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Bread: A slice of First World War history


On 28 June 1914, the assassination in Sarajevo of the Archduke Ferdinand of Austria started the chain of events that led inexorably to the declaration of war on 4 August. Neither the British government nor the Germans expected the war to last long. ‘Home before the leaves fall’ was a national slogan in Britain. It was not until the stalemate produced by trench warfare and the losses sustained at the Battle of Ypres in October 1914 that the British government realised it would have to feed millions of fighting men and a civilian population in the medium term. Even so, for the first two years of the war, little was done to ensure a constant food supply, nor was this regarded as urgent. Compulsory food rationing was not considered necessary.

In the early years, the British Board of Trade continued to assume that food imports were best left to the free trade, which had been established since the beginning of the century. The introduction of conscription in January 1916, however, presaged a less relaxed mood. In November 1916, a Food Department was established at the Board of Trade, which could exercise compulsory purchasing power. In December 1916, Lloyd George replaced Asquith as Prime Minister, food exports were prohibited and a Ministry of Food Control was established with Lord Devonport, and later Lord Rhondda, as Food Controller.

The shortage of bread was one of the biggest problems. Not only was it a staple diet of the very poor, who were already suffering the effects of increased food and fuel prices, but people in England also traditionally ate white bread, which used more flour than wholemeal. Before the war most of the wheat used to make bread was imported from the United States.

Here are some of the measures that were undertaken in an attempt to maintain bread supplies:

National Bakery School

In 1916, when men over eighteen were conscripted into the Army, there was a demand for female workers. Women were employed in an increasing variety of, but mostly unskilled, jobs, such as factories, offices, on the buses, trams and railways and as clerks, farm workers and window cleaners. The National Bakery School started classes for women – the first fourteen female bakery students were admitted in April 1916 – but the school was persuaded by the industry to close the classes in the same year. 

War bread

Lord Devonport immediately developed the role of the Wheat Commission to increase stocks of cereals and make changes in the composition of flour. The Wheat Commission became the chief agent for procuring wheat, buying cereals at home and abroad. It allocated grain to millers and corn merchants. It regulated the extraction rate of flour from wheat, restricted bakeries’ ingredients for cake and flour confectionery and rationed cereals for animal feed. The aim was to ensure adequate supplies of bread, so that it did not need to be rationed. It was known as War Bread. The extraction rate rose from a peace-time level of 76 per cent in November 1916 to 81 per cent in February 1917, with admixtures of barley, oats or rye flour, and 92 per cent in March 1918, with added soya or potato flour. The bread was consequently dark in colour. The population found the wartime diet monotonous but whatever the adverts said, bread was not formally rationed as it was considered a staple.

People were also encouraged to make their own bread by mixing the flour with pre-cooked rice, sago or potatoes, as well as haricot beans or barley, to bulk the mixture out and make the flour go further.

Voluntary rationing

At the outbreak of the First World War, Britain was dependent on imports of food and during wartime the increased costs of shipping together with a lack of government controls led to a rapid rise in the price of food, especially meat and bread. These price increases and cuts to the availability caused panic-buying, hoarding and widespread accusations of profiteering (making money from the high prices charged from the food and materials that were in short supply) amongst British citizens. Confidence was restored a little when a Cabinet Committee on Food Supplies was formed in August aimed at steadying the prices. The Committee set official maximum retail prices for key commodities in food markets across the country and hoarding was ‘strongly discouraged’ (later those found abusing the system could be fined or even imprisoned).

However, by January 1917 Germany was using submarines to try and sink all ships headed to Britain in an attempt to starve Britain into submission. Soon there were food shortages. To try and combat this threat to the food supply the government introduced a voluntary rationing scheme on 1 February 1917. The aim was to reduce the consumption of food in short supply and to show how to avoid waste when cooking. The scheme appealed to citizens to restrict their consumption to a weekly maximum of:

  • 4lb of bread, cakes and puddings
  • 2½ lbs of meat inc. bacon, sausages, game, poultry and tinned meat
  • ¾ lb of sugar 

The initiative was even endorsed by the Royal Family, with King George V issuing a proclamation that everyone should cut their bread consumption by a quarter. As bread and flour were increasingly ever hard to come by (in April 1916 Britain had just six weeks of grain supply left) the campaign encouraged people to eat less bread and use home-grown or substitute ingredients in their baking. This was one of the key factors in the popularity of the newly launched Women’s Institute, whose cake-baking demonstrations used vinegar instead of baking powder as a raising agent and jam preserved with salt rather than sugar.

Sir Arthur Yapp, Director of Food Economy, also devised a crusade to discourage waste whereby householders would receive a badge printed with ‘I Eat Less Bread’ and a certificate announcing their commitment to the cause. Although most people took up the challenge and the voluntary scheme had some effect, more was still needed. Wealthier people could still afford food, and as it was still voluntary at this point, some took to hoarding essential items such as flour or bread or buying them on the black market. Poorer families on the other hand found it particularly difficult as they relied on bread as part of their staple diet and they could not afford to substitute it with alternatives – as a result malnutrition was seen in poor communities.

Other ways in which the authorities advised people to not waste food included:

  • To eat slowly and only when they were absolutely hungry
  • Buying bread by weight (as the poor did) rather than by the loaf
  • A limit of two courses for lunch and three for supper (if dining in a public)
  • To not to feed stray dogs
  • Prohibiting the use of wheat, barley etc. to feed animals
  • The Defence of the Realm Act said bread should not be fed to horses
  • Cookery demonstrations in shops emphasising the need to economise

Bread subsidy

On the whole, the population did not go hungry. Consumption of flour remained close to the pre-war average of about 2kg per week per head until 1917 and 1918 when, in spite of price increases, it rose to 2.13 and then 2.18kg. The government was concerned at the price increases, which actually were largely the result of inflation. Nonetheless, they implemented a bread subsidy, which came into operation in September 1917 and lasted until March 1921. The total cost to the government was £162,500,000. In April 1917, furthermore, all mills were put under government control, so that millers became agents of the Wheat Commission, and a sub-committee controlled the price of grain.

Fresh bread ban

In May 1917 the Ministry of Food made further attempts to influence bread consumption, as well as production, by introducing the Bread Order. The Food Controller ordered that the sale of newly baked bread should be banned and that bread should be at least 12 hours old when it was sold. The reasons for this were threefold:

1. It was believed that if bread was a bit stale, it was more difficult to cut thinly and tasted less appetising, so people would eat less of it.

2. Bread was traditionally baked by men overnight and sold fresh in the morning. Now women were responsible for baking the bread and they had children to look after and would not want to walk through the dark streets by themselves late at night.

3. Cooking at night meant that fuel was needed for light and the government needed to save fuel.

For these reasons it was proposed that bread should be baked during the day.

Corn Production Act 1917

In 1917 the Corn Production Act was implemented, guaranteeing minimum prices of wheat and oats and the government began to push the ‘ploughing up’ campaign. This campaign would see farmers convert
pastures to arable production to increase home production of staple foods such as wheat, oats and potatoes. Labour shortages were addressed using the Women’s Land Army (WLA) and prisoners of war and any area that could be turned over to food production was used; allotments, back gardens, cricket pitches, even the gardens at Buckingham Palace – you name it!

National Kitchens

In May 1917, the Food Controller encouraged local authorities to set up National Kitchens and Restaurants, where ostensibly healthy, nourishing and properly prepared food was served at cost, using food, fuel and labour effectively. The women who volunteered to run the kitchens described their work as ‘canteening’. The first National Kitchen was opened by Queen Mary in London on 21 May 1917 and by late 1918 there were 363 kitchens nationwide.

Compulsory rationing

Despite all these efforts something more radical was needed as food supplies were seriously depleted as a result of the German U-Boat blockade. Controlled prices were introduced by the new Food Controller, Lord Rhondda, in July 1917, fixing the prices of essential foods of which the supply could be controlled. This work was decentralised to local food control committees who were to enforce the Food Controller’s Orders, register the retailers of various foodstuffs, recommend necessary variations in the scale of retail prices and to continue and develop food economy campaigns. Alongside this, the committees also had to administer a new scheme of sugar distribution when sugar became the first item to be rationed in January. By the end of April meat, butter, cheese, milk and margarine had also been added to the list. Ration books were issued to households in July 1918 and everyone had to register with a local butcher and grocer. The scheme continued after the war: meat was rationed until 1919 and rationing didn’t finally end until 1920.

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