Rationing and Starvation: Food Shortages During WW1

Civilians wait in long food lines for supplies

Rationing and Starvation: Food Shortages During WW1

The harsh reality of war is that if affects everyone, combatant or not, and compounds misery.  The European powers involved in World War I, especially, made great sacrifices. Not only were battles fought on their home soil with horrible death tolls, but citizens faced enemy attack, supply and food shortages, and starvation.

Food Rationing

This poster encourages people to conserve food
By not consuming as much bread, civilians saved grain for the war effort

Food rationing for troops began at the beginning the war. Rations varied widely. British soldiers, for example, were provided with 1.25 pounds of fresh meat or 1 pound of salted meat daily. They were also provided with vegetables, bread, cheese, sugar, tea, condiments and tobacco. A German soldier was provided with 13 ounces of meat daily. He also received bread, vegetables (mostly potatoes), coffee, sugar and tobacco.

A year into the war, German citizens were surviving on Ersatz products. These products used potatoes to replace commonly used foodstuffs. Food lines and soup kitchens became commonplace during the colder months.

In Austria-Hungary, rations were reduced in 1918 to .8 ounces of meat and 2.5 ounces of potatoes daily per person.

Rationing was also put into place in the United Kingdom and other Allied nations, but it wasn’t meant to prevent famine. Instead it was intended to curtail food hoarding.

Even nations not directly affected by food shortages encouraged their citizenry to conserve food for the troops and for victory.

The Turnip Winter

A turnip cart during World War One
A turnip cart on the streets of a Central Powers city

The Central Powers felt food shortages more intensely than the Allied nations, with the exception of Russia.

Germany’s Turnip Winter of 1916-17 is a prime example.

The nation was gripped in the arms of famine, and citizens were forced to eat turnips. The weekly ration was only one egg and 3.5 ounces of meat per person. The rich could afford to buy food on the thriving black market while the poor suffered from malnutrition.

Many factors led to the famine’s cause: a shortage of farm employees, a failed harvest and an Allied blockade.

By the war’s end, the average caloric intake in Germany was less than half what it was in 1914.

Unrest at Home

Civilians wait in long food lines for supplies
Civilians wait in long food lines for supplies

Famine, food shortages and inflation caused social unrest. The crime rate increased as people searched for ways to feed their families.

The Russian Revolution was sparked, in part, because of these conditions.

But food rations weren’t the only shortages people faced. There were fuel shortages, which compounded the food-shortage problem, and homes could not be warmed in the winter.

Rent increased and so did the length of the work week, although workers’ salaries stayed stagnant. Strikes were common in all the combatant countries.

The Allies could afford to control the populous and avoid political disaster, but in Germany and Austria-Hungary the tide of discontent was so high, it was clear revolution was coming, and perhaps necessary, for the people to have their voices heard.

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Updated: 20 October 2020
Melina Druga
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.
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