Napoleon said an army marches on its stomach, but as this book demonstrates, feeding a country’s civilian population in wartime is just as vital to success.
Eggs Or Anarchy by William Sitwell | Simon and Schuster, £20
Eggs Or Anarchy tracks the life of Lord Woolton, Minister of Food, whose task it was to organise and distribute adequate nutrition in Britain in the face of shortages which resulted from blockades and the sinking of Atlantic supply ships during the Second World War. The story of how the country devised a fair system for doling out rations is well known, but author William Sitwell paints a picture of perhaps the only man who had the talents to do it. In achieving his task, it could be argued that Woolton made the most important single contribution to the war effort and vastly improved the health of a whole nation in the process.
His genius was a result of his background, his training and his tastes. Born in Salford in 1883, the son of a semi-literate mechanic and an ambitious mother, he spent time in slum areas of Liverpool as a young man and was shocked to discover that working class residents sometimes starved to death.
Entering a career in retail, by the age of 37 he was managing director of Lewis’s department store in Liverpool. He was knighted in 1935. It was from this position that he got a call from the War Office and gave up his lucrative job to do his duty.
Sitwell writes with wit and has the considerable diaries and mementos collected by Woolton and his wife Maud to refer to. These give a personal view of the story, with Woolton himself often griping about fellow ministers. His recollection of exchanges with Churchill, who was too much of a bon viveur to approve of rationing, are particularly enlightening.
Woolton’s tasks covered everything from the logistics of moving fresh food around the country so that discontent could be kept to a minimum and doing dodgy deals in the back streets of Alexandria to access fresh supply routes, to advising housewives on how to make the best of the meagre rations.
His championing of the dismal sounding potato and pastry concoction, nicknamed the Woolton Pie, led to him being served it everywhere he went, he notes ruefully in his diary.
He was a man of simple tastes – rich food disagreed with him – and Sitwell leaves you with the impression that a man who had more of a preference for champagne and caviar would not have been up to the task.
His talent was for organisation, but Woolton was also a man who understood and grasped the opportunity to bring fairness, improved health and values such as making do and cutting waste to a whole nation. It is story that deserves to be more widely known.