Going Over The Top: Ersatz cooking - German food shortages during WWI

By David Flin

Descriptions of the First World War generally revolve around the Western Front, with a few excursions into fighting on the other fronts. The Battle of Jutland is mentioned, then Germany’s introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare, with sometimes reference to the sinking of the Lusitania.

Then, a chapter comes out of nowhere to discuss food shortages on the home front, which lead to riots and civil unrest. Food shortages, or, to be more strictly accurate, failures in the distribution of food, was one proximate cause of the Russian Revolution, with urban food riots becoming endemic. There was starvation in parts of the Ottoman Empire, and in Austria-Hungary. There was food rationing in France and Britain, and if you look around, there are a lot of rationing recipes available.

In the case of Germany, one generally hears about the terrible Turnip Winter, but very little about how it developed to that stage.

In 1914, Germany depended on imports for about one-third of its food, fodder, and fertiliser. These imports were significantly affected by the blockade that the British Navy put in place. Germany became largely dependent on what its own farmers could produce, as imports shrank to a trickle.

However, the German Government had made no plans for food supply for a long war. To simply maintain food supply at pre-war levels, domestic production had to increase by roughly 30% to offset the loss of imports. German agriculture was based on large estates in the north of the country, and many small farms elsewhere. As men and horses were called up, production declined. Production of farm equipment fell, as manufacturing processes focused on making military equipment.

A shortage of fodder resulted in livestock losing weight, impacting the supply of meat and milk.

Domestic production needed to increase by 30%; by July 1918, it had fallen by half, with meat and milk production standing at just 12% of the pre-war value.

The German Government claimed that there was enough food to meet demand if people reduced consumption. It left domestic food supply to local authorities, while it concentrated on exhorting people to eat less and making sure the Army stayed on full rations. It was up to local authorities to ensure equitable distribution of food to civilians at affordable prices. Unsurprisingly, they had difficulties, and sharing between different authorities was minimal.

Across Germany, individual towns and cities tended to have traditional food supply chains, with some securing supply from nearby farms. Others, such as the Ruhr, were dependent on supplies from further away. As food shortages grew, and as transportation became harder, this had a major impact on conditions in the Ruhr.

At the start of the war, there was a rush to buy staple foods to hoard. This promptly led to price rises. The Government allowed the local authorities to put price ceilings in place. These ceilings varied from place to place, both in level and in what foodstuffs were affected. Amazingly enough, and completely predictable by everyone except the German Government, farmers took their produce to where they got the higher prices, and there were major shortages of food in cities with low price ceilings.

To solve this, in early 1915 authorisation was given for the slaughter of one-third of Germany’s pigs, to both provide an influx of food into the market, and to stop the pigs from competing for the food resources. Amazingly enough, this impacted supply of meat in the later part of the war.

From October 1914, grain shortages meant that bakers were allowed to use potato flour to make bread with. Continuing shortages led to bread being rationed from January 1915, and many bakers used creative interpretations as to what a potato was, including corn, lentils, turnips, and sawdust.

By autumn 1915, there were food riots in a number of German cities following the introduction of new higher price ceilings. The Government responded by banning the sale of fats on Mondays and Thursdays, the sale of meat on Tuesdays and Fridays, and flour at the weekend.

Rationing was introduced, but the level of rationing varied from place to place. This caused unrest in those areas where rationing was tighter. Potatoes were rationed in April 1916, butter and sugar in May, meat in June, and milk and other fats in November. However, rations were not always available, and farmers insisted on taking produce to those locations that gave them the highest return. That must have been unexpected.

The black market blossomed. By 1917, roughly half of German food supplies came via the black market. The cost was such that the poor suffered disproportionately, particularly the urban poor who were dependent on the distribution of rations from the countryside. Urban consumers came to believe that rural producers were profiting from the situation, and the urban consumers were correct. By an astonishing coincidence, many of the people in the Government from the north of Germany had interests in large farms.

“Hamstering” became a big thing. Urban people would travel into rural areas, and barter, buy, or steal from rural producers. There was always a risk of the food being confiscated at railway stations by inspectors, although the railways put on extra trains to enable the hamsters to travel. It was technically illegal, but then so was prostitution for extra rations.

Food shortages increased from the start of the war. In August 1916, unrest had reached the stage that a group of soldiers’ wives wrote to the Hamburg Senate demanding its support for a peace settlement. They wrote: “We want to have our husbands and sons back from the war, and we don’t want to starve any more.”

Marie Gantz speaking at the Food Riots of 1917

One set of disgruntled wives can easily be ignored, and they were totally ignored. They weren’t the last to complain, and the grumbles about the situation grew. By the summer of 1917, rations had fallen to 1000 calories daily (recommended daily intake for a healthy diet is around 2000 calories daily). Following the Turnip Winter of 1916/17, when bad weather and lack of manpower led to a failure of the potato harvest, malnutrition became endemic in the civilian population.

German statisticians estimate that around 1 million people died during the war from malnutrition. Between 1913 and 1918, the death rate from tuberculosis in towns rose 91.1%. The numbers dying from typhoid doubled between 1916 and 1917. The number of reported cases in Düsseldorf rose from 8 in 1914 to 351 in 1917. By 1918, 40% of children in Germany were suffering from rickets.

Restaurants were able to operate throughout the war, although inevitably, prices of eating in restaurants rose with increased demand. Obviously, this was only available for those who could afford to eat regularly in a restaurant, and caused unrest among the poor.

To resolve this, the Government ordered an increase in the provision of soup kitchens. The intention was to ensure that everyone was able to get one hot meal a day. There were several problems. The soup kitchens could only operate when they had food, and food was in short supply in many urban areas. By now, transporting food from rural communities was difficult, both because there was a shortage of transport, and because the rural communities could count, and decided it was better to hoard food than send it to cities.

There was a bigger problem. The soup kitchens charged customers. The harder food was to obtain, the more the soup kitchens charged. This rather defeated the whole purpose of them, providing meals to people who were starving and couldn’t afford to buy food.

In a reversal of the normal procedures, German troops from the front lines were sending food packages back home. Inevitably, there was considerable wastage in delivering the food, as those conveying the parcels back were also suffering from the food shortages.

The German Government in the period 1914-1918 offers an object lesson in how not to organise a domestic economy with regard to food supply.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow