A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: On the streets of Berlin, faces ravaged by hunger

George Abel Schreiner, a US journalist who spent much of the war in Germany, on the terrible toll of food shortages

Many hours were wasted by the women of the household in the course of a month by standing in line.

The newspapers conducted campaigns against this seemingly heartless policy of the food authorities, but without result. The food-line was looked upon as essential in food conservation, as indeed it was. In the course of time it had been shown that people would call for food allotted them by their tickets, whether they needed it or not, and would then sell it again with a profit.

To assure everybody of a supply in that manner would also lead to waste in consumption. Those who did not absolutely need all of their ration did not go to the trouble of standing in a food-line for hours in all sorts of weather.

Subsisting at the public crib was an unpleasant business under such conditions, but there was no way out. The food “speak-easy” was almost as much a thing of the past as was the groaning board of ante-bellum times, though it was by no means entirely eradicated, as the trial of a small ring of food sharks in Berlin, on 10 October 1917 demonstrated … which involved one of the largest caches ever discovered.


There were hidden in this cache 27,000lb of wheat flour, 300lb of chocolate, 15,000lb of honey, 40,000 cigars, and 52,000lb of copper, tin and brass. The odd part of the case was that to this hoard belonged also 24 head of cattle and nine pigs.  On the same day there was tried in a Berlin jury court a baker who had “saved” 6,500lb of flour from the amounts which the food authorities had turned over to him. It was shown that the baker had sold the loaves of bread he was expected to bake from the flour. Of course he had adulterated the dough to make the loaves weigh what the law required and what the bread tickets called for.

A fine profit had been made on the flour. The food authorities had assigned him the supply at $9 for each 200lb bag. Some of it he sold illicitly at $55 per sack to a man who had again sold it for $68 to another chain-trader, who later disposed of it to a consumer for $80 a bag.

There can be no doubt that this flour made expensive bread, but it seems that there were people willing to pay the price. But 40 cents for a pound of wheat flour was something which only a millionaire war purveyor could afford. All others below that class, materially, ate the government ration and stood in line.

Sad in the extreme was the spectacle which the food-lines in the workman quarters of Berlin, Vienna, and Budapest presented. Upon the women of the households the war was being visited hardest. To see a pair of good shoes on a woman came to be a rare sight. Skirts were worn as long as the fabric would keep together, and little could be said of the shawls that draped pinched faces, sloping shoulders, and flat breasts. There were children in those food-lines. Thin feet stuck in the torn shoes, and mother’s shawl served to supplement the hard-worn dress or patched suit.

Everything had to go for food, and prices of apparel were so high that buying it was out of the question.

Once I set out for the purpose of finding in these food-lines a face that did not show the ravages of hunger. That was in Berlin.

Four long lines were inspected with the closest scrutiny. But among the  300 applicants for food there was not one who had had enough to eat in weeks.

In the case of the younger women and the children the skin was drawn hard to the bones and bloodless.

Eyes had fallen deeper into the sockets. From the lips all colour was gone, and the tufts of hair that fell over parchmented foreheads seemed dull and famished, a  sign that the nervous vigour of the body was departing with the physical strength…

Published in ‘The Iron Ration’, by George Abel Schreiner (Harper & Brothers, 1918)

Tomorrow: Revolution in Russia

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