Across Europe soldiers are fighting and dying in the trenches but they are not the only ones suffering in this war. On the home front civilians in many countries are increasingly going hungry. This shortage of food has a number of causes. Britain’s naval blockade prevents Germany and Austria-Hungary from importing foodstuffs from the Americas. In all the belligerent countries men have been sent away to fight, leading to a shortage of agricultural labour. Wartime inflation and the dislocation caused by the militarisation of economies leads to bottlenecks, distribution problems and prices climbing beyond the reach of ordinary people.
Governments across Europe are prioritising the food needs of their armed forces. As a result, the shortages are felt most severely by the civilian population. Of these, urban populations fare worst as the country folk keep back food for their own consumption.
Rationing and government regulation attempt to combat the shortages, or at least ensure that everyone is getting a fair share. Germany has been rationing bread since the start of the year and is now rationing potatoes too. The authorities there have also decreed that shops are not to sell meat, lard and butter on certain days of the week.
It is not just the Central Powers that are feeling the pinch. Britain and France are experiencing some shortages but they are at least able to still import food from overseas. Russia though is particularly suffering. In peacetime the country was a major agricultural producer but the disruption of war has seen a fall in production and the ramshackle state administration struggles to ensure a fair distribution of food.
The result of these food shortages is political unrest. Germany and Russia experience food riots. Some of the Russian disturbances are particularly intense. They assume an insurrectionary character and prove difficult for the authorities to suppress.
Some now begin to wonder if the war will be halted not by decisive actions on the battlefield but by the starvation of civilian populations. This may have been the intention of the British when they added foodstuffs to the list of materials they prevent from reaching Germany and Austria-Hungary.
More on Europe’s food shortages (WW1 Centennial on Mental Floss)
Russian food riot (libcom.org)