** First World War: Rationing home front -- World War I

World War I Rationing: Country Trends

Figure 1.--Here we see a rural German seen in 1916. I'm not sure where this photograph was taken, but would speculate East Prussia. Germany never introduced a rationing system durung World War I, even after the conscription of agricultural labor badly impaired the production of food. As a result, by the end of war,the domestic food situation was critical. Some faced starvation.

Military commanders throughout Europe expected a short war of sweeping movements as fought a century earlier in the Napoleonic Era. Most envisioned a conflict that would be won or lost in a matter of months. When this proved not to be the case World War I turned into a bruising contest of will and resources. While histories focus on campaigns and battles, it was the more mundane battle of production and effuicent use of resources that ultimately determined the outcome of the War. The Allies had superior industrial and agricultural resources and with control of the seas through the Royal Navy had access to the resources of the Dominions as well as America. The Germans to counter this eventually turned to unrestricted submarine resources. The U-boats, While initially effective, proved a costly gamble for the Germans. The British countered the impact of lost shipping with an effective rationing. Food became tight, but no one starbed. Unrestricyed submarine warfare also This brought America into war, irrevocably shifting the strategic ballance. Now Britain and France not only had access to Ametrican industry and farms, but could purchase war materials with loans that they would never have to repay. For Germany the situation was made worse by the inefficent use of available resources. Germany never introduced rationing. In addition because conscription had seriously reduced the rural labor force, farm prooduction declined. Unlike Britain, Germany also did not start using women to replace industrial workers in war industries.

Country Information

HBC has acquired the following information on rationing in individual countries during World War I. We have difficulty obtaining information on several countries. Not all countries instituted rationing systems. The purpose of the rationing system was not reduce domestic consumption but to ensure the equitable distribution of available supplies and to prevent panic purchasing andchording.


America by 1914 had a modern navy, but virtually no army outside of a small professional force. America was, however, the largest producer of industrial and agricultural products in the world. This meant in any war of attrition that America would play an important role, even as a beutral. The Royal Navy's command of the seas gave the Allies access to American production. This was extreemly frustrating to the Germans, but what the Germans did not correctly assess was that American as a beligerant would be a much great assett to the Allies. An American in the War would help the Allies finance war purchases and field an enormous army. War purchases created a booming economy, but the Allies were limited by their ability to pay for purchases. Once America entered the War, loans enabled the Allies to buy vast amounts of wa supplies and most of these loans were bever paid back. America's vast productive resorces meant that a strict rationing system was not required. America mobilized for war through a patriotic outburst and Government requests for voluntary compliance on the part of farmers, industry, and consumers. Several new Federal agencies were created to manage a war-time economy. The Food Administration was placed under Herbert Hoover and would not only oversee domestic markets but provide food assistance that would save millions of Europeans--especially children. Hoover became known as the Great Engineer. Hoover never instituted food ratiining, but did introduce a range of voluntary efforts that proved highly affected. Hoover as Food Administrator ncouraged American mothers as a patriotic act to hold to "meatless Mondays" and "wheatless Wednesdays" to conservev food supplies. The Treasury under William Gibbs McAdoo used some of the same voluntary tactics. McAdoo oversaw massive public rallies to sell war bonds. The Federal Government also created the War Industries Board which was administered by financeer Bernard M. Baruch,. The Board had broad powers, but for the most part used persuasion rather than draconian administrative action. Baruch was unsure of the legality of the Board's power and personally reluctant to oversee extensive Government intervention in the economy. He thus relied on persuasion, and on a few occassions public redicule.


The Austro-Hungarian Empire like Russia had a largely agicultural economy. What heavy industry that existed was mostly in the Czech Lands (Bohemia). The rest of the Empire had an economy based on craft workshops and agiculture. They were self suffcent in food production at the time that the war broke out. Austriaas unprepared foer war and what preparation had occurred did not include any thought to food and polciies needed to maintain food prouction during a major war. After the outbreak of war, the imperial government mobilized resources pursued war policies with little regard as to the impact on food production. Agricultural production sharply deteriorated. Imports of foodwere not possible because of the allied naval blockade. The mass conscription of agricultural workers impacted food production and food shortage soon developed. It was not just a production problem. The distribution of available food supplies was also a major probem. This included problems at the national, provincial, regional and local levels. Unlike the Allies who ould turn to America,Austria-Hungary could not turn to Germany which had seious food sgortages of its own. For the population of the Empire it became a daily struggleto obtain food and all too frequently there was not food to be had. This would be a factor in the fragmetatin of the Empire at the end of the War.


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. Yje 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.


France throughout its history has benefitted from the richness of its soil. This was what had made France a major power during the medieval era. And in World War I it waa in a better food situation than heavily indistrialied Britain and Germany. France of course also had an industrial secrior, but was not as dependent as Britain and Germany on imports. France had, however, its own problems. France had not only to feed the huhe army it mobilized, but the armies of its allies, Belgium and British and others as well as the colonial troops brought from Africa. Some food was imported from its Empire, but was largely offset by the needs of it colonial troops. There was also the problem of feeding therfugees from Belgium and northern France. Comscription as in other countries reuced the rural work force, affecting production. Some relief came with the American entry into the war (April 1917). This brought American food, money and raw materials.


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 factoir 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 brely 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!" We do not yet have, however, details on the German rationing system. As far as I know, there were no differences in rations aloted to different nationaities within the Reich, they were all regarded as German citizens.



Poland had disappeared from the mao of Euope in the 18th century as a result of partions amon Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia. In 1918 Central Countries occupied not only that part of Poland which had been a part of Russia before the war but also other countries in the East of Europe including some territories of Russia. German Army at the East commanded by Hindenburg was a victorious army and not so discouraged as the Army at the West. Germans wanted Poles to fight against Russia and tried to create a small Polish state under German occupation. It was located on the teritory of so called General Gouvernement. People of Warsaw could elect their own municipal authorities (the first election took place in 1916) and there were Polish schools allowed. There was the same situation in other towns. But there was a German Police and German Police Commanders ruled every counties. The General Gouvernement itself was ruled by General Gouverneur Hans(?) von Beseler. Germans requisited everything from towns and villages even church bells especially food articles and sold certain amounts of food (mainly sugar and flour) to Polish municipal authorities for feeding their people. The authorities issued ration cards for basic food articles, for coal, wood, lamp oil and so on. In the beginning of 1918 monthly ration of bread for children in Warsaw County was less than 2.5kg! In Warsaw situation was slightly better. For adults it was about 3.2kg. The other part of so called "Russian Poland" was occupied by Austrians (there was another General Gouvernement with the main town of Lublin) and situation of Polish people was very similar. There were also Polish territories annected in 1792 and 1795 by Germany and Austria. People there obtained ordinary cards, similar to the cards in other parts of the two empires. A Polish reader tells us, "I have found German rationing cards for shoes issued in 1918 during World War I. They were addressed to school children and students. I haven't found any other example of cards for shoes during World War I so I consider them very unusual." Concerning the WWI cards for shoes in Warsaw, Polish municipal authorities under German occupation authorized the manuacture of shoes initially for low-wage munipal workers and later for the poorest youngsters going to school and universities. Shoes were distributed with ration cards of four kinds (colors). Shoes were distributed with those cards up to June 1918 and may be a little later. First cards printed were bilingual (Polish and German). In the end of 1916 up to 1922 cards were only in Polish. The exception were cards for Jews when the occassion for Pesach Holiday occured in Spring. Those cards included coupons for matzoh and ritual sugar and had inscriptions in Polish, German and Yiddish (in 1916) and only in Polish and Yiddish in the next years. In 1916 and 1917 there were special cards for German Military persons residing in Warsaw. They were printed only in German.



World War I

Terroism was at the heart of World War I in a chilling reminder to our modern age. War had been brewing in Europe for decades. It was a terrorist act that was the actual catalyst. Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip (June, 28, 1914) assasinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. The Austrians were incorporating Bosnia into their Empire and had chosen the most sacred day in Serbian history, their defeat by the Ottoman Turks on the plains of Kosovo, for the Archduke's visit. The Austrians decided to punish the Serbs. The German Government (July 6) gave its support for Austro-Hungary's plan to punish the Serbs. Germany and Austria-Hungary became known as the Central Powers. When Austria-Hungary with German backing declared war on Serbia, Russia and France began to mobilize its troops. As a result of Kaiser Wilhem's bumbling, France had succeeded in signing a mutual defense treaty. Germany felt impelled to strike at France before Russia could mobilize. Germany declaring war on Russia (August 1) and France (August 3). The German Army entered neutral Belgium (August 4), in an effort to go around the strong French border defenses. Britain declared war on Germany over the violation of Belgian neutrality. Britain, France, and Russia became known as the Allied countries. The Germans were convinced they could take Paris before either th British or Russians could intervene. Miraculously the French Army managed to stop the Germans at the Marne and the Western Front became a brutal war of attrition. Italy had signed a treaty with Germany and Austria Hungary, decided not to honor it and later entered the War. Turkey had signed a defensive alliance with Germany in July 1914 and seeing an opportuity to make major gains against their historic enemy Russia joined the Central Powers. Making another effort to win the War, Germany in 1917 reimplemented unrestricted submarine warfare (March ?, 1917), bringing America into the War (April ?, 1917). Despite German victories on the Eastern Front agaist Russia, the added resources and manpower America provided enabled the Allies to break the Germans on the Western Front. The Kaiser was forced to abdicate and a new government had to seak an armistace (November 11, 1918).


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Created: June 17, 2002
Last updated: 6:17 AM 10/5/2016