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WWI Wednesday: Wartime Rationing


Don't Waste Bread!
Don’t Waste Bread! © IWM (Art.IWM PST 13354)

It must have been a great shock to the Edwardians to go from extreme lavishness in meals to extreme want during the height of the war. During the early months, food prices soared as Britons fearfully stocked up on basic necessities and other foodstuffs. However, this was quickly curbed by the newly-founded Cabinet Committee on Food Supplies, who on August 7th, fixed the maximum prices for food “such as 4½d. per lb for granulated sugar, 5d. for lump, 1s. 6d. per lb for butter, 8d. for margarine, 9½d. for Colonial cheese, and 1s. 4d. and 1s. 6d. for continental and British bacon.” Many considered these prices extravagant, what with the menus in Maud Pember Reeves’ 1913 study on poverty, Round About on a Pound a Week, averaging about 10s. for 2 oz of tea, ½lb of sugar, 4 oz of butter, and a loaf of bread per day. Ironically, just as prices were fixed and rationing set in, luxury foods fell drastically in price due to the lack of entertaining (for example, pineapples fetched only 1s.!), and the wine trade just about collapsed.

During the autumn and winter of 1914, supplies of fuel and light were curtailed, street lamps were dimmed, and no long lines of lights were permitted. In London, Mrs. C. S. Peel declared that the city had gone back twenty years as regards to lighting and “by the end of the war it was almost as dark as the Middle Ages.” New laws required that everyone put up blinds to the windows and keep them drawn at night at the risk of a fine of up to £100 or six months’ imprisonment–a precaution that became imperative once Zeppelins began dropping bombs on England at various intervals throughout the war. By early 1915, the coal shortage had shortened people’s tempers, and the suspicion of neighbors hoarding private stashes of coal or even of coal mine owners profiteering were frequent complaints. The price of coal rose steadily each month, and the coal queue became as familiar a site as the food queue. To mitigate the acute fuel shortage, newspapers filled their pages with advice on fuel-saving cookery and fuel substitutions.

In December 1916, after a bleak autumn (due to the shortages and the news of the Somme), a Food Controller was appointed and a Ministry of Food established “to promote economy and to maintain the food supply of the country”. Yet, it was not until 1917, when the Germans began their unrestricted U-boat warfare, that the British government realized how vulnerable the country was to being cut off from their imported food supplies. In April of that year, 555,000 tons of shipping alone were lost in the submarine campaign . In response, the Food Controller authorized the organization of a national kitchen, where ostensibly healthy and nourishing food was cooked and served to the masses now that most men had been called up to the Front and women had taken their places in the workforce. The Board of Agriculture also sent instructors around the country to demonstrate bottling and canning fruits and vegetables to cut back on waste, and the London County Council issued posters advising people to buy bread by weight (as the poor did) rather than by the loaf.

Months later, when the food shortage became more serious, control, or rations, grew stricter: “to throw rice at weddings became a criminal offense, the sale of luxury chocolates and sweets were stopped, the use of starch for laundering was restricted, horses and cows and even the London pigeons were rationed, no corn was allowed for cobs, hunters, carriages horses and hacks, the amount of bread or cake sold at tea shops was reduced to 2 ounces, and it became an offense to adopt and feed stray dogs.” Butchers were ordered to display price lists, and bakers, with only barley, rice, maize, beans, oatmeal and potato permitted, were forbidden to bake anything but Government regulation bread. Everyone was advised to “Eat slowly: you will need less food.” or “Keep warm: you will need less food.”, yet no explanations were given on how to keep warm with fuel rationed and an insufficiently fat diet.

The winter of 1917 saw the formation of food queues, where people in the poorer districts waited outside of shabby shops for hours, and the better-off sent their servants round to fetch what they could. This latter practice and the resentment it stirred up no doubt convinced the Government to institute compulsory rationing in 1918. After February 1918, it became impossible in London and the six home counties to buy butter, margarine, or meat without cards; by the end of April, everyone was required to register for bacon as well. Those in the country, and the aforementioned well-to-do, were a tad better off, since they had gardens and livestock, but food shortages, inflation, and rationing remained a threat to the average Briton’s meals even after the U-boat campaign ended in August 1918. Yet, rationing did have a bright side: the malnutrition documented in the poor during the Edwardian eras had all but disappeared, and no one truly starved.

How We Lived Then, 1914-1918: A Sketch of Social and Domestic Life in England During the War by Mrs. C. S. Peel
Camille DeAngelis tries two recipes from the Peel book, Savoury War-Time Pie & War-Time Soup
Rationing and Food Shortages during the First World War – Imperial War Museum
Rationing – WWI Propaganda Posters
Rationing and World War One – History Learning Site
Food rationing in Britain in the First World War – Join Me in the 1900s
From Beef and Chocolate to Daily Ration–British Rations in Transition, 1870-1918
The Home Front in World War One: Rationing of Basic Foodstuffs – BBC History

A Glimpse of Armistice Day in London, 1918


Armistice day in London

THE editors got back from their Irish trip in time to see how London received the news of the armistice. They had had a rough encounter with the Irish sea–two encounters, indeed, one going and one coming back. It lived up to its tradition as an unruly, restless and troublesome teapot ocean.

Three times, in all, the editors have compassed its waters, and in each instance they found the Irish sea in an ugly mood. The packet on which they went from Holyhead to Dublin had its nose under the billows half the time, and the same little vessel on its return performed amazing stunts in riding alternately on one ear and then on the other, rolling and wallowing in the angry waves in ways quite disconcerting. It was a positive relief to put one’s feet again on dry land, in the comparative security, if not quiet, of a London crowd celebrating victory after four long years, and more, of war.

The news of the signing of the armistice was given out by Premier Lloyd George to the papers a little before 11 o’clock on Monday, November 11. Up to that time London had preserved its usual phlegmatic calm. The successive announcements, in the closing days of the war, that Turkey had succumbed, that Austria had sent up the white flag, that the Kaiser had abdicated, and finally that Germany had sent its representatives to General Foch to arrange for a suspension of hostilities — all failed to disturb the Londoner in the pursuit of his established and historic routine. Apparently everything was coming out as England expected, and there was nothing to do but await events. The crash of empires and the fall of dynasties were the mere incidents of an arranged schedule.

The armistice was signed at 5 o’clock in the morning. The news accounts here have it that New York and Washington got word of the great consummation at 3 o’clock A. M., and promptly proceeded to celebrate; and doubtless the Pacific Coast was favored with the same happy information sometime about midnight, or shortly thereafter. Making due allowance for all differences in time, London and England should have been notified of the result early in the day, immediately after the signing of the document. But the London evening papers are poor contraptions, and they have a way here of awaiting official announcements. It isn’t news until the King, or the Premier, or some other great man has said it or done it. Or perhaps the censor was still on the job. In any event, the method of communicating to the public the great fact that Germany had officially acknowledged that it had lost was through Lloyd George.


WWI Wednesday: The War Office and the Press


Excerpt from Experiences of a Dug-out, 1914-1918 by Sir C. E. Callwell:

The Press Bureau which was established at the commencement of the war was a civil department, entirely independent of the Admiralty and the War Office although it was in close touch with those institutions, as also with the Foreign Office, the Board of Trade and other branches of the Government. In so far as the War Office was concerned, the Bureau dealt with the Operations Directorate, which was responsible for watching the censorship of newspapers in general, just as it was responsible for actually controlling the censorship of cables and foreign correspondence. As the primary raison d’être of newspapers is to provide their readers with news, it was inevitable that restrictions placed upon publication of information, however necessary they might be in the interest of the State, would hamper the activities of those in charge and be regarded as a nuisance. It was natural that the Press should chafe at the restraint and should be disposed to exaggerate the inconvenience to which it was put. But the public, it must be remembered, have heard only one side of the story. The country has derived its information concerning the Press censorship from the Press itself—in other words, from what is to all intents and purposes a tainted source. The nation has had to decide on a subject of general interest on one-sided evidence.

In so far as the military share of the Press censorship was concerned, some of the groans of its victims were, no doubt, well justified. Delays were inevitable. But cases of unnecessary delay no doubt occurred. Instances could be mentioned of one censor sanctioning the publication of a given item of news while another forbade mention thereof. It is human to err, and individual censors were guilty of errors of judgment on occasion. Examples of information, which might have been given to the world with perfect propriety, being withheld, could easily be brought to light. How the humorists of the Fourth Estate did gloat over “the Captains and the Kings”! There was at least one instance early in the conflict of an official communiqué that had been issued by the French military authorities in Paris being bowdlerized before publication on this side of the Channel.

Few of the detractors of the military Press Censorship, on the other hand, gave evidence of possessing more than a shadowy conception of the difficult and delicate nature of the duties which that institution was called upon to carry out. There is little evidence to indicate that the critics had the slightest idea of the value of the services which it performed. Nor would they appear to be aware that the blunders committed by the censors, such as they were, were by no means confined to malapert blue-pencilling of items of information that might have appeared without disclosing anything whatever to the enemy. As a matter of fact, cases occurred of intelligence slipping through the meshes which ought not on any account to have been made public property.

When, for example, one particular London newspaper twice over during the very critical opening weeks of the struggle divulged movements of troops in France, the peccant passage was, on each occasion, found on investigation to have been acquiesced in by a censor—lapses on the part of overworked and weary men poring over sheaves of proof-slips late at night. Nearly all our newspapers published a Reuter’s message which stated the exact strength of the Third Belgian Division when it got back by sea to Ostend—not a very important piece of information, but one that obviously ought not to have been allowed to appear. At a somewhat later date, a journal, in reporting His Majesty’s farewell visit to the troops, contrived to acquaint all whom it might concern that the Twenty-eighth Division, made up of regular battalions brought from overseas, was about to cross the Channel.

It will readily be understood that incidents of this kind—those quoted are merely samples—worried the officials charged with supervision, and tended to make them almost over-fastidious. Soldiers of experience, as the censors were, remembered Nelson’s complaint that his plans were disclosed by a Gibraltar print, Wellington’s remonstrances during the Peninsular War, the details as to the siege-works before Sebastopol that were given away to the enemy by The Times, and the information conveyed to the Germans by a Paris newspaper of MacMahon’s movement on Sedan. They were, moreover, aware that indignant representations with reference to the untoward communicativeness of certain of our prominent journals were being made by the French and Belgians. So the Press Bureau took to sending doubtful passages across for our decision—a procedure which necessarily created delay and caused inconvenience to editors. Publication, it may be mentioned, was approved in quite four cases out of five when such references were made. One rather wondered at times, indeed, where the difficulty came in.

But a verdict was called for in one case which imposed an uncomfortable responsibility upon me. This was when a telegram from the Military Correspondent of The Times from the front, revealing the shell shortage from which our troops were suffering, was submitted from Printing House Square to the Press Bureau in the middle of May 1915, and was transmitted by the Press Bureau to us for adjudication. It was about three weeks after Mr. Asquith’s unfortunate reference to this subject in his Newcastle speech. Publication of the message could at the worst only be confirmatory to the enemy of information already fully known, and national interests did seem to demand that the people of the country should be made aware how this particular matter stood, seeing that the labour world had not yet fully risen to its responsibilities in connection with the prosecution of the war which depended to so great an extent upon our factories. Choice of three alternatives presented itself to me—leave might be refused, higher authority might be referred to, publication might be sanctioned then and there. The third alternative was adopted, although one or two minor details in regard to particular types of ordnance were excised. It seems to be generally acknowledged that publication of the truth about the shell shortage was of service to the cause; but for some of the attacks upon the War Office to which the publication of the truth gave rise there was no justification whatever. The attacks, indeed, took the form of a conspiracy, which has only been exposed since mouths that had to remain closed during the war have been opened.

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