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.

photographs

Food queue in Reading during the First World War

photographs

Food queue in Reading during the First World War

Food shortages and rationing were not only an issue during the Second World War, as this food queue in Reading during the First World War highlights. 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.

souvenirs and ephemera

K-Brot Bread

souvenirs and ephemera

K-Brot Bread

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.

Related Content

British soldiers eat hot rations in the Ancre Valley during the Battle of the Somme.
© IWM (Q 1580)
First World War
The Food That Fuelled The Front
By 1918, the British were sending over 67 million lbs (30 million kg) of meat to the Western Front each month. Daily rations were meant to include fresh or frozen meat, but many meals would have consisted of tinned food, which became a familiar aspect of the British soldier’s diet.
Home front
20 Incredible Photos from the First World War Home Front
Many in Britain, as in the other warring nations, expected the First World War to be a short one. In the event, the war was to last for over four years and it would change the cultural, economic, political and social fabric of Britain forever.
A woman brewer securing the lid of a barrel of beer.
IWM Q 31065
First World War
10 Surprising Laws Passed During The First World War
The outbreak of war in 1914 brought many new rules and regulations to Britain. The most important of these was the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), passed on 8 August 1914 ‘for securing public safety’.