Hunger stalked the civilian nations of all combatants in the Great War, and some countries met the threat more successfully than others. It was the conscription of many men from the farming industry that left Britain in short supply of agricultural workers. Adding to the problem was the wheat harvest of 1916 which was lower than usual and the Scottish potato crop which suffered as well in England. Because of these shortages, food prices rapidly increased making some items unaffordable to the average Briton. The situation deteriorated even further when on January 9th 1917, Germany announced unrestricted submarine warfare. This of course meant that British merchant shipping transporting food from overseas would be at risk of being sunk, thus adding to the shortages. In February 1917 the German navy sank 230 ships bringing food and supplies to Britain. The following month a record 507,001 tons were lost through the U-boat campaign.
The authorities quickly took action. In 1917 the Women’s Land Army was formed, providing female labour with the now famous ‘land girls’ throwing their weight in the fields, replacing the men who had gone to fight. It was also encouraged that everyone, wherever they lived, on whatever size of plot, started growing their own food. Taking the town of Preston for example, a committee was formed to secure 700 plots for allotments in the town’s parks and other public land, specifically for the growing of food. By 1919 this take-over of land had increased to 1,845 plots.
Voluntary rationing was introduced in February 1917 with the idea of conserving food in short supply and leaflets were issued showing how to avoid unnecessary waste when cooking. Some school teachers also took up the challenge, establishing cooking centres. The allowance under the voluntary scheme was based on the staple diet of bread, meat and sugar. This weekly allowance consisted of:
- Bread including cakes, puddings etc. – 4Ibs (1.8 Kg)
- Meat including bacon, ham, sausages, game, rabbits, poultry and tinned meat – 2½ Ibs (1.1 Kg)
- Sugar ¾ Ibs (340 grams)
When Lord Rhondda became Food Controller in July 1917 his aim was to fix the prices of essential foods of which the supply can be controlled. This work was decentralised to local food control committees who were to enforce the Food Controllers Orders, register the retailers of various foodstuffs, recommend necessary variations in the scale of retail prices, to continue and develop food economy campaigns and to administer a new scheme of sugar distribution. This voluntary option had some effect but more was needed. Shortages continued and although wealthier people could still afford food, malnutrition raised its ugly head in some communities. To make things fairer and too ensure that everybody received their fair share, the Government introduced rationing in February 1918. Ration cards were issued (even King George and Queen Mary had one) and everyone had to register with their local butcher and grocer. The first item on ration was sugar in January 1918 and by the end of April meat, butter, cheese and margarine were added to the list. The rules of rationing were harsh, anyone found cheating could be fined or even sent to prison. School dinners were introduced because lots of children were missing school to queue for food. Mothers also queuing hadn’t time to cook dinner and children were going hungry.
Some food items actually were still in short supply even after the war ended, for example, butter remained rationed until 1920.
“Now, the first thing we were short of was sugar. We had cane sugar, of course, the canes came from South America – I think Tate and Lyle’s produced cane sugar. But no beet sugar, as far as I know, and beet sugar came from Austria so we were without beet sugar. That was the first thing we were short of. Lard later on, because that mostly came from America. Then everything began to be short.”
Walter Hare: grocer’s assistant in Yorkshire