Threat to supply

British merchant shipping

A British destroyer patrolling the North Sea
A British destroyer patrolling the North Sea

A real threat to Britain's food supplies and Britain’s ability to continue the war effort came in 1916 when a new campaign of 'unrestricted submarine warfare' began with deadly effect:

  • By August 1917, 1,500,000 tons of British merchant shipping had been sunk.
  • At one stage only four days’ supply of sugar remained and a few weeks’ worth of wheat flour.
  • The shortage of many forms of food led to long queues at the shops and rapidly rising prices.


Rationed and unrationed foodstuffs
Rationed and unrationed foodstuffs

In Britain various measures were taken to prevent starvation.

In December 1917 compulsory rationing was finally introduced after voluntary schemes had failed. The aim of rationing was to conserve food supplies, ensure fair distribution and control rising prices caused by food becoming more scarce.

For wealthy people these price rises were an inconvenience but for the poor they meant less money to spend on other essentials.

Rationing was gradually introduced and was in force throughout Scotland by April 1918:

  • Sugar was the first to be rationed and this was later followed by butcher meat.
  • By the end of the war almost all foods were subject to price control by the government.
  • Town councils were encouraged to allocate land to townspeople to grow vegetables.
  • The government began a propaganda campaign to reduce waste and produce more food.
  • British farmers were paid subsidies to plough up pasture land and plant crops such as potatoes and wheat, which were rich in carbohydrates, and therefore energy.
  • The defeat of the U-boats and the surrender of Germany in November 1918, meant that Britain did not have to test the rationing system to its limits.

As a result of these measures, although there was a degree of scarcity, Britain was never faced with food shortages on the same scale as Germany, where in the winter of 1917-1918, over 500,000 German civilians died of starvation.