The year 2018 marks the centenary of the end of World War I – The Great War – and as we approach the end of the year there will be a huge amount of activity in terms of commemorating the peace and the many thousands of brave men who died in what was a truly horrific conflict. My own grandfather was killed on 30th September 1917. His citation records that he died a hero but so did almost all the others.
But my little piece this month is not about the horrors of trench warfare but more about what was happening back at home to those whom the servicemen left behind. We are used to hearing about the privations during the Second World War as my parent’s generation experienced it first-hand. Rationing was widespread and harsh from the early days of 1940 but was it the same in 1914?
The short answer is no, it wasn’t. Firstly, the machinery of warfare was more primitive in the First World War. Aeroplanes were biplanes or triplanes, not very fast and without the massive bomb carrying capacity of a Wellington or Lancaster for instance. Submarines were basic too and it wasn’t until towards the end of WW1 that the Germans tried to starve Britain into submission by sinking merchant ships carrying supplies.
So whilst in the Second World War rationing began within a year with swingeing privations, there was little interference in the food market in WW1 until 1917, and then only in a limited fashion. In 1940, the rations that an adult could obtain for a week were as follows: butter – 50g/2oz; sugar – 225g/8oz; cheese – 50g/2oz; bacon or ham – 100g/4oz; meat – 1s/2d worth (roughly 6p); eggs – 1; margarine – 100g/4oz; tea – 50g/2oz; milk – 1.8l/3 pints (sometimes dropping to 1.2l/2 pints). There were also monthly rations on jam – 225g/1/2lb; dried eggs – 1 x packet; sweets – 350g/12oz. Imagine, for a moment, your weekly supermarket shop, being so restricted. You certainly would not need a trolley.
By contrast, interference in the food market did not commence until 1916 when it became illegal to consume more than two lunchtime courses or three for dinner/supper in any one establishment. However, those determined to eat their fill could circumvent this by eating their requisite courses in one venue then decamping to another for a further splurge. Fines were also introduced for anyone found feeding pigeons or stray animals.
One hundred years ago this month, voluntary rationing was introduced, (no, I have no idea how that worked either), and then as U-boat attacks increased, rationing on a more serious basis was begun in July 1918 on butter, margarine, lard, meat and sugar. But our forebears were already getting used to the idea of shortages as food was simply running out before then. In January 1918 there was a meat shortage which meant that many London butchers had no stock at all. Government intervened and secured limited mutton supplies which were reserved for the poorer areas so at least some in the East End got some form of Sunday lunch whilst those in more prosperous areas did without.
The government also interfered – something they’re good at – in the pricing structure for farmers so that under the 1918 restrictions, their income from beef animals fell by 25% overnight and they then made a loss on every one sold. A great incentive to work hard to feed the country!
Whatever you are eating this coming month, a century on, I’m sure it will be a lot better than anyone was enjoying back then or in the Second World War. Let’s drink a toast to peace!