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

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.

Read more: A U-boat commander describes sinking an Allied steamer

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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - SQL Server, T-SQL

£28000 - £32000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

How Etsy became a crafty little earner

The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

Don't fear the artichoke

Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
11 best men's socks

11 best men's socks

Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

Paul Scholes column

Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

Frank Warren's Ringside

Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

Khorasan is back in Syria

America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

On the campaign trail with Ukip

Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

Expect a rush on men's tights

Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

In the driving seat: Peter Kay

Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road