Paul Cornish
Friday 5 January 2018

Hunger stalked the civilian populations of all the combatant nations. Agriculture and food distribution suffered from strains imposed by the war and naval blockades reduced food imports. Some countries met this threat more successfully than others.

The war took men and horses away from farm work. Imports of nitrate fertilizers were hit. Reduced agricultural output forced up prices and encouraged hoarding. Governments responded by putting price controls on staple foodstuffs. Food queues formed of women and children became a common sight in cities across Europe.

IWM Q 56276

Food queue in Reading during the First World War. The need to queue was lessened when rationing was introduced during 1918. Rationing also ensured equality of food distribution. 

In Russia and Turkey the distribution of food broke down. The Russian revolution had its origins in urban food riots. In Turkey many starved. Austria-Hungary eventually succumbed to the same calamity.

Germany introduced numerous government controls on food production and sale, but these proved to be badly thought out and worsened the effects of the British naval blockade. Substitute foodstuffs were produced from a variety of unappetising ingredients, but their nutritional value was negligible and Germans became increasingly malnourished from 1916 onwards.

Photograph of K-Brot bread, preserved as a souvenir by a liberated British prisoner of war.
IWM EPH 5677

This bread, known as K-Brot, was highly unpopular, as it increasingly contained such ingredients as dried potatoes, oats, barley and even pulverised straw. This slice was preserved as a souvenir by a liberated British prisoner of war. 

Germany’s campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare was intended to expose France, Italy and especially Britain to the same food crisis. These countries relied heavily upon imported grain and viewed the submarine campaign as a deadly threat. They attempted to increase their own food production, but their main success was in introducing successful systems of rationing. Britain introduced rationing in London early in 1918 and extended it nationwide by the summer. British civilians defied German expectations by accepting this state intrusion into their daily lives.