World War I: Food

American food relief
Figure 1.--The Austrian-Hungarian Empire was one of the countries that did not take effective steps to maintain food production during World War I. The heavy war losses and food shortages resulted in a collapse of the Empire. One of the sucessor states was Czechoslovakia. After the War, Ameican food relief could reach the Czechs. Here Czech children are waiting at an American Red Cross soup station in Prague after the War, some time in 1919-20. Most of the food destributed by the Red Cross was provided by American food relief U.S. Food Administration). We are guessing that this a mobile feeding station and the truck (you can see the tire and bumper) was American also supplied by American food relief. Source: Red Cross photograph, RC-10522.

Food is a major issue in war. Food has to be stockpiled and transported to feed armies or the armies have to live off the land which can have a devestating impact on civilian populations. After the Napoleonic Wars, the wars in Europe were short lived, maning that food did not become a major issue. World War I lasted 4 years and had a devestating impact on the economies of beligerant and occupied countries. The food situation was especially disruppted. The fighting disrupted agriculture, affecting the availability of draft animals as well as important inputs such as fertilizer. It also affected the availability of of agricultural labor. Food emerged as a problem almost from the outset of the war. The German Army which launched the war by invading neutral Belgium also created a humanitarian crisis by seizing the country's food supply. Industrial countries that had to import food were the most in jeporady. This included Britain and Germany. The British Royal Navy ensured, on the other habd, that food could be obtained in Canada and America. It also instituted a naval embargo which cut the Germans off from needed food imports. The German U-boats seeking to blockade Britin only suceedin bringing America into the war. This would take time to have an impact, but the French Miralcle on the Marne, meant tjhat there would be no quick Germsn victory. And Germany need for imports of both food and raw matetials would gradually impair the German war effort. Therewas only one major naval battle during the War, but the Royal Navy would play a major role on the outcome of the War. A new German word appeared in the English language--Ersatz. Beligerant countries instituted food rationing systems, but the systems varied widely from country tp country as did steps to ensure that conscription programs did not severly reduce the rural agricultural work force. Food shortages were largely responsible for the Russian Revolution. Russia before the War had been one of the world's most important exporters of grain. Food shortages also undermined civilian morale in Germany and Austria-Hungary. As a result of the war, there would have been a massive famine as agricultural production had sunstantially declines. Only American food relieft prevented what could have been the greatest humanitarian crisis since the 13th century Plague. America beginning with Belgium saved millions of lives in both Allied countries, the Central Powers, and the new Soviet Union with food relief efforts.

Food Production

Food is a major issue in war. Food has to be stockpiled and transported to feed armies or the armies have to live off the land which can have a devestating impact on civilian populations. After the Napoleonic Wars, the wars in Europe were short lived, maning that food did not become a major issue. World War I lasted 4 years and had a devestating impact on the economies of beligerant and occupied countries. The food situation was especially disruppted. The fighting disrupted agriculture, affecting the availability of draft animals as well as important inputs such as fertilizer. It also affected the availability of of agricultural labor.

Country Food Trends

Food emerged as a problem almost from the outset of the war. The German Army which launched the war by invading neutral Belgium also created a humanitarian crisis by seizing the occupied country's food supply. The United States supplied the food Belgium needed. Britain was not sekf-suffient in food, but the Royal Navy ensured that Britain could obtain the food it neded. France was largely self sufficent in food. Germany was not. A new German word appeared in the English language--Ersatz. Mid-way through the War, food became a serious problem in Germany. They had expected a quick victory which wold have meant that aritish naval blockade would have been meaningless. And even after it became clear that it would be a war of attrition, they did not begin to take steps to deal with the building food crisis. And neither did its Central Power Allies. Russia was primarily an agricultural country producing vast quantities of grain. Conscription and German advances significantly reduced Russian agricultural harvests, leading to food riots in the cities. The War would not be decided by the collapse of the Tsarist agricltural economy, but much of the subsequnt history of the 20th century would be impactd by the resultin creation of the Soviet Union and the rise of Communism. America significantly expanded grain harvests and food production. The British Royal Navy assured that the Allies had access to American and Canadian food. America at the time it entered the War did not have a large army or an industrial economy producing massive quantities of arms. This was part of the reason the Germans decided to risk war with Amrica. America did have, however, a vast agricultural sector and one that unlike the European agricultural sector, could be expanded to meet the needs of not only its own people and army, but the people and armies of its allies. It would be American food that would prevent hunger in Allied nations, excpet Russia which was difficult to supply because its principal ports (Baltic and Black Sea) were blokaded by the Germans and Ottomans. The Germans would complain bitterly about the Allies naval blockade , but in fact they maintained their own blockade.

Commerce Campaigns

Both the Allies and Centrl Powers launched commerce wars. After the War, the Germans would complain bitterly about the Allied naval blockade and the impact on civilins because of the resulting food hortages. Left unsaid is this is precisely what the Germans tried to do to Britain throug the U-boat cmpaign, but failed. And the total lack of concern about their seizure of the food supply in Belgium. Industrial countries that had to import food were the most in jeporady from commerce campaigns. This included Britain and Germany. The British Royal Navy ensured, on the other hand, that food could be obtained in Canada and America. It also instituted a naval embargo which cut the Germans off from needed food imports. And the Germans had not readily availble source of food like the British did cross the Atlantic. The Germans used U-boats to blockade Britain. The results were not what the Kaiser expected. The U-boats did not knock Britain out of the War. It did bring a massive new American Army to France which would crack the formidable Hindenburg Line wide open and force Germany to seek an armistice. This would take time to have an impact, but the French Miralcle on the Marne, meant that there would be no quick German victory. The Germans had the striongest army in Europe and believed that ghis would bring a quick victory. The victory on the Marne meant that the superior material resources of the Allies would have time to have an impact. The German need for imports of both food and raw materials would gradually impair the German war effort. There was only one major naval battle during the War, but the Royal Navy through its blockade of Germanhy would play a major role on the outcome of the War.

Rationing

Military commanders throughout Europe expected a war of sweeping movements as fought a century earlier in the Napoleonic Era. Most envisioned a conflict that would be won or lost in a matter of months. When this proved not to be the case World War I turned into a bruising contest of will and resources. While histories focus on campaigns and battles, it was the more mundane battle of production and effuicent use of resources that ultimately determined the outcome of the War. The Allies had superior industrial and agricultural resources and with control of the seas through the Royal Navy had access to the resources of the Dominions as well as America. The Germans to counter this eventually turned to unrestricted submarine resources. The U-boats, While initially effective, proved a costly gamble for the Germans. The British countered the impact of lost shipping with an effective rationing. Food became tight, but no one starbed. Unrestricyed submarine warfare also This brought America into war, irrevocably shifting the strategic ballance. Now Britain and France not only had access to Ametrican industry and farms, but could purchase war materials with loans that they would never have to repay. For Germany the situation was made worse by the inefficent use of available resources. Germany never introduced rationing. In addition because conscription had seriously reduced the rural labor force, farm prooduction declined. Unlike Britain, Germany also did not start using women to replace industrial workers in war industries.

Revolutions

Food shortages were largely responsible for the Russian Revolution. Russia before the War had been one of the world's most important exporters of grain. Food shortages also undermined civilian morale in Germany and Austria-Hungary. Austria-Hungary desintegrated both becaise of huge losses, but also because of food shortages. The Germans began to experience food shortages as early as 1916. Civilian morale began to crack before morale at the front. This was a factor in resuming unrestricted sunmarine warfare, the desperate need to end the war quickly.

Famine in Russia (1920-22)

Millions of Russians were killed in the Russian Civil War, both soldiers and civilians. Estimates suggest 10-15 million people perished. The World War I and the Civil War which followed it, devestated Russuia. Agricultural and industrial production was a fraction of pre-War levels. Estimates suggest that industrialm production was about 15 percent of pre-War levels. Agricultural producion was only about 35 percent of pre-War levels. And the disruptions resulting from the War were made even worse as a result of a drought (1920-21). Horses needed on the farm became difficult to find. This is important because at the time, Russian farms were not meganized. Tractors were almost entirely unknown. Cattle during the same period declined from 58 million to 37 million. Many were appropriated by the warring armies. One estimate indicates the number of horses declined from 35 million to only 24 million (1920). Food shortages were widespread. Not only had agricultural production declined, but the peasants were unwilling to sell their harvest for paper money which was essentially worthless. The distribution of essential commodities virtually broke down. The country's transportation system was badly damaged by the fighting, further complicating the food situation. Large numbers of children orphaned in the fighting were sarticularly at risk. The American relief mission was overseen by Herbert Hoover. As terrible as the Civil War was, the loss of life could have been much worse. The American Relief Administration (ARA) had offered Russia food relief in 1919, despite the Bolshevik takeover. The Bolsheviks rejected the offer because of the terms involved. The ARA insisted that an American overseer was to be in charge of all food stations to ensure that the food was not distributed on a political or religious basis. The Bolsehvicks in 1921 changed their minds. Faced with a severe famine as a result of their Civil war and a severe drought, the Bolsheviks accepted the American terms. When a critic inquired if he was not thus helping Bolshevism, Hoover retorted, "Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed!"

American Food Relief

As a result of the war, there would have been a massive famine as agricultural production had sunstantially declines. Only American food relieft prevented what could have been the greatest humanitarian crisis since the 13th century Plague. America beginning with Belgium saved millions of lives in both Allied countries, the Central Powers, and the new Soviet Union with food relief efforts. American food would savbe millions of people from starvation after the War. This included the Russians, although the Bolsheviks imped the effort to feed the starving Russian people.

Sources

Tugan-Baranovskii, Mikhail. ‘Vliianie voiny na narodnoe khoziaistvo Rossii. Anglii i Germanii’ [The influence of the war on the national economy of Russia, England and Germany], in: Baranovskii, M.I.(ed.): Voprosy mirovoi voiny [Questions of the World War] (Moscow: 1915), pp. 269-324.








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Created: 8:03 PM 12/4/2017
Last updated: 4:05 AM 11/26/2018