A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Britons forced to tighten their belts as rationing is imposed

Increasing disruption of food imports by U-boats necessitated a radical social experiment: rationing

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The Independent Online

On New Year’s Eve 1917, the British government did something it had never done before. It told the British people, by law, how much food they could – and could not – eat.

The rationing applied only to sugar – 8oz per person, per week. By April, however, meat had joined the list of controlled foods, limiting everyone to 15oz of butchers’ cuts and 5oz of bacon per week. By July, butter, margarine, lard and tea were restricted. The war, nearly four years old and with no end in sight, had crept into Britain’s kitchens.

That the government was prepared to take such a drastic step illustrates how dangerous the situation had become. At the time, two-thirds of British food was imported, a fact that was well known to the German high command.

For much of the war, the fear of provoking the United States had made Germany relatively cautious in attacking merchant ships bound for Britain. But by 1917, with the Western Front in stalemate, it was decided that the benefits outweighed the risks.

German admirals figured if 600,000 tons of shipping could be sunk each month, Britain would be unable to feed its people within just five months – with a bit of luck before any US boots had set foot on European soil.

“We will starve the British people who have refused peace,” said Kaiser Wilhelm. “Until they kneel, and plead for it.” Unrestricted submarine warfare was authorised on 1 February 1917. By the end of the year, 46,000 tons of meat and 85,000 tons of sugar had been consigned to the bottom of the ocean, and Britain, already struggling from shortages and high prices, was in crisis.

Queues at the butchers and the grocers became a common sight and some cities even saw rioting. The government knew only too well what had happened after food riots broke out in Russia, and the fear that revolution might now come to Britain was very real. The answer was, in the words of one historian, “an unplanned experiment in state capitalism”, orchestrated by the Food Minister Lord Rhondda, with the assistance of a razor-sharp civil servant, William H Beveridge, whose name would be committed to history 20 years later as a result of another great social reform: the foundation of the welfare state.

Price controls on food had already been imposed long before rationing came in and the transformation of Britain’s food economy was under way. More than 250,000 women – along with disabled soldiers and even German prisoners of war –were mobilised to grow food, replacing farm workers who, along with horses, had gone to the front line.

The strategy was a success. Despite the continuation of the German U-boat campaign, Britain saved itself from starving.

In fact, for many working-class people, who on average were eating only 11oz of meat per week before rationing, the new 1918 rules made very little difference to their daily diet and there is evidence that the average calorie intake only went down among wealthier people. The knowledge that, for the first time, British people really were “all in it together” was critical in defusing any revolutionary sentiment.

Working-class soldiers at the front had already seen what a leveller wartime rationing could be. At the start of hostilities, hearty army rations high in protein meant that soldiers ate around 4,600 calories a day, compared with the working man’s average intake of 3,400 – although rations dwindled as the war progressed and the size of the army increased, to the point that, by the end, soldiers would be lucky if they saw meat more than once a week.

At home, rationing continued for some time after the war ended. Sugar, the first food to be restricted, was also the last to be liberalised again, on 29 November 1920.

Beveridge, who was promoted to Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Food in 1919, would go on to write an influential report on the success of price controls and rationing, which would frame British rationing policy in the Second World War. The lessons he learnt would shape his thinking, when planning that next great levelling of British society – the welfare state.

Tomorrow: The broken anti-war campaigner

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar