|Fray Bentos Corned Beef from Uruguay
Fed the British Tommies
By Phillip Dehne St. Joseph’s College, New York, USA
When looking at the First World War, Latin America presents a conundrum. It was a place firmly outside the core military story that inevitably and justly dominates histories of the Great War. But despite this, Latin America was far more important to the outcome of the war than many of the military sideshows in Africa and the Pacific, which despite their unimportance to the overall outcome of war are often described or at least mentioned in general histories of the war. Supplies from Latin America were critical for the Entente’s war effort, helping to feed fighting men and civilians.
Latin America played a big role in allowing the Allies to maintain reasonable supplies, particularly in the critical year of 1918 when France received more than a third of its wheat imports from Argentina. Significant amounts of the tinned meat and lukewarm coffee consumed by the poilus of the French Army came from Uruguay and Brazil. Regardless of its culinary appeal, such food was better in quality, freshness and quantity than what German soldiers got, and the morale of the German civilians and troops correspondingly plummeted in the summer of 1918. Although they did not fall into true famine by 1918, the German military and civilians had certainly worn down due to deprivation that would not have existed if the Entente simply allowed Germany to trade with all the world’s neutrals.
Certainly the bulk of food for the Entente came from the English-speaking North American states, but critical food supplies, particularly meat and grains from the River Plate, flooded across the Atlantic and fed the civilians and soldiers of the British and French empires. The grain crops of South America were available on the opposite seasonal cycle from the supplies from North America, filling pivotal supply gaps in the early months of each year. These supplies were far quicker to ship to Europe than those from India, Australia, and New Zealand, and with significantly less usage of scant shipping. Throughout the war, food bought and paid for sat unshipped on Australian docks.
The frozen meat supplied from the River Plate to the Allies made up more than half of the meat imported from overseas into Allied territories throughout the war, in 1917 supplying nearly four times the meat of Australia and ten times more meat than the United States. Without a doubt, Latin American food tremendously improved the ability of the British and French militaries and societies to resist the German offensives during the pivotal final year of war.
Although it is not quite acceptable historical practice to speculate about what did not happen, one could easily imagine that a lack of available Latin American food would have simply meant that less food would enter Allied territories, leading their people and armies closer to starvation and perhaps creating unrest similar to that which developed in Germany in the early days of November 1918. It is probably impossible to calculate whether this food imbalance abetted by Latin American supplies meant that the war lasted a few days, a few weeks, or a few months less than if the Allies had not relied on Latin American produce. Regardless, it is fair to conclude that Latin American supplies contributed significantly to the Allies’ critical (and perhaps even decisive) ability to out-eat their German opponents.
After the War: Starving Europe
Perhaps not surprisingly, access to food and financial supplies after the war exposed again the unique place of Latin America in the Great War. Throughout the Paris Peace Conference in the first months of 1919, representatives from all the victorious powers had to grapple with the competing imperatives of feeding the starving populations of defeated central Europe while sucking out of Germany as many tangible resources for reparations as possible. Latin America was one of the rare places where there was agreement between these imperatives. The inability of the victorious Allies to simply sequester German property in Latin America (in other words, their failure to really win the war on the “far western front”) meant that the German grain businesses and banks there still had resources that could be used to purchase and send food to the starving peoples of Germany.
By early May, German authorities had already purchased 100,000 tons of River Plate flour. Germany did not need to send money or gold, because Argentina and other South American countries remained the one place in the world where the miserable, defeated, nearly failed state of Germany still had credit.
Source: "How Important Was Latin America to the First World War?," Iberoamericana, XIV, 53, 2014