Rationing and World War One

Rationing and World War One

Poster for the Women's Land Army

Rationing wasn’t actually introduce to Britain until right at the end of World War One - in February 1918. Rationing was a response to a U-boat campaign carried out by the Germans, which resulted in a loss of supplies; the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) was enforced to ensure that food shortages did not occur, so rationing kept the public from facing starvation.

At the start of World War One, any food shortages were self-imposed. This was a result of the public hoarding and panic buying food, which emptied the shops in August 2014. This did settle eventually, and it wasn’t until 1916 when food became an important topic of conversation once more.

Throughout the war, food imports continued to flow into the country freely. This was largely thanks to the location of many of the countries food exporters in America and Canada, who were able to travel in relative safety as they avoided many of the main theatres of war. However, the Germans soon decided to introduced a new campaign of unrestricted submarines warfare, which frequently sank merchant ships and started to significantly impact on food supplies in Britain.

By April 1916, Britain only had enough wheat left for six weeks, which was a significant issues as bread was a staple part of the British diet. This issue was only exacerbated by the news from the Battle of the Somme, which - combined with the food shortages - hit families hard. In response to the shortages, food prices began to rise. As did the price of coal, which was in such short supply in October 1916 that it was being rationed by the number of rooms in a house.

Initially, the restrictions introduced by DORA to reduce shortages failed and the government then attempted to introduce voluntary rationing. The Royal Family attempted to set the standard for this, but this approach also failed. Instead, those working hard in the munitions factories were finding themselves with very little, while those with money were able to source the food they wanted on the black market.

Those without enough money to buy black market food eventually turned to their land to help them. Anywhere that was suitable for food growing was converted into an allotment or micro farm; gardens were used by many to grow crops while chickens were kept by those with a little more space.

Eventually, the government used its DORA power to take over any land it felt it needed to seize. In 1917, the government took control of over 2.5 million acres of land for farming, and there was an extra three million taken over by the end of the war. This approach was more successful than those that had come before but it did have one problem - the people who would usually work the land (the young men) were all at war. This prompted the creation of the Women’s Land Army, who started taking over the land to ensure the farming work was completed and people were able to eat. The conscientious objectors were also a common sight on the land.

As successful as the WLA work was, the German U-boat campaign had such a huge impact that malnutrition was a common issue by the end of the war, particularly in the poorer communities. The rationing had to be extended to tackle the problem, and food items were regularly added to the list. In January 1918, for example, sugar was rationed, and by the end of the year it was joined by meat, butter, cheese and margarine.

In order to regulate this, the government introduced ration cards, which were issued to each household and had to be registered with a butcher or grocer. Despite the problems that initially plagued the rationing process, it did eventually begin to work. Soon the malnutrition disappeared and the government rightly celebrated the fact that no one in Britain had starved as a result of the war.

MLA Citation/Reference

"Rationing and World War One". HistoryLearning.com. 2019. Web.