Rationing of World War One:
Rationing was introduced into Britain at the tail end of World War One - in February 1918. Rationing was
introduced in response to an effective U-boat campaign and during World War One, the Defence of the Realm
Act (DORA) was used to ensure that food shortages never occurred.
One of the primary aims of DORA, when it was first introduced, was to prevent food shortages. At the start of
the war, food shortages were self-imposed as the German U-boat campaign had yet to start. However, at the
start of the war people went around panic buying food and hoarding it at home. Some shops sold out of food in
days in August 1914. However, after the initial panic buying, people settled down into a routine and food was
not a problem until the end of 1916.
Britain continued to import food during the war. The main exporters to Britain were America and Canada. This
meant that merchant ships had to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Up to 1916, these merchant ships could travel in
relative safety. However, in 1917, the Germans introduced unrestricted submarine warfare and merchant ships
were sunk with great frequency. This had a drastic impact on Britain's food supply and with great losses in the
Atlantic, food had to be rationed so that no-one starved in Britain. In April 1916, Britain only had six weeks of
wheat left and bread was a staple part of most diets. 1916 was a bleak year for families - with the news from the
Battle of the Somme and with food in short supply, suddenly the war was brought home to most families. Food
prices rose and by October 1916, coal was in such short supply that it was rationed by the number of rooms a
family had in its house.
The restrictions introduced by DORA failed and the government then tried to introduce a voluntary code of
rationing whereby people limited themselves to what they should eat. The standard was set by the Royal
Family. However, this did not work. Those who worked in the munitions factories did not have enough food
while anyone with money could get more than enough food on the black market. Any area that could grow food
was converted to do so - gardens were turned into allotments and chickens etc. were kept in back gardens.
The powers introduced by DORA empowered the government to take over land when it felt that it was
necessary to do so. In 1917, the government took over 2.5 million acres of land for farming. By the end of the
war, Britain had an extra three million acres of farming land. Those who would have usually worked the land -
young men - had been called up, so the work was done by the Women's Land Army. Conscientious objectors also
worked on the land.
Despite the importance of the work done by the Women's Land Army, the government still felt that it was
appropriate to warn them about the standards expected of them and their approach must have seemed very old
fashioned to some:
"You are doing a man's work and so you are dressed rather like
a man; but remember that because you wear a smock and
trousers you should take care to behave like an English girl
who expects chivalry and respect from everyone she meets
Despite the work by the WLA, the impact of the German U-boat campaign made food shortages a serious
problem by 1918. Malnutrition was seen in poor communities and as a result the government introduced
rationing in 1918. Food products were added to the list as the year progressed. In January 1918, sugar was
rationed and by the end of April meat, butter, cheese and margarine were added to the list of rationed food.
Ration cards were issued and everyone had to register with a butcher and grocer. Rationing was a clear
indication to the British public that all was not well, but it did work. The malnutrition that had been identified in
the poorer communities disappeared and as in World War Two, no one actually starved in Britain during the
Soon after the outbreak of the First World War the the German Navy attempted to halt the flow of imports to
Britain by introducing unrestricted submarine warfare. By the end of 1916, U-German boats were on average
destroying about 300,000 tons of shipping a month. In February 1917, the German Navy sank 230 ships bringing
food and other supplies to Britain. The following month a record 507,001 tons of shipping was lost as a result of
the U-boat campaign. However, Britain was successful at increasing food production and the wheat harvest of
1917 was the best in our history.
Potatoes were often in short-supply and sugar was often difficult to get. Whereas the weekly consumption of
sugar was 1.49 lb in 1914, it fell to 0.93 lb in 1918. The consumption of butchers' meat also dropped from an
average of 2.36 to 1.53 lb a week during this period. At the end of 1917 people began to fear that the country
was running out of food. Panic buying led to shortages and so in January 1918, the Ministry of Food decided to
introduce rationing. Sugar was the first to be rationed and this was later followed by butchers' meat. The idea of
rationing food was to guarantee supplies, not to reduce consumption. This was successful and official figures
show that the intake of calories almost kept up to the pre-war level.
(1) Charles Young was interviewed about his experiences of the First World War in 1984.
When I returned after the war relatives told me how bad it had been. You see, us being an island hardly any
food could get through, because German U-boats were sinking our food convoys. My family lived on bones from
the butcher made into soups. And black bread. And when some food did get delivered to the shops everyone for
miles around besieged the place. The queues stretched for miles, and if you were old or infirm you stood no
chance. Many, especially children, died of starvation. Food riots were very common. But news like this was kept
from us, over in France. we only got to hear about it from men who came back after being on leave. I think that
is why leave to England was very rare, and severely restricted.
One day I was in the trench and we'd been under-non stop attack for days. Well, two of the blokes with me shot
themselves on purpose to try and get sent home and out of the war. One said to me "Chas, I am going home to
my wife and kids. I'll be some use to them as a cripple, but none at all dead! I am starving here, and so are they
at home, we may as well starve together." With that he fired a shot through his boot. When the medics got his
boot off, two of his toes and a lot of his foot had gone. But the injuring oneself to get out of it was quite
(2) David Lloyd George, War Memoirs (1938)
So far as the vast bulk of the population was concerned, this rationing system, troublesome though in some
respects it was to them, ensured a regular and sufficient food supply; and it made it possible for those in charge
to calculate with some precision how best they could make the stocks of available food-stuffs go round
equitably. When meat was slightly more plentiful, the ration could be raised. When it grew scarcer, the amount
purchasable with each meat coupon was cut down. The steady improvement in our national health figures
during and after the War, as compared with pre-War returns, shows that compulsory temperance in eating was
in general more beneficial than harmful in its effects. Although there was a degree of scarcity, we were never
faced with famine or actual privation. Credit is due to our people for the loyal manner in which they submitted
themselves to these strange and unwelcome restrictions. Without general goodwill it would have been
impossible to make the regulations effective.