Now one sees faces like masks, blue and cold and drawn by hunger.
Evelyn, Princess Blücher, Berlin, February 1917
By 1917 hunger caused by naval blockades threatened collapse on the home fronts. In Britain the government introduced rationing to ease the effects of Germany’s submarine campaign. People now got fair shares of food. Supplies were limited, but nobody starved.
But in Germany and Austria-Hungary, the British blockade caused real suffering, even starvation. Serious shortages of food and resources led to price rises, riots and strikes.
Why was the British blockade so effective? Men and horses were sent from farms to the Front and food production fell. With imports cut off, a poor harvest in 1916 turned a problem into a crisis.
The supply of food was badly managed. While the armies were fed, civilians, especially those in cities, went hungry.
Patriotic crockery and boxes
The British people were urged to eat less and waste nothing. They could buy patriotic crockery designed to encourage smaller meal portions. The boxes shown here, for keeping small amounts of sugar, were made by a wounded Belgian soldier in London. But prices and food queues kept growing, as did public concern and grumbling. The well-off were asked to join a voluntary rationing scheme so as to leave more food for people in need.
A public kitchen in Hammersmith, London, set up to provide cheap meals
Film, notices and posters
The film and notices here and the posters on your left made plain the need to save food. In 1918 nearly 30,000 people were fined for wasting it. One man had fed his chickens on wheat; another had given oats to a horse ‘kept for pleasure’. A woman who had bought over 45 kilos of meat for her dog pleaded that it ‘had a weak heart and required careful feeding’.
In early 1918, food shortages forced the British government to introduce rationing. Everyone was issued with ration cards, later replaced by ration books, which guaranteed set amounts of meat, sugar, lard and butter or margarine per week. Rationing proved popular and helped reduce the food queues. Retired civil servant Charles Balston wrote in his diary, ‘Rationing taught us to bear each other’s burdens and to share and share alike’.
These recipes use American maize and - an exotic introduction to the British diet - rice from India. Bread formed a far greater part of the British diet than it does today. But wheat to make flour was in short supply, so the government encouraged people to try different foods which were more available. Kennedy Jones, Director-General of Food Economy, told Britain’s women that ‘the kitchen is the key to victory’.
Farmers had to use all available land and produce all the food they could without waste. They were strictly regulated. Shown here are a government notice to a Gloucestershire farmer advising him of an upcoming government inspection and a Notice to Poultry-Keepers instructing them what they could feed their birds. Heavy fines, even imprisonment, threatened those who flouted the rules.
The British government set maximum prices on food to stop war profiteers - the wholesalers and shopkeepers who took advantage of the lack of food to make money. One diarist, Annie Purbrook from Hornchurch, Essex, described them as ‘greedy monsters to be found almost everywhere’ who ‘make a profit by holding up supplies and only letting food dribble out at huge prices’.
‘Land Girls’, children and German prisoners of war help to bring in the harvest, 1918
Across Europe, children played their part in coping with shortages. French schoolgirls designed these posters calling on people to eat less meat and to sow wheat.
Schoolchildren were also taught food economy. One nine-year-old British boy wrote in an essay, ‘If I here of any people grumbling about not enough food I shall tell them not to be grumbling’.
Food shortages haunted the peoples of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Malnutrition led to diseases such as scurvy, dysentery and tuberculosis. The Allied blockade of German ports contributed to the premature deaths of an estimated 500,000 German civilians. Rationing was introduced, but it was poorly organised. Many shopkeepers could be bribed and a black market flourished. Ordinary people spent vast amounts of time and money trying to obtain food. Only the rich could get what they wanted.
German ration cards and war dishes
The German rationing system varied from region to region and town to town, with local ration cards printed for bread, meat, fat, milk, eggs, potatoes and groceries. Patriotic citizens were encouraged to eat smaller meals from ‘war dishes’. In the ‘Hunger Winter’ of 1916-1917 many Germans were forced to exist on a diet based on a coarse type of swede that was usually fed to cattle.
German tobacco, tea, coffee and war bread
Germany produced substitute - Ersatz - goods to fill empty stomachs and help overcome shortages. These Ersatz products were of inferior quality. Tobacco contained tree bark. Coffee was made from roasted barley and tea from raspberry leaves. Hundreds of barely edible concoctions were promoted as substitutes for meat. The most hated food was ‘war bread’, which sometimes contained sawdust.
Starving children in Vienna, Austria
A mobile soup kitchen feeding hungry Germans
Germany and Austria-Hungary hoped to exploit conquered territories in Eastern Europe. These photographs show the Romanian harvest being gathered to feed people in Germany. But it proved difficult to ship food back to Germany and Austria. Germany was able to take less grain from defeated Romania than it had bought there before the war.
Romanian farmers harvesting under German supervision
French prisoners of war load Romanian grain for shipment to Germany
The blockade of ports by Britain and its allies forced Germany to adopt extraordinary measures to deal with shortages of raw materials. These measures prevented serious damage to the war effort and maintained supply of equipment to the Germany Army. But ordinary people paid the price.
They suffered from a lack of fuel for heating and cooking. Inferior substitutes replaced everyday items. People were cold, dirty, poorly clothed and demoralised.
Clothing made from woven paper
The blockade cut Germany off from its main sources of cotton and wool. The German Army took priority, so civilians were forced to go without. People who could no longer patch together their worn-out clothes were forced to wear clothing made from woven paper. Paper clothes were quite strong, but were obviously not suited to being washed or worn in the rain.
Russia has failed us Russia has failed us when we most needed her help, and her armies have ignominiously retreated.
In Russia the collapse of food supplies, war weariness and no prospect of victory combined to dramatic effect. There were mass protests. The Tsar was forced to abdicate by his own generals. A provisional government tried to keep the war going. But it was overthrown by Lenin’s revolutionary Bolshevik party which promised the people ‘Peace, Bread, Land’. In 1917 Russia became the first major power to leave the war.
How did the collapse of Russia affect the war? At Brest-Litovsk the Bolsheviks signed a punishing peace treaty with Germany and its allies.
Germany could now concentrate its best fighting men on the Western Front. If it could strike before large numbers of American troops arrived, then it might finally seize victory against Britain and France.
In the autumn of 1917 the communist Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. They succeeded because many soldiers based in the capital, Petrograd (present-day St Petersburg), supported them. This banner was carried on the streets of the city. It bears the words ‘Workers of all countries unite! In the struggle you will obtain your rights!’