He and I used to roam the streets looking at the shops and I can remember seeing a queue and some of us would stay in the queue not really knowing what there was…

Listen to the voices of those who were there or read the podcast transcript below.

The First World War had a profound effect on the lives of civilians. In Britain, people found themselves being gradually drawn into a conflict that had, at first, seemed remote. Farm worker Harry Smith summed up the attitudes of many towards the war.

Elderly people and older people and so on, they hadn’t really got over the South African war before that started in 1914 and it was a dread with a lot of people. Especially people having sons grown up to military age and so on and wondering where everybody was going to be and how it was going to end, you see. Every war that we’d had was always abroad, but this one was a bit nearer home, in France. And it was a mysterious affair, wondering, everybody wondering, like, what… And the government was trying to kid people on that it would not last long, and all that. And it would soon be over with the power we’d got, powerful navy and one thing and another.

One of the main ways the war affected civilians was a shortage of food. Agriculture felt the strain of war; production declined and prices rose. As a grocer’s assistant in Yorkshire, Walter Hare soon noticed there was less food available.

Now, the first thing we were short of was sugar. Because I don’t think we grew sugar beet in this country, in those days, and most of our sugar came from… We had cane sugar, of course, the canes came from South America – I think Tate and Lyle’s produced cane sugar. But no beet sugar, as far as I know, and beet sugar came from Austria so we were without beet sugar. That was the first thing we were short of. Lard later on, because that mostly came from America. Then everything began to be short. We had to sort of – we’d no ration cards or aught like that – you had to ration it out, you see, divide what we had. So that everybody got a fair share of whatever there was.

The early months of the war saw some panic buying and hoarding of food. The situation then worsened when Germany began following a policy of ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’ which reduced the volume of supplies reaching Britain. Vera Waite recalled how the food shortages affected her village near Bristol.

I well remember a certain person in the village who hoarded a sack full of flour, which there was going to be a great shortage of flour. Because we had bread made with potatoes, potato flour. This person had a sack of flour which she put into her bath and kept it and boasted about that. Well, the consequence was, that flour got little maggots and it was no use to her. I know that several people – my mother included – said it serves her right for trying to… If she’d shared it out, it would’ve been much better. But no, she thought that, she boasted about this sack of flour that was no good to her.

A group of smiling female workers pose with sacks of flour in the grounds of a British mill during the First World War.
A group of smiling workers pose with sacks of flour in the grounds of a British mill during the First World War. © IWM (Q 30941)

It wasn’t only Britain that was affected by shortages. Across Europe, war soon influenced the production, movement and supply of foodstuffs. Helena Reid noticed a gradual scarcity of provisions in the German-occupied city of Lille in France.

At the beginning we had very little shortage, because we had plenty of food. But afterwards it became very, very serious. All we had was a ration of, oh, I can’t remember the bread. I remember it was something very dark and very… it didn’t taste like bread at all. There was no milk – we did have some milk, we had Carnation milk, or something like that, which was really on ration. The three adults with me really went short, to give it to me. Because I remember I used to say, ‘Don’t you have some?’ ‘No, no we don’t want it.’ And of course I was having the best. I was the only child, you see.

At least food could be found in Britain and France. In Germany and Austria, people were starving. Britain’s naval blockade of Germany severely restricted the amount of goods that reached German civilians. As Walter Rappolt recalled, it got so bad that substitute foodstuffs were introduced.

It got more and more serious. So that people got asleep hungry. It got worse and worse. If I may refer to the rationing in Germany during the First World War, and the rationing of Britain in the Second World War, it was all the difference of the world. The coffee was not made of coffee beans, which were unavailable, it was made, I suppose, of some sort of vegetables. I never got to know that. Of course, no taste of coffee whatsoever, it was a hot drink. If we were thirsty, it quenched our thirst but it had no taste whatsoever. Not disagreeable but not agreeable either.

In Britain, the increasing shortages resulted in goods being unevenly distributed. When a shop had new stock in, everyone rushed to buy up what they could. If you didn’t get there quickly, you missed out. Queues became a common sight. Edgar Waite lived in Sunderland.

There was no rationing at the early part of the First World War. The result was it was very difficult getting hold of food, especially meat. And women had to queue up very early in the morning. Somebody would say, ‘Now, there’s a butcher’s shop up the road there; they’ve got some meat.’ And they would queue up hours before the butcher’s shop opened, on the off chance of perhaps only getting a bone with a bit of meat on. They had to just accept anything that’s going. It was the same with cigarettes. Somebody along the street would see a chap, he’d say, ‘By the way, there’s some cigarettes to be had down such and such a place.’ And there’d be a mad rush there and you had to accept anything they offered them. There’d be a man standing up inside the shop saying, ‘I’ve got a packet of Woodbines here; anybody want a packet of Woodbines…?’ Mad rush. Or he’d perhaps got a packet of some fancy cigarettes… Through no ration scheme in operation, it made things very difficult to purchase either cigarettes, beer or food. For a long stretch of the war it was very difficult, especially buying meat and that sort of thing.

Queuing for food was a time-consuming business, so many housewives sent their children to monitor local shops. Dorothy Lester did so for her mother while a schoolchild living in London.

There was no rationing at first and it was pretty awful to get food. And there were three boys who lived next door to us and Earley was the same age as I was. He and I used to roam the streets looking at the shops and I can remember seeing a queue in the shop – forgotten its name – and some of us would stay in the queue, not really knowing what there was, and sent the other person home to tell our mothers to come with some money. And our mothers would come and there would be margarine or something that they’d get from the shop. As a child of course we were given everything that was available. And my mother no doubt went without herself, to feed my father and the two of us.

For those who were working long hours, queuing for food was especially difficult. Leeds munitions worker Elsie McIntyre found it very tiring.

The most awful thing was food, it was very scarce. As we are coming shift, someone would say, ‘There is a bit of steak at the butcher’s.’ And I would get off the train and then go on the tram and I’d get off at Burley Road and run to the shop. Only to find a long queue and by it got to my turn there would be no more meat, only half a pound of sausage. You see, that’s coming off night shifts, you went straight into a queue before you could go to bed. Then my mother would be in home needing half a stone of flour for the kids, you see. We were lucky if we got up to bed by 11 am and up again at 4 to catch the train, 5 o’clock to Barnbow.

Some found a way round the shortages. Jane Cox lived in London with her family.

I can remember lining up for potatoes. Meat, that didn’t worry us because we never had plenty of meat. Fruit, we’d have fruit once a week, so those shortages didn’t worry us. Margarine was four pence a pound. When my boyfriend come home with his, he had the naval uniform you know, he was like a petty officer. And he’d go to the shops and he’d get a little bit more, you see. My mother always relied on him coming home!

After years of shortages, queues and hunger, British workers had had enough. A series of protests and strikes took place, demanding the government take action. George Hodgkinson took part in one held in Coventry.

In fact in 1917 in Coventry here, we had an enormous demonstration against shortages and we carried banners: ‘Equal Food, Equal Distribution All?’ This was a veiled threat that if there was not proper distribution of food, unless there was a proper regard at top levels for the need for reasonable allocations and so on. It was a mass parade with home-made banners and slogans and a complete sense of solidarity.

Full rationing was finally introduced in Britain in 1918. Key foodstuffs like sugar, meat, butter, cheese and margarine were now apportioned more fairly. William Holmes explained how the system worked.

You could only have so much. You had a ration card, everyone had a ration card – it was numbered – and in order buy anything, you had to take it to the butcher or the baker or anybody. He would mark on that ration book what he was giving you, you see. You only had a certain amount; you were allowed so many ounces of this, or so much, you know, meat and all that kind, a week. We had enough but you couldn’t have what you wanted like normally. We never starved or anything like that, no.

Despite the introduction of rationing, some people still went hungry. Dorothy Bing explained the difficulties she and her family had as vegetarians.

The people who, as soon as there was rationing, bought up vegetarian foods you see and so there was nothing extra of… The things that weren’t rationed just disappeared and we had a very thin time actually, as far as food was concerned. It was very difficult indeed. My father was a strict vegetarian and we had, I think, everybody had so many eggs. We had more cheese than the other people, that’s right: that was about the only thing we had a little more, cheese. But my mother was a very wonderful manager, so we didn’t starve. Father said he used to dream of food. When it got so bad at times, when he used to dream that there was a lovely spread in front of him and he’d never dreamed of food before in his life! But it had that effect, you know. We used to pass by the shops – where there was nothing at all, quite empty, you see – and if you could get a bar of chocolate, you thought you were in heaven. It was very difficult.

Civilians were seen as fair game during the First World War. As well as being threatened with starvation, they were attacked from the air. German airships had raided Britain since 1915, and two years later Gotha bombers also began terrorising the population. Londoner Florence Parsons recalled her horror at the sight of them.

I was up in the city and it was a Saturday morning and I went to the street door and all of a sudden there was a, ‘Ooh look at all that lot coming over, like a lot of birds’. And it was the new thing, aeroplanes they called the Gothas in those days. All coming along! Oh, and everybody panicked in the terraced houses all the way along. We’d see them coming over, so we’d run across that way and see them going over. They’d already dropped the bombs in the city, so I wasn’t up there that Saturday morning, already dropped the bombs up in the city, the Gothas. Then they came at night. The city, as you know, was all bombed. I didn’t go to work anymore up there, not then. It frightened you, because not one comes over, but a great flock of Gothas.

There was no real system in place for civilians to shelter from the raids. Edwin Hiles lived in Hoxton in London. He was only three years old when war broke out.

I was in the infant’s class there, of course. And it was in the infant’s class that I could well remember the teacher saying, ‘Come, come children. We’re going to play a new game.’ And we were taken into a nearby cloakroom and there told to hide our faces in the coats – any coat – choose any coat you wished, but hide your face. Keep away from the windows. Later on, I discovered there’d been a serious air raid on London by German Gothas and quite a lot of children had been killed in the East End of London.

Bomb damage to property at Caesar Street in Hoxton, east London, following the German air raid of 1 October 1917.
Bomb damage to properties in Hoxton, east London, following a German air raid in October 1917. © IWM (HO 87)

Over 1,400 people in Britain were killed in air raids during the First World War, and more than 3,400 were wounded. Ada Kyle had an early memory of the damage caused to Folkestone by Gothas in May 1917.

My mother put us to bed and there was a lot of banging away and I called out to my mother, ‘Mum! What’s all that noise?’ She said, ‘Oh, don’t be silly,’ she said, ‘it’s only the boys, they’ve got some ladders at the back.’ So of course, I believed her. So she said, ‘Go on, get off to sleep; you’ve got to go to school in the morning.’ Well this noise kept going on and I kept calling out, ‘Mum, mum!’ But there was no answer from mum. So of course, marches myself downstairs – there was no mum. I thought, ‘Oh I know where she is; she’s along gran’s.’ And I toddles off, and my grandma wasn’t in. So as I came out, I started to grizzle. And a lady said to me, ‘What’s the matter?’ I said, ‘I can’t find my mum and I can’t find my gran.’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘they’re along in the alley, dear. But don’t go along there.’ Well, that was the worst thing she could have said. ‘Course, I goes along there. As I gets to the alley, there’s my mother. She had a white apron, taking it off and ripping it up and binding a man that had his leg blown off. And I can see that now.

Allied aircraft also bombed German cities, which caused much the same panic amongst the population as in Britain. Herbe Haase lived in Frankfurt.

The air raids came with the war, it was inevitable, and everybody was frightened. We had to go to the cellar and we had no electric lights in our flat. All clothes had to be put on a chair, so that one could dress in no time, as quickly as possible, and rush down to the cellar where the whole house met then. Air raids occurred on cloudless nights, mainly, and we heard the planes coming. We heard the anti-aircraft guns and everybody got more and more frightened. The air raids caused one death which I very well remember. At the junction of several streets, in plain daylight, a man was hit by a bomb or bomb splinter, something of the kind. The whole town talks about it and the whole town’s very upset about it.

The pressures of wartime led to increasing state control over civilians’ lives. In Britain, the Defence of the Realm Act restricted many aspects of life on the home front. One regulation was a reduction in pub opening hours, in an attempt reduce drunkenness – such as that witnessed by J Greatorex in Derby.

In those days, the beer was very, very strong and I think most of the men there – unfortunately father included – used to do quite a bit of drinking. And the beer was very, very strong in those days. If you was out at night, you wouldn’t have to wander through many streets before you found somebody drunk and rolling all over the pavement. Because in those days there were two or three pubs in practically every main street, a lot more public houses than what there is now. And it was around about a penny a pint as far as I remember!

Entertainment and socialising offered some reprieve from wartime life – but, as London schoolboy Dennis Barker discovered, the conflict was never far away.

We could go to the pictures for a penny, and Charlie Chaplin kept our morale up because he came out in ’14. He made a picture called ‘Tillie’s Punctured Romance’, with Marie Dressler. It was a six-part comedy; that was in 1914. And down the Old Kent Road, near the Bricklayer’s Arms – there used to be a railway there, where all the stalls used to be – there used to be a little cinema. And there was a south London place here, the Old Variety Theatre. There was the Elephant, where they used to do straight plays. There was the Holborn Empire; New Cross Empire; Lewisham Empire; Woolwich Empire. And they all did a roaring business. They still carried on with the acts. You could get about 12 acts for a penny; a tuppence up in the gods; and about sixpence downstairs for the best seat. They kept it on all the time, Zeppelin raids or no Zeppelin raids – they didn’t worry about them much.

Wartime governments knew it was important for civilians to support the war. Propaganda stoked up patriotic fervour – and hatred of the enemy. But many, like schoolboy Leslie Friswell, didn’t place much trust in what they heard.

There was a whole lot of these atrocity stories floating about. But I don’t think that they made much effect. I mean, it was a propaganda move, of course, but as far as I recall it was pretty fruitless. You know, it was all taken very much with a grain of salt, that. Unlike World War Two, when they really had the concentration camps. But, no, the stories that were told I think were, you know, one has to discount those as propaganda.

Munitions worker Thomas Peck was motivated to join the army by the propaganda he heard.

I think that’s what made you more eager to go, you know. When you’d hear, I mean, where they used to take the baby from the woman and kill the baby and then rape the woman and kill her and all that, you know. You got all those stories, which were mostly propaganda, I think, you know. Well of course, some of our chaps were just as bad out there, you know. We weren’t all saints. I mean, you’d do things which you shouldn’t do. But I think the Germans were a bit callous. More or less you accepted it, you know. And I suppose you took notice of it to a degree, you know.

Atrocity stories resulted in widespread anti-German feeling in Britain. Henry Dotchin, from Middlesbrough, admitted his hatred of Britain’s enemy.

I hated them. There you are. I’m not going to say that I didn’t. And as now, I don’t like them. When you come to realise all the things that they did to people; to human beings. Everyone heard about what they were doing, the Germans, to people. If they found a man that was injured, they didn’t used to try and get him put right. They used to shoot him, to put him out of his misery, they used to say. They hardly ever took any prisoners the Germans, oh no.

‘Spy fever’ was common across Europe and there was intermittent violence against anyone seen as being one of the ‘enemy’. Percy Attwood recalled an example of this where he lived, in Hackney.

I well remember the anti-German riots. Well they weren’t called riots; they were demonstrations, in them days. We had a baker in Chatsworth Road called Heinrich Lunkenheimer, and he called himself Henry Lunken. Well, obviously he’d left Germany to escape the terror and I often think what a wicked thing it was to do. People used to go out and throw stones at his house, his windows. Poor old Henry Lunken. Lord knows what happened to him, after that.

Civilians were keen to follow the events of the war. Peggy Larken found she could rely on her mother to keep her up to date.

My mother had a great sense of drama, I suppose. She used to regale us with the news, as time went on. I remember that the terrible defeat of the British fleet at Jutland. And then of course it was discovered it hadn’t been so bad as at first thought; it was neither a victory nor a defeat. I remember her coming in – I can remember that I was bearing a dead bird – when she suddenly said that Kitchener was dead, having been torpedoed off Shetland, I think.

London factory worker Helen Poulter’s sister saw some war news that had a more personal impact.

My sister, she had a boyfriend, he was in the Navy. And he was on the HMS Goliath.And we were leaving Garston’s, going home walking down Colindale Avenue. And on the placards – there was a little paper shop, confectioners and that – there it was: ‘HMSGoliath sunk. All lost.’ All lost, you know. Yes, I think everybody lost somebody, everybody.

Macclesfield journalist Philip Murray visited the homes of the bereaved to collect information for his newspaper. He well remembered the effects of the high casualty numbers at the fighting fronts.

Those who had sons or husbands in the Army, they were terribly worried. I remember sometimes when I would call in at homes – and I was a boy – a woman would gasp, frightened, thinking I might have been the telegraph boy with some bad news. So they were very, very worried and sad and upset. We ran every week a Roll of Honour, pictures of someone who’d been killed or wounded and a little biographical sketch. You know; the school they attended, their place of employment, sporting and social activities etc. I was reporting these chiefly as a 14 and 15 year old. I felt sad. I remember going to one home, a bereaved home, and I saw a young mother bathing two little kiddies, that touched me.

George Park lived in Hull. He was one of the many British people who suffered the loss of a loved one.

My brother went. He was only 17, and they’d give a false age to get in. We lost him when we lost the Hull lads – he was in Colonel Shaw’s mob – on May 3 1917. That’s when they lost most of the Hull men. They used to have a memorial service in Holy Trinity every May 3rd, and mother took me to the last one, you know, they slowly got worse and worse. We went to the last one held in the little chapel at Holy Trinity Church. He was posted missing, then wounded and missing. And we never found out exactly how he did die or where he died or what happened to him. Like lots of others…

Wartime deprivations and restrictions did eventually come to an end for those on the home front. But the loss of life had an effect that never went away, as Cathleen Nesbitt explained.

It was a horrible feeling. I remember that before I went to America, it seemed to me that every young man I knew was on the casualty lists. It was appalling. Every day one looked in the paper and there was someone one knew. It was a feeling not so much of a daily depression, but you… A kind of a feeling of; ‘What on earth is the future going to be like?’ Everybody’s going to be dead, one felt. All one’s contemporaries seemed to be. The first year of the war, the casualty lists were so fantastic. It seemed all so useless and pointless…

Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there. 

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