World War I Naval War: Allied Blockade of Germany


Figure 1.--The Royal Navy's primary task during World War I was the blockade of Germany. There were still boys serving on Royal Navy vessels during the War. I suspect the same was true of the German and other navies at the time. This boy served aboard the HMS Arrogant. Note the longish hair.

The naval war is generally considered a side show in World War I. In fact it was a critical part of the war, especially the naval blockade of Germany. The principal impact of the naval war was Britain's ability to use the Royal Navy to blockade Germany. The British when the Germans invaded Belgium (August 1914), had only a small force to send accross the Channel to assit the Belgians and French. The British Expodintinary Force (BEF) was a small but effective force which played an important role as did the Belgian Army, but if the Germans were to be stopped it would have to be done by the French Army. What the British did have was the Royal Navy. The Government ordered the Royal Navy to immediately cut the flow of raw materials and foodstuffs to Germany. The blockade would not effect the German offensive, but it was the launch of a war of attrition which would ultimately play a major role in the Allied victory. The Royal Navy was issued contraband lists. The Royal Navy patrolled the North Sea and intercepted cargo vessels suspected of carrying cargo destined for Germany. The British also layed minefields to sink German ships and force neutrals to comply with the terms of the blockade. The British subsequently declared the North Sea a British 'military area' (November 3, 1914). Neutral shipping thus had to enter British ports for inspection. Ships without contrband were then escorted through the North Sea minefields.The British blockade crippled the German economy. Food shortages in Germany became severe as early as 1916. The German Government never introduced an effective rationing system ensure that the privations were equitably shared. And the conscription program did not take into account the need to maintain agricultural production. Most German civilians by late 1916 were increasingly affected by the War. By the end of the War food shortges were at crisis levels. Mlnutrition affected many and real starvation loomed. Without a surface fleet strong enough to challenge the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet, the Germans at sea were left with only one response--unrestricted submarine warfare. This had the impact of alienting neutrals--most importantly the United States. The Allies continued the blockade even after the Armistice to ensure German compliance and acceptance of the Versailles Peace Treaty.

Importance

The naval war is generally considered a side show in World War I. In fact it was a critical part of the war, especially the naval blockade of Germany. The principal impact of the naval war was Britain's ability to use the Royal Navy to blockade Germany.

Vulnerability

A look at the map easily shows Germany's vulnerability to a naval blockade. Germany is not a land locked country. The major German rivers flow north into the Baltic and North Sea. The Baltic only allowed Germany to trade with Sweden. And the North Sea could be easily blockaded by the Royal Navy both by its superior surface fleet and by mines.

North Sea Blockade Implemented

The British when the Germans invaded Belgium (August 1914), had only a small force to send accross the Channel to assit the Belgians and French. The British Expodintinary Force (BEF) was a small but effective force which played an important role as did the Belgian Army, but if the Germans were to be stopped it would have to be done by the French Army. What the British did have was the Royal Navy. The Government ordered the Royal Navy to immediately cut the flow of raw materials and foodstuffs to Germany. The blockade would not effect the German offensive, but it was the launch of a war of attrition which would ultimately play a major role in the Allied victory. The Royal Navy was issued contraband lists. The Royal Navy patrolled the North Sea and intercepted cargo vessels suspected of carrying cargo destined for Germany. The British also layed minefields to sink German ships and force neutrals to comply with the terms of the blockade. The British subsequently declared the North Sea a British 'military area' (November 3, 1914). Neutral shipping thus had to enter British ports for inspection. Ships without contrband were then escorted through the North Sea minefields.

The Netherlands

Germany's industrial heartland was located along the Rhine River. The Rhine River flows into the North Sea at the port of Rotterdam. The Netherlands remained a neutral throughout the War. The British extended the blockade to the Netherlands, although the British did allow some Dutch commerce, as long as it brought no benefit to the Germans.

French Naval Blockade of Austria-Hungary

The blockade of the Central Powers was an Allied effort. Austria-Hungary was also vulnerable to a naval blockade. The blockade of Germany was primarily a British effort. The French Navy was deployed in the Mediterranean to blockade the Austrian ports on the Adriatic.

German Food Production

The British blockade crippled the German economy. Food shortages in Germany became severe as early as 1916. The German Government never introduced an effective rationing system ensure that the privations were equitably shared. And the conscription program did not take into account the need to maintain agricultural production. The diversion of fertilizer production to producing munitions reduced crop yields in Germany. Germany could not feed itself even before the War and the British blockade made it impossible to import food. This and the declining food production because of the War severely affected the availability of food. Garman and even more so Austrian families were affected by severe food shortages in 1916. Coffee a German staple was impossible to obtain. Consumption of fish and eggs declined sharply. Even potatos became difficult to obtain in the winter of 1916-17. Civilians had to turn to less nutritious turnips.

Allied Food Production

France produced adequate food domestically. The British maintained domestic food production and imports were available from abroad. With control of the seas, the British had access to the nast agricultural productin of America, as well as the Dominions and other suppliers like Argentina. The Germans after reintroducing unrestricted sunmarine warfare began to cut into imports in mid-1917. This threat, however, was defeated when the British intriduced the convoy system.

German Homefront and Rationing

The diversion of manpower and resources for the war effort afected the civilian economy. This was also the case in all combatent countries. The situation in Germany, however, was aggrevated by several factors. The preminent factor was the Allied naval blockade. The British and French had access to suppliers in America (American only entered the War in 1917) and ther neutral countries. The Germans did not. This had a major impact on the German economy as raw material and food shortages grew as the War dragged on. Surprisingly given the shortages caused by the Allied naval blockade, the Germans did not use their available resources efficently. Not only could the Germans no longer import food, but conscription of farm laborers had serious reduced agricultural production. This was combined with the failure to implement a rationing system. The Germans also did mobilize women for war work as did the British and Americans. By 1917 there was wide-spread hunger in Germany. Even potatos were in short supply. Many people were barely surviving on the less nutritious turnip. A German reader reports, "My great aunt (she is 92) told me, that for the people year 1917 was the worst: there was nothing to eat!"

Effectiveness

The British naval blockade as early as 1915 had reduced German imports by 55 percent from pre-War levels. The result was critical shortages throughout German industry. Germany began to run short of many important raw materials needed to produce munitions and arms as well as the economy as a whole. Food for the population was only part of the problem. There were shortages in coal (at the time a vital industrial fuel). There were also shortages of various non-ferrous metals. The blockade also sharply reduced fertilizer which was needed to maintain agriculture production.

Food Shortages and Malnutrition

Staple foods in Germany including grain, potatoes, meat and dairy products became very scarce during the winter of 1916. Germans turned to a variety of ersatz products. This ranged from 'war bread' (Kriegsbrot) to powdered milk. Life for all but the rich " ... became a time of eating meals never entirely filling, living in unheated homes, wearing clothing that proved dificult to replace and walking with leaky shoes. It meant starting and ending the day with substitutes for nearly everything." [Moyer, p. 164.] The poor were the most severly impacted. The bread winners in many families were at the front leaving their families destitute. State allounces were provided, but were inadequate and brought less and less food as the War progressed. [Wall and Winter , p. 117.] By the end of the War food shortges were at crisis levels. Mlnutrition affected many and real starvation loomed. Some sources believe that as many as 0.8 million German civilians may have died due to malnutrition. Many were children. These assessments are difficukt to evaluate. Other historians claim that while hunger and malnutrition were rife that few actually died from hunger. Of course deaths from malnutrition are not just from starvation, but can result from illnesses to whivh the malnourished are more suseptible. (This probably in part explaind the Flu Pandemic that swept Europe after the War.) We are not familiar with a definitive assessment of the number of Germans who actually died because of the Allied blockade.

Urban Disorder

Food shortages caused looting and food riots in Brlin and other German cities. This also occured in Grmany's ally Austria-Hungary, especially Vienna and Budapest.

Government Actions

The German government attempted deal with the problems resultng from the shortahes caused by the Allied blockade. The Government introduced a complicated system of rationing in the major cities (January 1915). The goal was to provide minimum nutritional needs to everone. Officials in ciities opened 'war kitchens' offering inexpensive meals to thevpoor. A major effort was the Hindenburg Program (DEcember 1916). This was implemented when the food situation became increasingly severe. The Government sought to increase agricultural productivity. The major feature was compulsory labor for men between age 17-60. The program included a complicated rationing system (

German Economy

Germans were not just affected by food shortages. Basic necesities like coal for heating and soap were rationed. Most civilians by late 1916 were increasingly affected by the War.

Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (March 1917)

Without a surface fleet strong enough to challenge the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet, the Germans at sea were left with only one response--unrestricted submarine warfare. The Germans resumed unrestricted sunmarine warfare (IMarch 1917). The Germans believed that they could cut off Britain's sea lanes and force the British out if the War. Without food and other imports, Britain could not survive. The effort threatened Britain, but ultimately failed. The German effort had the impact of alienting neutrals--most importantly the United States. American public opinion, further fuled by the Zimmerman Telegram, was incensed. America entered the War within a few weeks of the German action. Thus the Allied naval blockade was a key factor in bringing America into the War and thus Germany's ultimate defeat.

Armistice (November 11, 1918)

Allied offensives on the Western Front cracked the German front forcing them back toward Germany. The German Navy mutined. Riots broke out in Germany cities. The General staff informed the Kaiser that they could no longer guarantee his saftey. He abdicated and fled to the neutral Netherlands. A German Government was hastily formed and asked for an armistice based on President Wilson's 14 Points. After determining that the request came from a civilian German Government and not the Kaiser or German military, the Allies accepted the German offer. There was not total agreement on this Genetral Pershing wanted to fight on to Berlin. The guns fell silent after 4 years of vicious fighting at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (November 11, 1918). There had been over 8.5 million soldiers killed and 21.2 million wounded.

Continuation After the Armistice

The Allies strngthened with the American fleet maintained the naval blockade of Germany even after the Armistice was signed. As Germany was not occupied by the Allies, the blockade was used as a lever by the Allies to ensure both German compliance with the terms of the Armistice and the Versailles Peace Treaty ending the War. Winston Churchill described the poerful force of the embargo in forcing German compliance. "We are holding all our means of coercion in full operation… we are enforcing the blockade with vigour… Germany is very near starvation. The evidence I have received… shows… the great danger of a collapse of the entire structure of German social and national life, under the pressure of hunger and malnutrition." [Churchill] This sounds teribly harsh, but we know that ultimately it was German evasion of the Armistice and Vesailles Peace Treaty limitatiins that allowed the NAZIs to so quickly rearm Germany and launch a new even more terrinle War. This policy by the Allies had a profound impact on the German psyche, a one historian commented "driving them with the fury of despair into the arms of the devil." The Allies finally lifted the blockade after the Treaty of Versailles was finalized and agreed to by the new German Government (June 1919).

American Relief

It is said of Herbert Hoover that no one in history saved the lives of more European children. Some Americans might have added during the 1930s that few people did less to save the lives of American children during the Depression. One week before Hoover celebrated his 40th birthday in London, Germany declared war on France (1914). The American Consul General in London asked Hoover to help get stranded tourists home. Hoover's committee in 6 weeks helped 120,000 Americans return to the United States. Then Hoover turned to a far more daunting task, how to feed Belgium, which had attacked France through neutral Belgium and overrun most of the country. When the United States entered the war, President Wilson appointed Hoover head of the Food Administration (1917). Hoover succeeded in cutting consumption of foods needed overseas and avoided rationing at home, yet kept the Allies fed. Europe had been devestated by the War. The desestation and the battlefield losses significantly affected agricultural production. After the Armistice, Hoover, a member of the Supreme Economic Council and head of the American Relief Administration, organized shipments of food for starving millions in central Europe. He extended aid to famine-stricken Soviet Russia (1921). When a critic inquired if he was not thus helping Bolshevism, Hoover retorted, "Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!" This was the greatest exercise in international relief in world history. Had it not been for American food aid after the War, millions mostly children would have starved throughout Europe.

Impact

The Allied naval blockade caused such damage to the German economy that by November 1918 the Government could no longer control the streets of Berlin and other cities. Food riots and political disorders spread throughout Germany. It was when Hindenburg informed the Kaiser that the Army could no longer guarantee his security that he finally abdicated and fled to the Netherlands, making an end to the war possible. We also note above the role that the blockade played in Grmany's resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, bringing the Americans into the War. The blockade also had an impact on the post-War settlement. Historians have debated the harsh post-War policies toward the Germans. Some blane this for the NAZIs and World War I. Others argue that the Allies should have occupied Germany. This was the primary reason why President Roosevelt in World war II insisted on unconditional surrender. There seems to be little doubt that German opinion as to their treatment was sucessfully exploited by Hitler and the NAZIs and is a factor in the draconian German actions during the NAZI era. The German attitudes are typically one sided. The Germans complain about how they were treated. Rarely mentioned is the fact that the German Army seized civilian food supplies when they invaded Belgium and made no effort to deal with the severe food shortage that developed in Belgium. Ultimately only American food relief saved Belgium from starvation.

Sources

Churchill, Winston, speech in the Commons, March 3, 1919.

Leckie Delivered From Evil.

Moyer, L. Victory Must Be Ours (London, 1995).

Wall, R. and J. Winter. The Upheaval of War (London, 1988).







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Created: 4:51 PM 2/28/2006
Last updated: 4:51 PM 2/28/2006