World War I Food Situation: Commerce Campaigns

Figure 1.--The commerce campaigns primarily fought in the North Atlantic were the central element of the World War I naval war. Most of Europe was self sufficient in food production. Britain and Germany were the principal exceptions and thus vulnerable to a commerce campaign. Britain got food from America and Canada. The Germans by 1916 began to go hungry--experiencing the Turnip Winter. As the War continued, however, food production declned throughout Europe, especially Eastern Europe. Severe food shortages developed. By the end of the War, Europe was starving. And the commerce campigns exacerbated the crisis. Only Anmerican food relief prevented millions from starving. This image was only captioned 'Jewish children'. We think they are Polish children eating soup made from American relief supplies.

Both the Allies and Centrl Powers launched commerce campaigns from the onset of World War I. The commerce campaigns were the central element of the naval war. After the War, the Germans would complain bitterly about the Allied naval blockade and the impact on civilians because of the resulting food hortages. Left unsaid is this is precisely what the Germans tried to do to Britain through the U-boat campaign, but failed. And the total lack of concern about their seizure of the food supply in Belgium. Industrial countries that had to import food were the most in jeporady from commerce campaigns. This included Britain and Germany. The British Royal Navy ensured, on the other hand, that food could be obtained in Canada and America. It also instituted a naval embargo which cut the Germans off from needed food imports. And the Germans had not readily available source of food like the British did cross the Atlantic. The Germans used U-boats to blockade Britain. The results were not what the Kaiser expected. The U-boats did not knock Britain out of the War. It did bring a massive new American Army to France which would crack the formidable Hindenburg Line wide open and force Germany to seek an armistice. This would take time to have an impact, but the French Miralcle on the Marne, meant that there would be no quick German victory. The Germans had the striongest army in Europe and believed that ghis would bring a quick victory. The victory on the Mrne meant that the superior material resources of the Allies would have time to have an impact. The German need for imports of both food and raw matetials would gradually impair the German war effort. There was only one major naval battle during the War, but the Royal Navy through its blockade of Germany would play a major role on the outcome of the War.

Allied Naval Blockade

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. Malnutrition 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.

Central Powers Blockade of Russia

Russia was a huge country. The Central Powers could not totally blockade it. They could, however, blockade the most important ports, meaning the Baltic and Black Sea ports. The Germany Navy controlle the Baltic, making it essentially a German lake. This was not the case of the Black Sea, but the Ottomans controlled access to the Black Sea through the Dardanelles. Breaking this blockade was the oblective of the failed British Galipoli campaign (1915). Some supplies were delivered through Arkangel/Murmansk and Valdisvostock, but the infrastructure here hampered the quantities tht could be transported. A major problem with Vladisvostovk was the limited carrying capavity of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Supplies dlivered by the Allies piled up in these ports. And the priority of the deliveries was military equipment. The idea of feeing Russia was beyond the capacity of the available infrastructure.

German U-boat Campaigns

The small U-boat fleet, however, proved a major challenge to the British. Early in the War, U-boats sank three British cruisers, astounding the public both in England and Germany. The Germans backed down from unconditional submarine warfare when America protested the sinking of the Lusitania (1915). There were 1,201 civilians, including 94 children killed. Among them were Americans and American public opinion was incensed. Although the British denied it, historians have since established that the Lusitania was carrying weapons and amunition. [Massie] The invasion of neurtal Belgium and the sinking of the Lusitania combined to create the image of Germans in the American mind as modern day Huns. Making another effort to win the War, Germany in 1917 reimplemented unrestricted submarine warfare (March 1917). The Germans feared the entry of America into the War, but in the end concluded that they could force the British and French to seek terms before the American Expeditionary Force could be created and brought to France. It proved to be a huge miscalculation. As a result, America declared war on Germany (April 1917). The U-boat fleet succeeded in sinking 5,000 ships. That was an amazing 25 percent of the Allied merchant fleet. The Allies attempted to determine how to sink U-boats and developed the depth charge. It was, however, the introduction of the convoy system that defeated the U-boat. The World War I U-boat was really a surface vessel that could sumbmerge. Against esorted convoys, World war I era U-boats had little chance of success. In the end the German Navy only served to bring Britain and America into the War, ensuring Germany's defeat. An embittered German naval office, Karl Donnietz, confined in a British POW camp in 1918 was already planning Germany's strategy in the next war.


Massie, Robert K. Castles of Sea: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (Random House, 2003), 865p.


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Created: 4:11 AM 11/26/2018
Last updated: 4:11 AM 11/26/2018