** home front during World War I : England

World War I: The Homefront and Rationing -- England

Figure 1.--We see many images of children during World War I wearing soldier's uniforms. Most are commercial postcards, but we also see snap shots. Here we see a British boy dressed up as French soldier. A dealer te;;s us that this photograph was taken in 1915. We suspect thast plasyful images like this were most common early in the War. Click on the image for a close-up.

Britain was an industrial nation that relied on the sea lanes to import food for its large urban population. The success of the U-boat as a commerce raider forced the British to introduce a rationing system. Food becane increasingly scarce, especially meat. People laregly relied on potatos. The Germans were convinced that Briton's need to import food made it vulnerable to a naval blockade by Germany's U-boats. Even without unrestricted sunmarine warfare. the Germans U-boats took a substantial toll on British shipping. The World War I U-boat, however, was not a true submarine, but a surface bot that could submerge. Restrictions on its operations substantially reduced its effectiveness. Thus the Germans decided to reintroduce unrestricted submarine warfare (March 1917), even though it meant that America would probably come into the War on the Allied side. This proved to be dreadful miscalculation. The Ministry of Food finally introduced rationing. The rationing system and, after the U-boat threat was largely defeated, food from America meant that Britons did not go hungary. Briton also benefited from a bountiful 1917 wheat harbest. At the end of the War, food consumption in Brition was close to pre-War levels. There were, however, serious poroblems with British food and food rationing during World War I.

Industrial Britan

The Indistrial Revolution which began in the 18th century transformed Britain. Not only did lsrge numbers of people migrate from rural areas to the cities, but the population increase markedly. Thus by the late 19th century, Britain was no longer able to feed itself. And as industry expanded, more comoplex processes and manufacturing techniques required an ever increading variety of daw materials. And many had to be imported. Food had to be imported. Britain was thus dependent on the sea lanes to import both raw materials food for its large urban population. Britain's industry and technological prowess made it a formidable adversary in war time. It also made the country vulnerable to a commerce war at sea. Thus for Britain, command of the sea was necessary to both supply war industries and to feed the population.


World War I was the first total war involving civulians as never before. This time women were involved. Not yet in the actual fighting, but in every other phase of the War. This was also the first industrial war. And women were drawn into the industrial economy as never before. Women had played a role in Britain's wars before, but never in so mamy ways and so fully. At the onset of the War which was not expects to be very long, women performed traditiinal tasks which they had palyed in earlier wars. Standard domestic roles like sewing and knitting took began to take on military functions. Girls and women worked on handmade comforts for soldiers. The most common was knitting socks. The first asked of women who giving up their sons and loved ones. More were to follow. The War emergency created food and other shortages. Rationing had to be accepted. The German U-boats challenged the Royal Navy's ability to control the sea lanes and guaranteed food and raw material imports. Housewives had to make do with less and less, especially many of the most popular food--meat, butter, and sweets. Unlike other countries, however, the British never went hungary. Food was imported from Americaa and Canada. As more and more men were drawn into the fighting services and casualties mounted, women had to repace them in war factories, but as far as we know not the mines. Women played an especially imprtant role in the minitions industry. Many women had worked in the mills before the War, but they less commonly worked in industrial factories. This changed during the War. Women also replaced men in agricultural labor. It was vital that agricultural mproduction be maiantained. The Woman's Land Army became an iconic feature of Britain's War. Women also assumed not fightinng roles in the services as part of auxiliary corps a new aspect of warfare. Women were primarily involved on the home front, but they were not absent at the fighting fronts as nurses, ambulance drivers, clerks, and switchboard operators.

German U-boats

German was involved in a naval arms race before World War I broke out. When war came, the Royal Navy had a great superority in numbers despite Germany modern fleet to battleships. Thus the Germans only challenged the Grand Fllet once and this was not on purpose--at Jutland (1916). Instead the Germans turned to their small fleet if U-boats to launch an unconventional attack on British commerce. The German U-boats proved a major challenge to the British. 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. After the sinking of the Luisitania, the threat of American entry into the War forced the Germans to restrict U-boat operations. Even without unrestricted sunmarine warfare. the Germans U-boats took a substantial toll on British shipping. The World War I U-boat, however, was not a true submarine, but a surface bot that could submerge.

U-boat Successes

German U-boats in late 1916 were sinking about 300,000 tons of Allied shipping monhly. The Germans sank 230 Allied ships (February 1917). This level of suvceess was affecting the British food supply and the war effort. By the end of the Wat, the Germans had succeeded in sinking 5,000 ships. That was an amazing 25 percent of the Allied merchant fleet.

Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (Match 1917)

The Germans were convinced that Briton's need to import food made it vulnerable to a naval blockade by Germany's U-boats. The German Navy chafed under the restrictions imposed on U-boat operations. Restrictions on its operations substantially reduced its effectiveness. German Admiral Capelle, Secretary of State for the Navy, assured the German Parliament, "They will not even come because our sunmarimes will sink them. Thus America from a military point of view means nothing, again nothing, and for a third time notthing," [Keegan, p. 372.] At the time the American Army totaled only slightly more than a 100,000 men. Capelle would not be the last German official to under estimate the Americans. Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, Chief of the GermannNaval Staff, argued that only unrestricted sunmarine warfare could impair British maritime commerce suficently so the war in the West could be won before the British blockade crippled the German economy. [Keegan, p. 351] Making another effort to win the War, Germany in 1917 reimplemented unrestricted submarine warfare (March 1917). German U-boats sank a record 507,001 tons of shipping (March 1917). The Germans finally seeing that the Russians were fataly weakened believed that they could now finally achieve victory on the Western front. 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.

School Kids and Conkers

When the Home Guard began drilling to meet an expected German invasion in World War II, some wag commented, "They'll be using connkers next." Conkers were actually marginally involved in World War I. World War I broke out to the surprise of most world leaders (August 1914). Unlike World War II, no one expected it to happen. Most thought it would be quickly over. It prived to be a long, bruising conflict killing many and requiring vast quantities of arms and munitions. The proellent used in artillery shells was almost entirely cordite which had other military uses as well. Cordite was made from various forms of nitrocellulose. Britain with its enormous cotton textile industry mostly used cotton waste which was mixed with nitrated glycerine. The manufacture of cordite required solvents, acetone and ether-alcohol. Acetone was produced by distilling wood. This proposed a problem for Britain which no longer had large forested areas. Instead corn was imported from Canada and America. When the U-boat campaign began to restrict imports, British scientists developed a process for using that British schoolboy staple--the conker (horse chessnuts).

Censorship and War News

Britain has a long tradition of press freedom. I am not sure how war news was reported before World War. The length of the War had an affect on reporting. The improventments in communication meant that material printed in the press could be used by the emnemy. This included both information on military units and movement as well as reports on the economy and other non-military developments. Press reports could also affect civilian morale ans support for the war effort. As a result, all the combatant nations, including countries with long histories of a free press instituted varios systems of cennsorship. The British Parliament almost immidately after the War began passed the Defense of the Realm Act (August 8, 1914). The law was prepared by the Committee of Imperial Defense. There would be six revisions of the Act during the course of the War. The Act cave the Government broad legal power to act and to dispense with basic civil liberties in specific circumstances. Individuals suspected of espionage could be arrested and held without trial. The Government was also given authority to control the flow of information. This included mail and telegraphs. War information from the Western Front was almost immefiately available in Britain as a result of telegraph reports. The Government also was given the authority to supress criticism of its policies, including war strategy and tactics. Journaliss could be arrested for publishing information that could be used by the enemy. This could be interpreted in a variety of ways and as the War progressed, the interpretation was broadened. One very dufficult was reporting casualties and from the onset of the War, the casualties were greater than had ever been experienced by British armies. The Government was very sensitive about this because Britain began the War with a volunteer army and reports on the dredful casulaties could affect recruitment as well as public opinion more broadly. There were complaints about Government censorship of war news. Some changes were made. Additional journalists were allowed to report (January 1915). But the Government continued to censor war news.

America Enters the War (April 1917)

American President Woodrow Wilson camaigned for re-election in 1916 with the slgan "He kept us out of war". America at various points tried to negotiate an end to the War. Wilson in a 1917 speech called for a "peace without victory". None of the major European combatants showed much interest in the American efforts. The Britsh were still hopeful that America would join the Allies. Kaiser Wilhelm dimissed Wilson's efforts as unrealistic. The Germans seriously under estimated the potential impact of American involvement. Gambling that they could force a decission in the Western Front, the military convinced Kaiser Wilhelm to resume unrestricted sunmarine warfare. After German U-boats sank five American merchant vessels, President Wilson on asked Congress to Declare War on Germany which was approved April 6. This proved to be a disastrous German miscalculation. The American and Britsh Navies defeated the U-boat campaign. The collapse of Russia in late 1917 and peace treaty forced upon the Bolsheviks in 1918 enabled the Germans to transfer powerfil forces to the Wesern Front. By the tinme they were able to launch their offensive, an American Army of over a million men awaited them in the Allied trenches. Without the arrival of the Americans, it is likely that the Germans would have won the war. German General Ludendorff was to say after the War that it was the arrival of the American infantry that was the decisive factor on the Western Front.

Food Shortages

Food becane increasingly scarce, especially meat. People laregly relied on potatos, but even potatoes were sometimes in short supply. Sugar was a special problem because almost all of the sugar supply was imported. The avaiability of both meat and sugar fell precipitously. The public by late 1917 was becoming increasingly concerned about the declining availability of food. Panic buying and hordening resulted in serious shortages. The Government was concerned as long lins (queues) developed. They were een as becoming dangerously long.

Government Food Measures

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.

Anti-submarine Measures

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 surfacre 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.


World War I required a huge national effort, even greater than the struggle against Napoleon. Britain had to introduce conscription for the first time as well as mobilizing the homefront. In addition to Government efforts, a range of private voluntary efforts emerged to support the War effort, embraced by people of all classes. Many new charities were founded bd quite a number still operate today and are among the best known modern British charities. These efforts addressed aange of beeds and in different ways. Many were to help the servicemen at the front. And for the first time in British history, there was a substantial effort to assist the families of the servicemen who had to survive with the breadwinner gone. Earlier in British history, these mothers became essentially widdows when rheir husbands were gone. At the time it was primarily the father who supported the family financially and work opportunuties for women were very limited. There wre also charities for the wounded, displaved, and refuges on the Continent. This began with the Belgians invaded by the Germans. The private effort was staggering. The Charity Commision registered over 11,000 charities of all sizes. Nearly 6,500 were exaemted from registration. The Commission refused to register 42 prospective chrities. [Charity Commission] These chrities began with mostly the wealthy and influential coming to Whitehall. This is a street in Westminster (London) lined with many of the most important Government ministries and departments. Thus Whitehall became term used to mean the British Government. As many of the first ideas were efforts to assist the servicemen at the front, it was the War Office they approached. Gradually ideas camf from awider swath of sociert involving other ministries. The Charity Commission was set up to coordinate these voluntary efforts. The first major non-military effort was to help Belgian refugees fleeing the Germans. The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, led by Millicent Fawcett, provided 150 interpreters to meet them in British ports. Some 265,000 refugees arrived from Belgium, most with little more than the clothes on their back. Volunteers were needed to offer the wide range of services needed.


Children could participate in the war effort in a variety of ways The most organized efforts was through youth groups like the Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, and Boys' Brigade. One of the thoughts behind the Boy Scouts was the fact that so many British men during the Bohr War were not healty and capable of military service. We are not not sure if the brief period the Scouts operated before the War (1907-13) had any apreciable impact on public health. The Scouts played an active role on the home front. They reprtedly carried messages on behalf of the War Office. The available images look to ujs more like oublicity shors than maenunful activities. They patrolled potentially vulnerable areas such as railway lines, water reservoirs, and coastline. This was, howeever, not a major problem during World War I. There was more German sabotage in America than Britain. They watched the skies for attacks. How important this was we do not know. But Britain was bonbed by German Zephlins and bombers during r=the War. They and blew sounded their bugles to signal the end of an air raid. The practiced First Aid skills. Rifle ranges were opened where boys coul learn how to shoot, so they could help to defend Britain if it was invaded and be ready when inducted. Girl guides like their mothers knitted socks and scarves for the men in the trenches. They worked on their First Aid badges. They also carried messages, although we do not know how imprtant this was. One source suggests that this was at forst a job for the boys, but they apparently plaued around more than the girls. Another report says the girls helped deliver milk. At the time, milk and dairy products were delivered daily door to door by horse-drawn carts. Consumers did not yet have refrigerators. The Scouts and Guides also helped out farmers who faced a labor shortage. Whether or not they were Scouts or guides, children performed all kinds of useful chores. They might look after younger brothers and sisters, help with housework, or joining long queues for rationed food and other goods in the shops. There were endless queues for everything because of the strict ratiining. Such small tasks were very helpful to the adult family memberrs struggling with the every day life in war-time Britain.


Charity Commission. PP 68th Report of the Charity Commissioners of England and Wales (1921).

Keegan, John. The First World War (Knopf, 1999), 475p.

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