As part of Poultry World’s 140th birthday celebrations last year, we looked at a scheme set up in the First World War to supply eggs to wounded soldiers. Amateur historian David Thomas has delved into the detail.
Noble Foods is well known for its marketing nous. The firm is behind the Happy Egg, a branded product that continues to show remarkable resilience. It has also marketed colony eggs successfully as Big and Fresh, and forged links with charity Help for Heroes with its Eggs for Soldiers initiative.
Launched in April 2011, Eggs for Soldiers were presented in khaki green packaging, featured bread ‘soldiers’ and 15p was donated to charity from every pack. It has so far raised more than £1m for Help for Heroes, and by all accounts is a huge success.
An earlier initiative, launched some 100 years ago by Poultry World, had similar ambitions, but the primary aim was the supply of eggs as a nourishing food for injured soldiers during the First World War. It was an astounding success by any measure, with some 41.5m eggs collected from farms and backyard flocks before being delivered to servicemen.
The National Egg Collection for Wounded Soldiers and Sailors was instituted following an approach made by Dr GL Easter of the East Lancashire Red Cross Hospital at Worsley to the editor of Poultry World, Frederick Carl, and a set of proposals was laid out by the latter in the issue of the journal dated 13 November 1914.
In May of the previous year, the magazine had organised its sixth annual Hospital Egg Week, which had brought in almost 38,000 new-laid eggs for hospitals in London.
It was, then, well used to the logistics of such an operation, although whether Mr Carl quite envisaged the success of the new initiative is open to question, for the paper had to admit, somewhat ruefully, that “it is safe to assume that he failed to grasp the magnitude of the task at the beginning”.
The project had support from the War Office and the Treasury from the outset and, following a slow start, quickly gathered momentum.
Local depots, listed in Poultry World and later the campaign journal Eggs Wanted, would send boxes – free of charge – via rail to a Harrods warehouse in central London.
Support came from Scouts, Girl Guides, poultry clubs and a wealth of other volunteer-led organisations.
The aim initially was to supply 20,000 new-laid eggs a week to the wounded in hospital in Boulogne. But in early 1915 the paper began to aim higher, endeavouring to collect or purchase 200,000 eggs a week for distribution principally to the base hospitals on the continent (and this remained the priority of the collection throughout the war).
That target was met over Easter 1915, with Poultry World proclaiming proudly on 9 April that the previous week’s total had been 211,855 eggs.
But it wasn’t enough. Demand continued to outstrip supply, and at the end of July, partly to celebrate the fact that Queen Alexandra had agreed to be patron of the charity, an appeal was launched to collect a million eggs each week.
‘Queen Alexandra’s Week’ was a resounding success, with 1,036,380 eggs received in the week of 16-23 August, not including those given direct to hospitals.
The Great War, which at its outset had been confidently predicted to be “over by Christmas”, had, in August 1915, entered its second bloody year. It was constantly hammered home that new-laid eggs were not a luxury for wounded men but a vital element of their diet: “In cases of gassing, spinal or facial wounds, eggs are practically the only diet that is suitable, and in some cases an egg diet is absolutely essential.”
A key part of the success of the scheme was the involvement of children. They were encouraged to bring eggs to school on designated days, and were invited to paint postcards encouraging others to take up the cause.
Children were also encouraged to write a message of support on the egg, and many included their address for the receiving soldier to write back his thanks. There is even one record of an injured father receiving an egg from his own daughter back home.
The Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918 and the National Egg Collection effort was gradually wound down. It had for some time been recognised that the collection’s activities would need to be continued for up to six months after the end of the war and the last day of March 1919 was chosen as the end date.
As the work of the collection drew to a close, the editor of Poultry World penned a fulsome and heart-felt eulogy of ‘a great undertaking’ and of the philanthropic and national spirit that the poultry-keepers of the country had displayed.
“I have had it remarked to me,” he wrote, “over and over again by officials associated with the War Department, by medical officers in charge of hospitals over in France and at home, ‘what we should have done without the eggs of the National Egg Collection for the Wounded, I really do not know’.”