During the First World War, Britain intended to use its powerful navy to starve Germany and Austria-Hungary into submission. By maintaining a blockade of enemy ports it hoped to cut off supplies from the outside world. The consequences of this strategy were complex.

The Royal Navy followed a policy of 'distant blockade', barring entrance to the English Channel and the North Sea. A similar blockade was maintained in the Adriatic Sea, with French and Italian aid. Neutral vessels were theoretically permitted to continue trading, but Britain progressively widened the definition of 'contraband' cargo and, from early 1915 began to seize all commodities bound for the Central Powers. This policy made for difficult relations with neutral countries, particularly the United States.


The hunger strikes in Berlin

A Berlin butcher’s shop looted in a food riot, 1919. The blockade of Germany was maintained during the period between the armistice and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919. This caused huge resentment in Germany.

Germany and Austria-Hungary managed to develop substitutes for many materials which were essential for their war effort. They were less successful in feeding their citizens – despite the fact that they had not relied upon imported food before the war. Central Powers propaganda blamed food shortages on the British 'Hunger Blockade', but a combination of bad harvests and incompetent regulation of food distribution made the situation far worse.

Germany's civilians began to suffer malnourishment from the winter of 1916 onwards, while the food situation in Austria caused riots and, eventually, actual starvation in some areas. A wish to retaliate and to break Britain’s command of the seas motivated Germany to launch its campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917. The result was to make the blockade even more complete, by provoking the United States to join the Allies.

Related Content

A service at a street shrine outside St Agnes' church in Acton Lane, London. Street shrines became an increasingly common expression of remembrance for the dead, particularly in working class areas, as the casualty list lengthened during and after the Battle of the Somme.
First World War

Voices of the First World War: Life On The Home Front

Episode 35: 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. Hear about the main ways the war affected civilians.

The American tanker ILLINOIS sinks after being attacked by a German submarine
First World War

Voices of the First World War: The Submarine War

Episode 26: Submarines played a significant military role for the first time during the First World War. Both the British and German navies made use of their submarines against enemy warships from the outset. Hear how a change in U-boat tactics by the Germans in February 1915 caused great resentment.

Surrender of U-Boats at Harwich
IWM (SP 1052)
First World War

The U-Boat Campaign That Almost Broke Britain

From the start of the First World War in 1914, Germany pursued a highly effective U-boat campaign against merchant shipping. This campaign intensified over the course of the war and almost succeeded in bringing Britain to its knees in 1917.