British World War I Home Front: Government Food Measures

Eton World War I
Figure 1.--Here we see Eton boys during the war off to do some gardening. This was part of a national effort to increase food production. I doubt if Eton boys did much gardening before the War. The caption read, "Eton boys in England ready for war." It reflects the importance of the food situation in the War effort.

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. There wer no serious shortahes fdurung the first 2 years of tge War. But this gradually changed. The British adopted a range of policies and programs to maintain food production. This became especially important when the Government had to introduce conscripion. The Government created a Ministry for Food to address the looming food crisis. The Womens's Land Army was introduced tp provide more farm labor. People including children were incouraged to plant gardens. Rationing was introduced. These measures and the defeat of the U-boat in the North Atlantic meant that Britons did not go hungary. Food 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 pre-War levels. The situation was very different in Germany and it had a major impact on the German war effort.


Good harvests and the failure of the German U-boats mean that the food supplies were little affected by the out break of War (August 1914). Brutish farmers supplied less ghan a third of the country's food supplies. But it was vital that proiductin be mintained. The Central Powers failed to do this and it cost them he War. There were no food shortages in Britain during the first 2 years of War. The agricultural situation deteriorated (Fall 1916). There was a poor graiun crop harvest and the important potato crop failed. Shipping losses added to the problem. The Corn Production Act (1917) was designed to aid farmers. (The term 'corn' at the time in Britain meanyt grain.) The Act guaranteed minimum prices for wheat and oats, specified a minimum wage for agricultural workers. and established the Agricultural Wages Board. By guarateeing minimum prices, the farmers were better able to pay higher wages to their workers. This helped somewhat to increase output of home-grown food and reduce dependence on imports. Ministry by the end of the War controled virtuall all aspects of farming;. The Food Controller purchased most essential food supplies. The Corn Production Act guaranteed grain prices for the farmers. Briton benefited from a bountiful 1917 wheat harvest.

Ministry of Food

Rowland Prothero was appointed President of the Board of Agriculture with a seat in the Cabinet (1916). His remit was to increase food production. As the food situation deteriorated, the Government created a Ministry for Food -- part of the New Ministries & Secretaries Act(December 1916). Lord Devonport was appointed Food Controller to oversee the supply and consumption of food and to achieve increases in food production. The Board of Agriculture established a Food Production Department (1917). The Board organised and distributed key agricultural inputs (labor, feed, fertiliser, and machinery), all with the opurpose of increasing the harvest. Labor as aesult if cionsription implemented (1916) was the most important proibem. The Board worked with War Office and the Board and conscripots were released to help with bioth the spring cultivation and fall harvest. The Women's Land Army was created to help replace the men called up for military service (1917). Lord Devonport resigned as Food Controller (June 1917). He was replaced by Lord Rhondda, who would institute rationing (December 1917). Lord Rhondda died (July 1918). He was succeeded by John Clynes, MP. The armistice ending the War was signed (November 1918). The Food Controller resigned (1919). The Ministry of Food gradually wound down irs functins and finally closed (March 1921).

Women's Land Army (WLA)

Britain in its long history had never before dispatched a massive army to the Continent. It became obvious early in the War that the small BEF deployed August 1914 wold be insufficent against the massive conscrip German army. A recritment drive enduced larger numbers of men to volunteer, but the lossess ad needs for manpower finally forced Britain to introduce conscription--the first such effort in British history. This created a severe labor shortage in both industy and agriculture. To fill the gap, women began working factory jobs that had previously been filled by men. To provide agriciltural labor, the Government established the Women's Land Army (WLA). Some tradition-minded farmers resisted the idea of using women farm hands. The Board of Trade dispsatched agricultural organizing officers to convince the farmers that the WLA girls and women, most from towns and cities, would be useful. They were geerally successful and about 260,000 WLA recruits were hard at work on Britain's farms (1917). This is generally considered a footnote of the War, but it was in fact of some importance. There was no comparable program in Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Germny. And each of these countries experienced severe food shortages that in the end affected their ability to make war.


People including children were incouraged to plant gardens. Schools promoted the idea. In America the Scouts had a major gardening program. I'm not sure about the British Scouts. Schools also apparently planted gardens. We 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.

British Rationing

Food was not rationined in Britain for most of the War. There were some good harvests and the U-boats did not make a major dent in the large British Merchant Marine. Here after the sinking of RMS Lusitania (May 1915), American President Wilson theatened to declare war if the Germants did not end unrestricted submarine warfare. his serious reduced the effectveness of the German U-boats. Only when the Germans reintroduced unrestricted submarine warfare and serious shortages dveloped did the Government act. The success of the U-boat as a commerce raider forced the British to introduce a rationing system. The Ministry of Food finally introduced rationing beginning with sugar (December 1917). Butchered meat and butter followed (February 1918). (Fresh butchered meat as opposed to canned meat.)


Food from America and the Dominions arrived innquantity. The United States significantly expanded grain production. American Food Administrator Herbert Hoover worked tirelesslt to expand food prodduction and American farmers resonded.


At the end of the War, calorie consumption in Britain was close to pre-War levels. The Government saw the management of the food situation was a success. And it was compared to the German mismanagement of the food situation. The Ministry of Food was dissolved (March 1921). There were, however, serious problems. Inflation was proinounced. Food prices rose by 130 percent. This serious affected wirjker families. And the ration system was not well managed. Many coupons were useless. They did not guarantee that even the reduced supply was availablke. Housewives fiound that covered items were just not in the shops for the cupons issued. The situation was far worse in Germany. No lone came to Gernany's aid. Germany had expected to in a short war. No on in Germany planned for a protracted struggle. Germany had neither colonies or the finance to purchase food from food producung countries. Nor was there any to get food shipments through the Allied naval blockade. And food shortages in Germany had a major impact on the German war effort.

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Created: 6:52 PM 10/17/2007
Last updated: 5:13 AM 8/21/2018