*** World War I: food country trends

World War I Food Situation: Country Trends

German World War I food situation
Figure 1.--Germant managed to keep the Army fed during Workd War I. Here we see German soldiers peeling potatoes during 1916. We are not sure just where the phoograph was take, but the Germany woman and child suggst it was somewhere in Germny away from the frontline. Feeding the civilian population proved much more difficult.

Food emerged as a problem almost from the outset of the war. The German Army which launched the war by invading neutral Belgium also created a humanitarian crisis by seizing the occupied country's food supply. The United States supplied the food Belgium needed. Britain was not sekf-suffient in food, but the Royal Navy ensured that Britain could obtain the food it neded. France was largely self sufficent in food. Germany was not. A new German word appeared in the English language--Ersatz. Mid-way through the War, food became a serious problem in Germany. They had expected a quick victory which wold have meant that aritish naval blockade would have been meaningless. And even after it became clear that it would be a war of attrition, they did not begin to take steps to deal with the building food crisis. And neither did its Central Power Allies. Russia was primarily an agricultural country producing vast quantities of grain. Conscription and German advances significantly reduced Russian agricultural harvests, leading to food riots in the cities. The War would not be decided by the collapse of the Tsarist agricltural economy, but much of the subsequnt history of the 20th century would be impactd by the resultin creation of the Soviet Union and the rise of Communism. America significantly expanded grain harvests and food production. The British Royal Navy assured that the Allies had access to American and Canadian food. America at the time it entered the War did not have a large army or an industrial economy producing massive quantities of arms. This was part of the reason the Germans decided to risk war with Amrica. America did have, however, a vast agricultural sector and one that unlike the European agricultural sector, could be expanded to meet the needs of not only its own people and army, but the people and armies of its allies. It would be American food that would prevent hunger in Allied nations, excpet Russia which was difficult to supply because its principal ports (Balic and Black Sea) were blokaded by the Germans and Ottomans. The Germans would complain bitterly about the Allies naval blockade , but in fact they maintained their own blockade.


The Austrian Empire coverted into the Austro-Hunarian Empire had been for several centuries on of the great powers of Europe. It was still a largely agricultural country, although there had been some industrial development, mostly in Bohemoa (Czech Republic). Food production fell precipitously as the War orogressed. The Governmrnt took no real steps to mauntsin food production and ensure a fair distribution to the population. Farmers found it difficult o obtain needed imporys. And large nimbers of agricultural workers were cincripted for military service.


Food became a critical issue from the beginning of the Germn occupation. Belgium was a heavily industrialized country, one of the most industrialized in Europe. There was an agriciltural sector, but it did not produced the quantity of food needed by the populous industrial cities. As a reslt, Belgium was heavily dependent on imported food. Unfortunately for Belgium, neither was Germany which from the outset of the war was intent on using Belgian food to feed its army without any consideration of the impact on the Belgian people. The German invasion and occupation resulted in economic collapse and set in motion a humanitarin crisis. There were shortages and widespread unemployment which could have resulted in famine and starvation. The Germans were the strongest land power in Europe, but the British Royl Navy was the strongest naval force. And in addition to sending the British Expeditionary force to Belgium, the British instituted a North Sea naval blockade which was gradually extened to the Mediterranean. The blockade affected the Central Powers and contries occupied by them. Germany like Belgium was not self-sufficent in food. Thus if the Germans cold be stopped before reaching Paris, a naval blockade would affect the German war economy by depriving it of food and raw material. But as an unintended consequence, food shortages quickly developed in Belgium. There wold be food shortages in Germany as well, but this wold take some time to devlop. The Allied concern was that if food and raw materials were allowed into Belgium, that the Germans would divert them to Germany to support the German war effort. And German policy suggested that this was exactly what would happen. The German Army as prt of its occupation regime seizedthe civilian food stocks to feed its forces driving through Belgium. Various Belgian groups organized to prepare for a possible famine. A major figure was �mile Francqui. He and other philanthropists established the Comit� National de Secours et d'Alimentation (National Relief and Food Committee--CNSA) to obtain and arrange for the transport of the needed food to Belgium. The idea was to sell it in Belgium. [Dumoulin, pp. 120-21.] The profits were to be used to feed the needy. Difficult negotiations were conducted with both the Allies and Central Powers. The CNSA managed to secure permission to import food from the neutral United States under carefully reglated conditions. Francqui happened to be acquainted with Herbert Hoover, at the time a virtually unknown American minining engineer. Hoover helped organize the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB). The food was distributed within Belgium by the CNSA. [Dumoulin, p. 122.] Several smaller relief organisations with contacts in other neutral countries were also active in Belgium. The Germans managed to occupy almost all of Belgium. The CNSA came to play a major role in the life of occupied Belgium throughout the War. The CNSA took over the function of a goverment welfare system. Unlike the Belgian Government in the occupied areas, it was not controlled by the Germans. It suceeded in preventing famine and starvation, but food and material shortages existed all during the German occupation. [(De) Schaepdrijver, pp. 52-53.] The CNSA employed more than 125,000 agents and distributors in its Belgian operations. [Dumoulin, p. 122.] The CNSA was administered by a central committee and with local networks across the country looked very much like a governmnt agebcy. , as paralleling the actions of the official Belgian government in peacetime. Many Belgians cane to see it as a symbol of national unity and of passive resistance against the German occupation authorities. [Dumoulin, pp. 122-26.]


Britain like Germany was not self sufficent in food. It depended on food imports to feed its industrial workers. The German U-boats thus posed a huge danger to Britain and the war effort. The British adopted a range of policies and programs to maintain food production. This became especially important when the Government had to intriduce conscripion. The Womens's Land Army was introduced tp provide more farm labor. People including children were incouraged to plant gardens. In America the Scouts had a major gardening program. I'm not sure about the British Scouts. Schools also apparently planted gardens. I don't have much information on this. It may have been mostly private schools because they had land that could be planted. Here we see Eton boys during the war off to do some gardening. Rationing was introduced. These measures and the defeat of the U-boat in the North Atlantic meant that Britons did not go hungary. ood from America and the Dominions arrived innquantity. Briton also benefited from a bountiful 1917 wheat harbest. At the end of the War, calorie consumption in Brition was close to


The French were in a better position than the Germans as to food production. France had a substantial agricultural production which left the country self sufficent in food production, unlike Britain and Germany. Thus France had the agricultural production needed to feed the country. We have not yet been able to find information about rationing in France. In addition, food coud be easily imported from America.


German officials focused primarily on industrial production. Less attention was given to the needs of the less glamerous agricultural sector. Large numbers of men from rural areas were drafted. Officials assumed that the war would soon be short and conscripts could be returned to the rural work force. Significant problems soon developed. The massive losses on the battlefield mean that more and more men had to be conscripted. This further depleted the rural workforce. And the Royal Navy blockade made it impossible to import food. Germany unlike Britain could not import food from America and the Dominions. In addition, fertilizer imports were also cut off. German factories were used for the production of munitions. The shortage of fertilizer resulted in a sharp decline in agricultural productivity. Food was not the only commodity in short supply. Shortages developed for fuel (coal) as well as clothing and footwear. Food shortages were, however, most keenly felt. Clothing purchases could be deferred. Food was a different matter. Of course the War did not end quickly and production short falls began to cause serious food shortages at both the front and on the domestic market. We do not yet have details on the response of the German Government to the developing shortages. The German soldiers at the front were affected by food shortages. German troops were chronically undernourished affecting their ability to conduct operations. There are reports that when they managed to seize Allied food stocks, they would stop gorge themselves, in some instances impairing offensive operations. This also caused the soldiers to engage in looting. The situation at home was even worse. Many Germans by the time the war ended were close to starvation.


The Netherlands was a highly industrialized country. Dutch farmers did not produce enough food to feed the population. The Dutch had to import food. With trade restrictions associated with the War, food was in short supply. The Dutch Government had to intriduce rationing. Bread coupons were issued (1915). The Dutch because they were dependant on food imports were severely affected by the Allied naval blockade. The Dutch also faced possible attacks from German U-boats. The British closed the Channel and Dutch ships had to go all the way around Scotland to reach the Atlantic. There was a shipping corridor into the North Sea was allowed by the Allies, but the trade was severly restricted. The Allies maintained a strict blockade on Germany. As part of that blockade, the Allies established a tight quota for shipping to pass through the blockade for the Dutch. The Netherlands Trust was set up to monopolize and administer the rigid quota of imports allowed through the Allied Blockade. The Trust was crated to sustain the Dutch, but prevent the Germans from importing food and war supplies through Dutch ports. The Allies tried to prevent all Dutch trade with the Germans, but were unsucessful. Some authors believe the Germans refrained from invding the Netherlands principally becuse Rotterdam was more useful to them if left in Dutch hands. We can not yet confirm this. We see no great military bebefits to occupying the Netherlands.

Ottoman Empire

Anatolia was self-sufficent in food production. Thus the Turks could have avoided the food shortages that some other countries did, especially the Germans and Russdians. (France was also self-suffien in food and the Americans had access to American and Canadian grains.) The conscription of Turlish peasants from the anatolian heartland mean that a significant labor shortage developed in Anatolia. [Finkel, p. 541.] This was exacerbated by the heavy war losses. The Allies (British and French) blockade prevented imports. Supplied from Germany could be received by rail, but these were mostly military supplied, not food which was in increasingly short supply as the War progressed.



Russia was primarily an agricultural country producing vast quantities of grain. Conscription and German advances significantly reduced Russian agricultural harvests, leading to food riots in the cities. The War would not be decided by the collapse of the Tsarist agricltural economy, the United States prevnted that. Much of the subsequnt history of the 20th century would affected by the reslting creation of the Soviet Union and the rise of Communism. And again America would intervene. Of all the World War I belligrants, the Tsarist regime apprs to have managed the agricultural sector the most disaterously. As a result of the Soviet takover, however, the economic policies of the Tsarist regime have not been seriously studied. Soviet historiography is generally ideologically based efforts to demonize the Tsarist regime and thus of limited value. Agriculture dominated the Tsarist economy. Russia had aapidly expanding industril sector, but giculture was still dominant. This meant hat Russia struggled to equip the vast mumber of men consripted. Itvalso mean that theoretically Russia could not be starved into submission. Tsarist Russia at the ouybreak of the War was exporting 10 percent of its grain harvest. This meant that there was a cushion the country mitigating any decline in harvests and to feed the Army and urban industrial labor force. Early in the War, some economists argued that Russia's backwardness meant that it wold not be as badly affected by the War as Germany. [Tugan-Baranovskii] This proved to be a serious miscalculation. The huge demands of the war effort exposed serious problems in the long-established system of military production and procurement. The Russians made considderable progress in expanding war production. An important war meassure was the creatin of Voenno-promyshlennye komitety (war indutry cimmittees--VPKs). These VPKs becme dominated by the larger indudtril concerns. Smaller companies and agriculture was given short shift. The impact of the VPKs has been hotly debated. They eventually became a target of Socialist politicns for war profiteering. A substantial increase in military supplies was achieved by building new factories. alocating resources (raw material, labor, and finances) and shifting production from civilan products to armaments. The companies still producing consumer goods had difficulty obtain raw materials, fuel and labor. One assessment suggests that production of non-military goods was less than two-thirds of the pre-War levels (1917). Rural consumers and communities as a result suffered shortages of consumer products, basic goods, and needed manfactured goods to support agriculture, all of which adversely affected their ability and interest in supplying food to the cities and towns. Conscription and battlefield losses also affected the agricultural workforce. The rail system, the primary method of moving goods, supplied the Army on a priority basis. The Army which affected the ability to service the agricultural/rural sector. And then as desilusionnment with the War set in disorders in the countryside began to affect both production of delivery of food to the cities. Food and land would be a factor in the ensuing Revolution. the Bolshevik slogan promoted by Lenin would was 'Peace, land, and bread'. Tragically for the Russian people, the bloody Civil War (1918-20) followed World War I and the Revolution. One impact was full-blown famine, especially in southern Russia which the Blsheviks used as a weapn. Stalin would return to this tactic again, using famine to supress the Ukranian peasabntry (1930-31). America offered to help with relief supplies as it was doing throughout Europe. The Bolsheviks rejected the offer, but finally relented as conditions worsened to unprecedented proortions. American food relief would save the lives of millions of Russians (1921-22). This is something that Soviet officials wrote out of Russian history books.


World War I was sparked by Serbia withe assasinatiion of the Austrian Archhduke Franz Ferdinand (June 28, 1914). Austria was intent on punishing Serbia, but was heeitant because Russia backed Serbia. The German Gernman General Staff incouraged the Austrians and Kaiser Wilhelm wriote the Austrians a blank check. Austria with German backing declared war on Serbia and invaded (July 28). This set in motion the German invasion of Belgium and the outbreak of the War (August 4). In the Balkans, the Austrian invasion iof Serbia did not go well. The Serbs with a smaller, but battle tested force held their ground and the Austrian invasion biogged down. The Serbian position was undermined when the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria (former enenies) entered the War. The Germans bolstered the Austrias and organized a coordinated offensuive with Bulgaria in the south (October 1915). The Serbian Army was fecusely defeatred, byt duid not surrender. They retreated over the mountains during a brutal winter to the Adriatic. The surviors were evacuated by the Allies (January-February 1916). Losses were, however, were huge both during the Central Powers offensuve and what came to be called the Great Retreat. A brutal nearly 3-year occupation of Serbia followed (1916-18). Food became a major issue. Serbia was a largely agricultural country. The fact that so many young men were in the military and killed or left Serbia as part of the Army retreat. The Central Powers had full control of serbia by 1916. We suspect that many Serb families experienced difficult conditions and that food production declined. What this meant in the availability of food we do not know. We do know know that Austrians and Bulgars used Serbia as a source of food as food shortages developed throughout the Central Powers. There were also German troops in Serbia. The Austrian and Bulgar military government officials seized food stocks creating a humanitarian disaster. This was what the Germans did in Belgium. We are not sure about the extent of the seizures. The Serbian huge casualties and losses in the Great Retreat affected th rral work force and farm production. Another factor here was that Serbia was not as urbanuized as Belgium, but unlike Belgium, America was unable to arrange food deliveries to civilians until the allies eentered Serbia (1918) . Serbia officials charged that the Austrianb food seizures that the resulting food shortages caused deaths from starvation and disease (typhus) despite the favt that Setbia was an agricultural food producing country. The Serbs believe thst some 365,000 Serbian civilians died as a result of the food seizures. [Bell, p. 576.] The Allies planned a new offensive. The Allies forces at Salonika were reinforced by the Serb Army transported from Corfu and more British and French troops as well as some Russians. What followed was a sea-saw battle with the Bulgars in Macedonia. The Allies were eventually reinforced by the Greek Army when Greece entered the War (June 1917). Greek and Serbian troops eventually proved decisive in breaking the Bulgar lines. This then opened up the defeat of Bulgaria and the liberation of Serbia. The Allied Vardar Offensive led to the collapse of the Bulgarian Army (September 1918) and the Liberation of Serbia. This meant that American food relief could reach the Serbs, although without a port, this was no easy undertaking.

United States

World War I histories focus on great movements of men and equipment, decisive batles and the key military and political figures. The War brought mmass passion and outburts of patriotism. Few in the military or civilian life unferstood when the German army smashed into Belgium that the greatest war in history up to tht time had been unleashed on Europe. It would last 4 years, cause immense damage, and mameme and kill millions of people. Through it all, the one thing that affected the population of combatant countries more than nything else was food. And several countries were poorly suited to feed their people during war time. These were nations that were defendent on imported food and Germany was one of them. This did not disuade the Kaiser from ordering the invasion of Belgium. His army commanders had assured him that Germany had the most powerful army in Europe and would defeat the French in a few weeks. Thus the War could be won before food became a serious issue. It did not work that way. After the Miracle on the Marne saved France (September 1914), the war turned into a war of attrition. This was a war Germany was poorly equipped to wage after the British Royal Navy blockaded German ports. Agriculture and food distribution were issues that every beligerrant country and many neutral countries faced during the War. There were several major problems. First, some countries were dependant on food imports to feed their people. Second, the war turned into a unimaginable blood letting. And when millions ere drafted, including farmes and farm labor, food production was impaired. Third, the avaiability of draft animals, equipment, and supplies (such as nitrate fertilizer) were impaired, further affecting harvests. Fourth, scarcity caused prices to rise causing hoarding and eventually the development of black markets. Some countries handled the problems well, others did not. The food situation in many countries turned into disasters.


Bell, A.C. The Blockade of the Central Empires Restricted use, 1937. Published after World War II (HMSO: London, 1987). Here Bell relied on Serbian data.


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