Book Reviews

The Taste of War Book Cover

The Taste of War Book Cover

The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food

by Lizzie Collingham
New York: Allen Lane (Penguin Press), 2011
634 pages, $US 36.00
ISBN 978-0-713-99964-8

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Reviewed by Derek Spencer

<<Une armée marche sur son estomac>> 

~Napoleon Bonaparte1

Food, like air and water, is absolutely essential to life.  We take it very seriously as it helps us define cultures, forms a central part of social contact, and is critical to our individual health and well-being. The developed world today is characterized by vast, year-round abundance, yet we are equally bombarded with images of desperate starvation in the poorest corners of the globe. In the Canadian Forces, it is so important, we have messes on every base, we have ‘Cook’ as a military occupation on par with infantry soldier, and we employ some officers that are specialized in food services and sciences. Supplying food is essential to effective and sustained military operations such that logisticians know with precision the weight, volume, and transport requirements to feed a combat formation per day.2  Food in war is surrounded by operational art and science. Lizzie Collingham’s The Taste of War:  World War II and the Battle for Food is not about that operational art. Her achievement goes much farther. She has approached the subject of food during that global and total conflict with a thorough and expert integration of both grand strategic implications and its individual human impacts. During the Second World War, there were 19.5 million military deaths, but 20 million people died of starvation and the diseases associated with malnutrition.3  Stalin may have said that “the Artillery is the god of war,”4 but hunger is certainly a force that cannot be ignored.

Lizzie Collingham has, in this book, created no less than a comprehensive and lucid treatment of the science and politics of food during the Second World War in four parts. In a way, it is a step behind the backdrop of well-known battles and political conferences to view that global war through a new lens always focusing upon food. The first part, entitled “Food the Engine of War,” is a historical analysis of Germany and Japan from the late 19th Century through to the inter-war period.  Her analysis of changes in agricultural practices and diets provides a context for the aggression of the Axis and their wartime operations.

The second part, the “Battle for Food,” discusses the strategic policies and practices of all the Allies and Axis nations. It constitutes the largest part of the book, and covers in depth rationing, embargoes, food production, and the far-reaching impacts of dietary and food processing science. Collingham creates a language around food and hunger as a weapon of war. What else is an embargo but starvation as a form of attack upon an industrial population, delivering an effect, albeit slower than but similar to bombing? What else is rationing but a defensive measure to preserve the strength and capacity of military and industrial capability? It is here that Collingham introduces the concept of exporting starvation. Typical Second World War histories talk about the Battle of the Atlantic, or the Nazi capture of the Ukraine during Operation Barbarossa. Instead, Collingham provides us with a fresh perspective by looking at how, for instance, changes in the use of the British mercantile fleet caused severe famine in Mauritius. This was taken to far more brutal extremes by the Axis forces with the extraction of food resources in Korea and China to support Japanese war efforts.

In the third part, Collingham discusses the “Politics of Food.” She thoroughly discusses the various rationing methods of each major power, as well as the Combined Food Board arrangements between the US and Britain. Also, she outlines in crisp and informative detail the emergence of the science of nutrition, from the 1930s to its exponential improvement during the war. This is the part that examines the Victory Gardens planted in practically every backyard, and story upon story of ersatz and alternate foods. It is here that we truly understand that the Second World War quest to develop a cheap and healthy source of protein to accommodate the scarcity of meat meant that the ‘taste of war’ was the potato. These stories and explanations are where Collingham excels. Both her use of powerful eyewitness accounts well matched with formal scientific studies show how industrial workers were demonstrated in many countries to be more productive if they were well fed. In some nations, such as in the Soviet Union and Japan, this fact did not result in more food, whereas in the US and Britain, governments went so far as to develop policies aimed at social welfare.

It is in the last part, “The Aftermath,” wherein Collingham does a surprising thing. After this comprehensive and academic journey through all matters concerning food, it is expected that she would cast a new light on the war’s conclusion. Indeed, she maintains that while victory was delivered around the world and the yoke of oppression was lifted from the shoulders of millions, hunger existed everywhere. Millions had half as much food available in 1945 than they did in 1939, and there was an overall 12 percent drop in global food production.5  Rationing continued in Britain until 1950, for example.  In fact, during the war, bread and potatoes were available in unlimited quantities, but in 1946, its British Labour Government imposed restrictions upon these commodities. That farm, storehouse, and factory of democracy, the United States, that had fed, fuelled, and armed the Allies, was arguably the only nation better off in this respect after the war. However, what was surprising in this part of the book was Collingham’s discussion of our present day food issues. It is valuable and interesting to learn that many characteristics of modern food production and distribution were born during the Second World War, such as soya and corn replacements in processed food, new canning techniques, refrigeration ships for shipping meat, and dehydrated eggs and milk.  However, it is entirely different to move into a discussion with respect to food shortages in the 21st Century and a proposed need to return to rationing. While her arguments are sound and observations have merit, in a book dealing with the Second World War, this felt like the wrong place for her ‘to get on her soap box.’

Upon reflection, certain observations about this book become apparent. Without a doubt, Collingham was successful in portraying the human cost of starvation through an excellent mix of detailed statistics and first-person accounts. She drew upon Mass Observation and the Harvard Project with great effect. Mass Observation was a program that issued diaries and questionnaires to 3000 people in Britain during the Second World War. The Harvard Project collected transcripts of interviews from Soviet defectors in 1950-1951. Collingham used these and many other sources to exquisitely detail the human face of hunger during the war.

Perhaps the most significant criticism is that she stretches her thesis concerning the importance of food too far. No issue seemed to be free of its influence. Without question, Collingham is a reigning expert on food, both historically and scientifically.  Her previous book, Curry: a Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, is masterful, and  her discussions of nutrition and food science display passion and understanding.  Unfortunately, her knowledge of military operations is a little less expert. She did apply her expertise in research to understanding the various campaign operations, and even provided an appropriate set of maps (many military historians would do well to learn from that inclusion). She does, however, overly apply food causes. For instance, German and Japanese aggression was driven by a concern about the need for access for all raw materials, such as oil and strategic metals, as well as food. Also, while the Japanese army suffered defeat after 1943 to a large extent from starvation, the Soviets also operated under conditions of extreme privation. Their victories point to a weakness in the food thesis.

Overall, however, this book is a must read for those interested in a full understanding of the Second World War. It is a fascinating tour ‘behind the wizard’s curtain’ by an expert guide. Collingham has provided a complete view of this aspect, drawing upon an array of primary sources, from national statistics, to eyewitness accounts, expertly integrated. She should be applauded for applying her passion and expertise in this manner to improve our understanding of this significant historical period.

Major Derek Spencer recently served as the Current Plans Officer within the Department of Geospatial Intelligence, and is currently employed as the Chief CIED at the NATO Rapid Deployable Corps Headquarters in Istanbul, Turkey.


  1. Bartlett's Familiar Quotations: A Collection of Passages, Phrases, and Proverbs Traced to Their Sources in Ancient and Modern Literature (17th Edition) ISBN: 978-0316084604,pp. 371-373.

  2. 44.3 short tons of food per U.S. infantry division per day in 1943. Stephen Patrick, The Normandy Campaign (Wieser and Wieser, 1986). ISBN 0-7251-0521-6.

  3. Collingham, p. 1.


  5. Collingham, p. 467.