Formal rationing was not introduced in Britain until February 1918. The Defence of the Realm (DORA) was used to ensure that food shortages never occurred.
Up to that point in the First World War food shortage had a profound effect on the lives of civilians. Agriculture felt the strain of war; production declined and prices rose.
As a grocer’s assistant in Yorkshire, Walter Hare soon noticed there was less food available.
"Now, the first thing we were short of was sugar. Because I don’t think we grew sugar beet in this country, in those days, and most of our sugar came from… 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. We had to sort of – we’d no ration cards or aught like that – you had to ration it out, you see, divide what we had. So that everybody got a fair share of whatever there was".
The early months of the war saw some panic buying and hoarding of food.
The situation then worsened when Germany began following a policy of ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’ which reduced the volume of supplies reaching Britain.
Vera Waite recalled how the food shortages affected her village near Bristol.
"I well remember a certain person in the village who hoarded a sack full of flour, which there was going to be a great shortage of flour. Because we had bread made with potatoes, potato flour. This person had a sack of flour, which she put into her bath and kept it and boasted about that. Well, the consequence was, that flour got little maggots and it was no use to her. I know that several people – my mother included – said it serves her right for trying to… If she’d shared it out, it would’ve been much better. But no, she thought that, she boasted about this sack of flour that was no good to her".
It wasn’t only Britain that was affected by shortages. Across Europe, war soon influenced the production, movement and supply of foodstuffs.
Helena Reid noticed a gradual scarcity of provisions in the German-occupied city of Lille in France.
"At the beginning we had very little shortage, because we had plenty of food. But afterwards it became very, very serious. All we had was a ration of, oh, I can’t remember the bread. I remember it was something very dark and very… it didn’t taste like bread at all. There was no milk – we did have some milk, we had Carnation milk, or something like that, which was really on ration. The three adults with me really went short, to give it to me. Because I remember I used to say, ‘Don’t you have some?’ ‘No, no we don’t want it.’ And of course I was having the best. I was the only child, you see".
At least food could be found in Britain and France. In Germany and Austria, people were starving.
Britain’s naval blockade of Germany severely restricted the amount of goods that reached German civilians.
As Walter Rappolt recalled, "it got so bad that substitute foodstuffs were introduced.
It got more and more serious. So that people got asleep hungry. It got worse and worse. If I may refer to the rationing in Germany during the First World War, and the rationing of Britain in the Second World War, it was all the difference of the world. The coffee was not made of coffee beans, which were unavailable, it was made, I suppose, of some sort of vegetables. I never got to know that. Of course, no taste of coffee whatsoever, it was a hot drink. If we were thirsty, it quenched our thirst but it had no taste whatsoever. Not disagreeable but not agreeable either".
In Britain, the increasing shortages resulted in goods being unevenly distributed. When a shop had new stock in, everyone rushed to buy up what they could. If you didn’t get there quickly, you missed out.
Queues became a common sight. Edgar Waite lived in Sunderland.
"There was no rationing at the early part of the First World War. The result was it was very difficult getting hold of food, especially meat. And women had to queue up very early in the morning. Somebody would say, ‘Now, there’s a butcher’s shop up the road there; they’ve got some meat.’ And they would queue up hours before the butcher’s shop opened, on the off chance of perhaps only getting a bone with a bit of meat on. They had to just accept anything that’s going. It was the same with cigarettes. Somebody along the street would see a chap, he’d say, ‘By the way, there’s some cigarettes to be had down such and such a place.’ And there’d be a mad rush there and you had to accept anything they offered them. There’d be a man standing up inside the shop saying, ‘I’ve got a packet of Woodbines here; anybody want a packet of Woodbines…?’ Mad rush. Or he’d perhaps got a packet of some fancy cigarettes… Through no ration scheme in operation, it made things very difficult to purchase either cigarettes, beer or food. For a long stretch of the war it was very difficult, especially buying meat and that sort of thing".
Queuing for food was a time-consuming business, so many housewives sent their children to monitor local shops.
Dorothy Lester did so for her mother while a schoolchild living in London.
"There was no rationing at first and it was pretty awful to get food. And there were three boys who lived next door to us and Earley was the same age as I was. He and I used to roam the streets looking at the shops and I can remember seeing a queue in the shop – forgotten its name – and some of us would stay in the queue, not really knowing what there was, and sent the other person home to tell our mothers to come with some money. And our mothers would come and there would be margarine or something that they’d get from the shop. As a child of course we were given everything that was available. And my mother no doubt went without herself, to feed my father and the two of us".
With Thanks to The Imperial War Museum Archives