British people getting through the war without tea was intolerable. So, the government bought the entire world’s supply of tea. Despite this, tea was still rationed to two ounces per person, per week. As a result tea leaves were not tossed out after one brew but were made to go round a few more times. The Ministry of Food guideline was “one spoonful for each person and none for the pot.”

The “Dig for Victory” program encouraged people to turn their flower gardens into vegetable plots. Many took to keeping chickens in their back yards, and people joined pig clubs that raised animals on food scraps.

Obviously, the British did not suffer as the Parisians and Leningraders did. And, as with those earlier catastrophes, the shortages did create something of a let’s-pull-together culture.

Bonus Factoids

  • A dark poem emerged during the Paris Siege:

“Kind patrons and friends you smile at this food,
But never ‘til hungry can you tell what is good,
Remember, I pray you, of these kinds of meat,
We were eating to live not living to eat.”

  • The Nazis were so convinced that Leningrad was about to fall that they printed invitations to attend a reception of celebration at the Astoria Hotel in the city on August 9, 1942. The Germans never had their party but on the designated day for the event the starving musicians of Leningrad gave a performance Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony.
  • During World War Two, Britain’s royal family faced rations along with everybody else. Eleanor Roosevelt visited Buckingham Palace in 1942 and remarked on the fact that hot bath water was rationed.

Sources

  • “During an 1870 Siege, Trapped Parisians Dined on Rat, Cat, and Elephant.” Anne Ewbank, Atlas Obscura, April 10, 2017.
  • “New Facts Point Up Horror of Nazi Siege of Leningrad.” Matt Bivens, Los Angeles Times, January 27, 1994.
  • “A Brief History of the Siege of Leningrad.” Anastasia Ilina, Culture Trip, April 27, 2018.
  • “Rationing in World War Two.” Stephen Wilson, history-uk.com, undated.
  • “British Wartime Food.” Randal Oulton, Cooksinfo.com, December 11, 2019.
  • “Orchestral Manoeuvres.” Ed Vulliamy, The Guardian, November 25, 2001.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on October 27, 2020:

It was awful and horrific! The people in the walled up country can't help eating these unhealty stuff. The worst part is when the people resort to cannibalism. The country at this point usually breaks up for relief. Thanks for sharing.

Rodric Anthony from Surprise, Arizona on October 26, 2020:

This is an intriguing and informational article. I enjoyed reading it. I did not know that siege warfare was used in Paris and Britain. Thank you for the education.