Army Food Procurement: 1918 and 2018

Source: Ladies Home Journal (June, 1918)

How the U.S. military procures food for soldiers has changed over the past hundred years.

In 2018, the Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support Subsistence program purchases the food. Here’s what the Defense Logistics Agency website says:

The Subsistence supply chain provides food support for the military all over the world. From individually packaged meals in a soldier’s ruck sack, to a ship’s galley and to full service dining facilities on military installations, Subsistence gets that food there.

We work with our industry partners around the globe to feed the newest troops in training and seasoned sailors at sea. And we take pride in ensuring our service members have a taste of home for the holidays, no matter where they’re deployed.

In 1918, World War I was raging, and I’m sure that much food for the soldiers was purchased from large companies; however, the army also purchased home-canned foods. Here are some excerpts from an article in the June, 1918 issue of Ladies Home Journal:

How Twelve Girls Fed a Camp of Soldiers

I have been asked to give an account of the work done by the Girls’ Canning and Evaporating Club of Harvard, Massachusetts in order to demonstrate what twelve patriotic girls between the ages of nine and seventeen can do. The club was organized in the spring of 1917, with a special aim in view – that of creating what one might call an emergency supply. President Wilson said, to the women of the country, that one of the most patriotic things they could do was to conserve a surplus amount of food that would be available in case of a general shortage.

In the case of towns around the army camps, the possibility of being called upon to help out with food for the soldiers in case of shortage made this idea of an emergency supply of added value.

Now, while amateur work is often excellent, there is always the element of chance in it, because the knowledge of the fundamental principles is apt to be superficial. It was decided to give the girls a thorough training that would be a solid groundwork. A paid demonstrator was engaged to instruct the class every Saturday.

Toward the end of the season the club was invited to send an exhibit to the big Eastern States Exhibition that was held at Springfield, Massachusetts, and had the great pleasure and encouragement of being awarded a medal. This added zest to the work being done by the club, and all hands redoubled their efforts as the day for the home exhibition, held at the Town Hall at Harvard, approached. The results of the work were 1,000 jars of canned food done in the club and 200 pounds of evaporated food.

When the day came, in spite of a drenching rain, the doors had hardly been opened when the whole club exhibit of canned and evaporated food was sold to Battery F, 303d Heavy Artillery, through Lieutenant Martindale, the Battery’s mess officer, who expressed a wish that there was double the amount to secure.

The next morning a large army truck was sent over from the camp, and we had the great joy and satisfaction of seeing it packed with the results of our labor.

Clara Endicott Sears

25 thoughts on “Army Food Procurement: 1918 and 2018

  1. Fascinating. It’s interesting to see how deeply the US population was implicated in the war effort. Here in Europe, we only tend to see what the American and Canadian soldiers did.

    1. I think that may be because Americans have a different relationship with the Great War, by and large, than Europeans do. To Americans, World War Two tends to remain “The War”, or the defining war of the past 100 years. History minded people are of course different, but if Americans think back on wars of the 20th Century they’re likely to more or less stop looking back with World War Two. We’re oddly like the Russians that way who are also highly focused (even more so) on World War Two.

      World War One was was a very bloody war for the United States but it was fairly short as well. By 1919 discontent on our role in the war was already setting in, a very stout recession set in, and then came the Roaring Twenties. Having been a World War One veteran remained a notable part of a person’s life history at least until World War Two which had a much larger lead up for the U.S. and which lasted much longer and which involved the nation for a longer period of time.

      In reality, resources in the United States were stretched during our involvement in WWI in a way that they were not in World War Two. We didn’t have national rationing but there were food and materials shortages of all kids. Some states, such as Montana, put in state rationing. The first draft since the American Civil War took away a large percentage of the male population and the population was extremely hostile to the concept of conscientious objection. To not serve in the war, for men, became a point of shame even as draft evasion was relatively widespread. Women had to step into a lot of positions occupied by men.

      Canada (which was a smaller nation at the time as two of the maritime provinces joined the nation after the war) was likewise stretched even though it did not have conscription. At that time, outside of Quebec, there was an enormous retained loyalty to the UK and volunteerism was high, including among women. Canadian women ended up volunteering not only for nursing service (I had two female relatives that did that) but also for agricultural work in the UK and France.

      1. Thank you or that. So interesting, and all unknown to me. To us, like you, the Americans were a feature of WWII not WWI, and GIs were generous dispensers of sweets, chocolates, nylons and other unimaginable luxuries, as well as marrying English girls. ‘Over-sexed, overpaid and over here’ was said with a smile on the face, not bitterness, I think.

        1. Americans left a bigger impression on France, and parts of France at that, than the UK during the war (noting your famous British expression). While some Americans did land in Great Britain during WWI, for the most part American troops were deployed directly to France. The exception would be the Navy, which played a significant but forgotten role on the war in the Atlantic, but which was based in Europe out of Irish ports, with Ireland then being part of the UK as you know.

          Indeed, not only were they deployed directly to France, but they were deployed with their training being incomplete in many instances. During WWII the U.S. had over a year to build up and start training an Army, but even at that very few Americans were deployed to the war against the Germans and Italians until 1943. In World War One, however, the U.S. started mobilizing only weeks prior to the declaration of war, save for the body of men in the National Guard who had been mobilized in 1916 out of a fear of a war with Mexico, and had only just been demobilized prior to being remobilized just prior to our declaration of war. U.S. troops began to be deployed in earnest to counter the massive German 1918 Spring Offensive and then came into action in force in July 1918.

          Post war recollections of WWI v. WWII American servicemen are really interesting. There was little exposure to English civilians, so there are very little in the way of accounts of reactions to them. American servicemen were enamored of the French, impressed and sympathetic to the Italians, and actually fairly impressed with German civilians in the post war occupation. In contrast, during WWII Americans were hugely impressed with the English, shocked by what they regarded as the primitiveness of the Italians, and impressed with French civilians but also finding them to be very backwards. Their views on German civilians varied to the extent they’d been in combat and whether or not they’d been exposed to the SS and the Death Camps. Anyhow, the accounts often seem to be based on the degree to which common features of daily life, such as plumbing, were in common use, which is interesting in that what it really reflects is a massive change in American household infrastructure after WWI and before WWII, in spite of the Great Depression, which had not kept pace in France and Italy.

          Well, I’m babbling.

          1. Not babbling at all. Truly interesting. I think I’d like to read more about this, and I’ll have t see what the library can come up with. Thank you for whetting my appetite.

    2. I never really thought about WWI from the prospective of how it affected the homefront until I started doing posts about food-related topics from a hundred years ago. The war-related things that I put in this blog are only a very tiny fraction of the WWI related topics which were published in Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and other similar magazines between 1916 and 1918. The war’s impact was huge – food shortages, loved ones abroad, etc.

      1. I have to say that some of my favourite posts from you have been about how World War I affected ordinary families. Do you think you’ll be writing any more about this topic in the near future?

  2. That was most interesting! It’s amazing what a few people can do when they jump in and work. Americans still volunteer for lots of things, but feeding the military isn’t one of them.

    1. Or clothing them. The government ended up relying on home knitted socks and sweaters as well. There are actually posters urging women to knit socks for soldiers.

      Volunteerism in WWI was a big deal in general as there wasn’t an organization like the USO during the war. Service organizations of all types ended up playing a huge role in the U.S. effort (and Allied effort in general) with the American Red Cross even being partially incorporated into the Army after the U.S. entered the war:

    2. I get the general sense from hundred-year-old magazine articles that people felt like they had a responsibility to conserve food – especially foods that might might be shipped to the troops like wheat flour. And some, like the young women in the magazine article, took it a step further and actually canned food which were used to feed the troops.

  3. In WWI as in WWII, the whole nation was involved in the war effort. Not so these days, when most of us hardly notice the carnage while our wars are fought by our military — really a separate group in our society. I wonder whether we’d pay more attention to the realities if we were again involved as we were in those two wars.

    1. Of course, those wars were gigantic in scale. From the U.S. prospective, only the Revolution and the Civil War involved the population in the same way. Plenty of other American wars, from the Mexican War, to the post Civil War conflicts on the western plains, to the Philippine Insurrection, involved the population very little. World War One was only the second time up until then that the U.S. had been required to resort to Federal conscription, the first time being the Civil War (although up until after the Civil War all states had compulsory militia duty).

      Currently we do have little involvement with our own military, but even now our armed forces are considerably larger than they were prior to 1917, and again from 1919 to 1939. It’s actually the American tradition to have a small military, by and large, and lots of U.S. small conflicts have been fought with a very small standing army. As horrific as they may be if a person is in them, the post Vietnam War American conflicts have been tiny in scale. The U.S. has, for example, lost 2,313 troops in Afghanistan, but lost 26,277 in the Meuse Argonne offensive, a single offensive, during World War One. The Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War resulted in 3,178 American deaths in contrast, which is far fewer than the Meuse Argonne, but still more than the entire war in Afghanistan to date. The Philippine Insurrection resulted in the loss of 4200 American lives and nobody even remembers it now, and by the end of it, Americans at home had basically forgotten it was going on.

      Another way to look at is that 4,000,000 men were conscripted into the American Armed Forces, or voluntarily joined, during WWI out of a population that was less than half (more like a third) of the current American population. If 12,000,000 males were in the service today that would be about the same number, which would put quite a dent in the labor force, particularly if we adjust it for the fact that today most working age women are employed outside of the home. If we did that, it’d be a figure more or less like 24,000,000. In WWII 16,100,000 men served in the armed forces. The point would be that in order to get to that sort of level of involvement you have practically have mobilized the entire military age population which is really unusual from the American prospective.

    1. I also was thinking that the soldiers were probably really glad to get these home canned goods. It probably was tastier than their usual fare – and it must have made them feel good to know that nearby community members were so supportive of their efforts.

  4. Interesting! I think our young people miss out when they don’t learn how to garden ,then preserve what was grown… opening a can or buying it fresh from the grocery doesn’t give the satisfaction like that of what you have put up from the garden.

    1. When I was young I didn’t appreciate how lucky I was to be part of a family where we preserved and ate lots of home-grown foods. Now, I realize how fortunate I was.

  5. I’ve enjoyed the post and all the comments! The attitudes of Americans were so inspiring. Our health regulations would probably prevent this type of food distribution, but I find the girls’ excitement to be very refreshing!

    1. I thought exactly the same thing as you – I don’t think that current health regulations would permit the army to use home-canned foods. Times have changed.

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