Food Shortages and Rationing

Many British people responded to the outbreak of War with panic buying and hoarding food. In Bexhill this panic buying was so severe that there were bread shortages during the first few weeks of the War. Hoarding food was quickly made illegal and anyone caught hoarding could be imprisoned. Housewives were encouraged to be economical in their use of food when preparing meals and with civilians being bombed by Zeppelins and later aeroplanes, the term “homefront” was used for the first time to suggest those at home were also fighting.

At the time Britain was importing up to two thirds of her food supply, mainly from America and Canada. This meant merchant ships had to cross the Atlantic Ocean in order to deliver food, which until 1916 was relatively safe. However following Germany’s decision to starve Britain into surrender with the introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917, merchant ships began to suffer regular losses. With other restrictions on imported food such as lamb from New Zealand and fishing restrictions coupled with bad weather, Britain found itself suffering from severe food shortages.

To combat these shortages, as well as recommending households buy local produce, the government encouraged people to use any spare land they could find to grow their own fruit and vegetables. Land owners were also required to give up land for this purpose. In 1917 the government took over 2.5 million acres of land for farming. Even Buckingham Palace and the Royal Parks were turned into allotments for growing food. Farming was also in crisis after losing both horses and farmhands to the Front. Instead women were encouraged to help on the land, creating the Women’s Land Army. German Prisoners of War, disabled soldiers and Conscientious Objectors also worked on the farms. Although these measures helped it was not enough to prevent further hardships.

For the first time in the history of the British Empire, in January 1918 the government introduced Rationing. Sugar was the first to be rationed and by April was joined by meat, butter, cheese and margarine. Ration cards were issued to households and everyone had to register with a butcher and a grocer. Food prices had also risen dramatically due to the shortages, forcing the government to issue price controls on staple foods.

With rationing, growing their own vegetables and the introduction of the convoy system to protect merchant shipping, Britain avoided starvation.

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