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Blockade of Germany
Part of Atlantic and Mediterranean naval campaigns of World War I
Reisebrotmarke Elsass Lothringen.jpg

Bread rationing coupons issued in Alsace-Lorraine during World War I.
Result Allied victory
Allied Powers: Central Powers:
Casualties and losses
~524,000 German civilians dead from excess mortality between 1914 and 1919[1][2]

The Blockade of Germany, or the Blockade of Europe, occurred from 1914 to 1919. The prolonged naval blockade was conducted by the Allies during and after World War I[3] in an effort to restrict the maritime supply of goods to the Central Powers, which included Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. The blockade is considered one of the key elements in the eventual Allied victory in the war. The German Board of Public Health in December 1918 claimed that 763,000 German civilians had already died from starvation and disease, caused by the blockade.[4][5] An academic study done in 1928 put the death toll at 424,000.[1] An additional 100,000 people may have died during the post-armistice continuation of the blockade in 1919.[2]

Both Germany and the United Kingdom relied heavily on imports to feed their population and supply their war industry. Imports of foodstuffs and war materiel of European belligerents came primarily from the Americas and had to be shipped across the Atlantic Ocean, which made Britain and Germany aim to blockade each other. The British had the Royal Navy, which was superior in numbers and could operate throughout the British Empire, but the German Kaiserliche Marine surface fleet was mainly restricted to the German Bight, and it used commerce raiders and unrestricted submarine warfare elsewhere.


Prior to World War I, a series of conferences were held at Whitehall in 1905–1906 concerning military co-operation with France in the event of a war with Germany. The Director of Naval Intelligence, Charles Ottley, asserted that two of the Royal Navy's functions in such a war would be the capture of German commercial shipping and the blockade of German ports. A blockade was considered useful for two reasons: it could force the enemy's fleet to fight, and it could act as an economic weapon to destroy German commerce. It was not until 1908, however, that a blockade of Germany formally appeared in the navy's war plans and even then some officials were divided over how feasible it was. The plans remained in a state of constant change and revision until 1914, with the navy undecided over how best to operate such a blockade.

Meanwhile, Germany had made no plans to manage its wartime food supplies since in peacetime, it produced about 80% of its total consumption. Furthermore, overland imports from the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Romania would be unaffected by any naval blockade. However, the combined issues of conscription of farm laborers, the requisition of horses, the poor weather and the diversion of nitrogen from fertilizer manufacture into military explosives all combined to cause a considerable drop in agricultural output.[6]


The British, with their overwhelming sea power, established a naval blockade of Germany immediately on the outbreak of war in August 1914, by issuing a comprehensive list of contraband that all but prohibited American trade with the Central Powers and in early November 1914 by declaring the North Sea to be a war zone, with any ships entering the North Sea doing so at their own risk.[7] The blockade was unusually restrictive in that even foodstuffs were considered "contraband of war". There were complaints about breaches of international law, but most neutral merchant vessels agreed to dock at British ports to be inspected and then escorted, less any "illegal" cargo destined for Germany, through the British minefields to their destinations.[8]

The Northern Patrol and the Dover Patrol closed off access to the North Sea and the English Channel, respectively.

The German government regarded the blockade as an attempt to starve the country into defeat and wanted to retaliate in kind. The German High Seas Fleet set out multiple times from 1914 to 1916 to reduce the British Grand Fleet and to regain access to vital imports. The sea conflicts culminated in the indecisive Battle of Jutland in 1916.[9][10]

The blockade hurt American exports. Under pressure, especially from commercial interests wishing to profit from wartime trade with both sides, the American government protested vigorously. Britain did not wish to antagonise the Americans and set up a program to buy American cotton, guaranteed that the price stayed above peacetime levels and mollified cotton traders. When American ships were stopped with contraband, the British purchased the entire cargo and released the cargoless ship.[11]

A memorandum to the British War Cabinet on 1 January 1917 stated that very few supplies were reaching Germany or its allies via the North Sea or other areas such as Austria-Hungary's Adriatic ports, which had been subject to a French blockade since 1914.[8]

Effects on war

The first English-language accounts of the effects of the blockade were by humanitarians, diplomats and medical professionals, who were sympathetic to the suffering of the German people.[12] The official German account, based on data about disease, growth of children, and mortality, harshly criticised the Allies by calling the blockade a crime against innocent people.[13] The first account commissioned by the Allies was written by Professor A. C. Bell and Brigadier-General Sir James E. Edmonds, hypothesised that the blockade led to revolutionary movements but concluded that based on the evidence, "it is more than doubtful whether this is the proper explanation". Germans wanted to end the war because of the food shortage, but workers staged a revolution because of the long-term theory of socialism. The revolutionaries claimed in their slogans, for example, that they were "Arbeitssklaven" (worker slaves) to the monarchy.[14] Edmonds, on the other hand was supported by Colonel Irwin L. Hunt, who was in charge of civil affairs in the American occupied zone of the Rhineland, and held that food shortages were a post-armistice phenomenon caused solely by the disruptions of the German Revolution of 1918–19.[15]

More recent studies also disagree on the severity of the blockade's impact on the affected populations at the time of the revolution and the armistice. Some hold[16] that the blockade starved Germany and the Central Powers into defeat in 1918. Others hold that the armistice on 11 November was forced primarily by events on the Western Front, rather than any actions of the civilian population. The idea that a revolt of the home front forced the armistice was part of the stab-in-the-back myth. Also, Germany's largest ally, Austria-Hungary, had already signed an armistice on 3 November 1918, which exposed Germany to an invasion from the south. On 29 September 1918, General Erich Ludendorff told the Kaiser that the military front would soon collapse.

A bread queue in Berlin, 1918.
A bread queue in Berlin, 1918.

All scholars agree that the blockade made a large contribution to the outcome of the war. By 1915, Germany's imports had fallen by 55% from its prewar levels and the exports were 53% of what they had been in 1914. Apart from leading to shortages in vital raw materials such as coal and nonferrous metals, the blockade also deprived Germany of supplies of fertiliser that were vital to agriculture. That led to staples such as grain, potatoes, meat and dairy products becoming so scarce by the end of 1916 that many people were obliged to instead consume ersatz products, including Kriegsbrot ("war bread") and powdered milk. The food shortages caused looting and riots not only in Germany but also in Vienna and Budapest.[17] The food shortages were so severe that by the autumn of 1918, Austria-Hungary hijacked barges on the Danube full of Rumanian wheat bound for Germany, which in turn threatened military retaliation.[18] Also, during the winter of 1916 to 1917, there was a failure of the potato crop, which resulted in the urban population having to subsist largely on Swedish turnips. That period became known as the Steckrübenwinter or Turnip Winter.[6]

Food riots in Berlin, 1918; a looted shop in Invalidenstraße.
Food riots in Berlin, 1918; a looted shop in Invalidenstraße.

The German government made strong attempts to counter the effects of the blockade. The Hindenburg Programme of German economic mobilisation was launched on 31 August 1916 and designed to raise productivity by the compulsory employment of all men between the ages of 17 and 60. A complicated rationing system, initially introduced in January 1915, aimed to ensure that a minimum nutritional need was met, with "war kitchens" providing cheap mass meals to impoverished civilians in larger cities. All of those schemes enjoyed only limited success, and the average daily diet of 1,000 calories was insufficient to maintain a good standard of health, which resulted by 1917 in widespread disorders caused by malnutrition such as scurvy, tuberculosis and dysentery.

The official German statistics estimated 763,000 civilian malnutrition and disease deaths were caused by the blockade of Germany.[4] That figure was disputed by a subsequent academic study, which put the death toll at 424,000.[1] The German official statistics came from a German government report published in December 1918 that estimated the blockade to be responsible for the deaths of 762,796 civilians, and the report claimed that that figure did not include deaths caused by the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918. The figures for the last six months of 1918 were estimated.[19] Maurice Parmelle maintained that "it is very far from accurate to attribute to the blockade all of the excess deaths above pre-war mortality" and believed that the German figures were "somewhat exaggerated".[20] The German claims were made while Germany was waging a propaganda campaign to end the Allied blockade of Germany after the armistice that lasted from November 1918 to June 1919. Also in 1919, Germany raised the issue of the Allied blockade to counter charges against the German use of submarine warfare.[21][22]

In 1928, a German academic study, sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace provided a thorough analysis of the German civilian deaths during the war. The study estimated 424,000 war-related deaths of civilians over the age of one in Germany, not including Alsace-Lorraine, and the authors attributed the civilian deaths over the prewar level primarily to food and fuel shortages in 1917–1918. The study also estimated an additional 209,000 Spanish flu deaths in 1918.[23] A study sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1940 estimated the German civilian death toll at over 600,000. Based on the 1928 German study, it maintained, "A thorough inquiry has led to the conclusion that the number of 'civilian' deaths traceable to the war was 424,000, to which number must be added about 200,000 deaths caused by the influenza epidemic".[1] The historian and demographer Jay Winter estimated that there were 300,000 excess deaths in Germany from the blockade, after subtracting deaths from the influenza epidemic.[24]

After armistice

In March 1919, Winston Churchill told the British House of Commons: "We are holding all our means of coercion in full operation, or in immediate readiness for use. We are enforcing the blockade with vigour. We have strong armies ready to advance at the shortest notice. Germany is very near starvation. The evidence I have received from the officers sent by the War Office all over Germany shows, first of all, the great privations which the German people are suffering, and, secondly, the great danger of a collapse of the entire structure of German social and national life under the pressure of hunger and malnutrition. Now is therefore the moment to settle".[25]

The blockade was maintained for eight months after the November 1918 armistice. According to the New Cambridge Modern History, food imports into Germany were controlled by the Allies after the armistice until Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.[26] From January 1919 to March 1919, Germany refused to agree to the demand by the Allies to surrender its merchant ships to Allied ports to transport food supplies. Germans considered the armistice a temporary cessation of the war and feared that if fighting broke out again, the ships would be confiscated outright.[27] In January, hoping to buy time, the German government notified an American representative in Berlin that the shortage of food would not become critical until late spring. Facing food riots at home, Germany finally agreed to surrender its fleet on 14 March 1919. The Allies allowed Germany, under their supervision, to import 300,000 tons of grain and 70,000 tons of cured pork per month until August 1919.[28] In April, the food from America arrived in Germany.[29] The restrictions on food imports were finally lifted on 12 July 1919 after Germany had signed the Treaty of Versailles.[26]

C. Paul Vincent maintains that for the German people, they were the most devastating months of the blockade because "in the weeks and months following the armistice, Germany's deplorable state further deteriorated."[30] Sally Marks argues that the German accounts of a hunger blockade are a "myth" since Germany did not face the starvation level of Belgium and the regions of Poland and of northern France that it had occupied. At the armistice discussions in January 1919, the Allies offered to let Germany import food if it agreed to turn over its merchant fleet, but Germany refused until the last armistice discussions in March.[31] The head of the German armistice delegation, Matthias Erzberger, balked at first at giving up the merchant fleet. He feared that if Germany surrendered it, the Allies would confiscate it as reparations. Before he surrendered the fleet, he wanted guarantees that the food imports could be financed with foreign credit owed to German businesses.[32] Leaders in industry and government feared that by taking the fleet, the Allies aimed to sever Germany from world markets. The Allies would gain an unfair competitive edge over the German steel industries, which depended on import of ore and sale to countries abroad, by charging high prices for ocean transport.[33] In the German Republic's official mouthpiece, the Deputy State Secretary of the German Food Office, Braun made known his fear that if the Allies took the ships, the dockworkers in the ports would revolt and rekindle the Spartacist uprising, which aimed to overthrow the republic.[34] The leaders of the German republic had to weigh those considerations against the reality that in early 1919, rations in German cities were on average 1,500 calories per day.[35]

Not included in the German government's December 1918 figure of 763,000 deaths were civilian deaths related to the famine in 1919. A recent academic study maintains that no statistical data exist for the death toll of the period immediately after the November 1918 armistice.[4] Dr. Max Rubner in an April 1919 article claimed that 100,000 German civilians had died from the continuation of the blockade of Germany after the armistice.[36] The British Labour Party antiwar activist Robert Smillie issued a statement in June 1919 condemning continuation of the blockade and claiming that 100,000 German civilians had died.[37][2]

Impact on children

The impact on childhood was assessed by Mary E. Cox by using newly discovered data, based on heights and weights of nearly 600,000 German schoolchildren, who were measured between 1914 and 1924. The data indicate that children suffered severe malnutrition. Class was a major factor, as the working-class children suffered the most but were the quickest to recover after the war. Recovery to normality was made possible by massive food aid organized by the United States and other former enemies.[38][39]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Grebler, Leo (1940). The Cost of the World War to Germany and Austria–Hungary. Yale University Press. 1940 Page78
  2. ^ a b c The Blockade of Germany after the Armistice 1918–1919 Bane, S.L. 1942 Stanford University Press page 791
  3. ^ The New Cambridge Modern History, Vol 12 (2nd ed), Cambridge University Press, 1968, pp. 213
  4. ^ a b c C. Paul Vincent, The Politics of Hunger: the Allied Blockade of Germany, 1915–1919. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1985. ISBN 978-0-8214-0831-5 p. 141
  5. ^ "Schädigung der deutschen Volkskraft durch die feindliche Blockade" [Damage to the German National Strength by the Enemy Blockade]. Memorandum of the Reichsgesundheitsamt [Reich Board of Health], 27 December 1918. Berlin: Reichsdruckerei. The report notes on page 17 that the figures for the second half of 1918 were estimated based on the first half of 1918.
  6. ^ a b Holborn, Hajo (1982). A History of Modern Germany, Volume 3: 1840-1945. Princeton University Press. pp. 459–460. ISBN 978-0691008868. Archived from the original on 25 November 2021. Retrieved 25 November 2020.
  7. ^ Tucker, Spencer; Priscilla Mary Roberts (2005). World War I. ABC-CLIO. pp. 836–837. ISBN 978-1-85109-420-2.
  8. ^ a b "Memorandum to War Cabinet on trade blockade". The National Archives. Archived from the original on 16 January 2017. Retrieved 12 April 2010.
  9. ^ "The war at sea". The National Archives (United Kingdom). Archived from the original on 8 February 2017. Retrieved 4 November 2019. Britain still controlled the sea, and Germany never again attempted a full-scale naval confrontation. Germany was thus prevented from receiving vital war supplies and foodstuffs throughout the conflict
  10. ^ Andrew Lambert (27 May 2016). "Jutland: Why World War I's only sea battle was so crucial to Britain's victory". The Conversation. Archived from the original on 28 September 2019. Retrieved 4 November 2019. Jutland and Trafalgar maintained Britain's command of the oceans and the economic blockade, which was its primary strategic weapon. The Grand Fleet anchored a British economic blockade that was slowly strangling the German war effort
  11. ^ Lake, 1960
  12. ^ Henry Noel Brailsford, Across the Blockade: A Record of Travels in Enemy Europe (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1919); Ruth von der Leyan, The English Food Blockade in Its Effects on Juvenile Criminality and Degradation (Berlin, 1919); and Lina Richter, Family Life in Germany under the Blockade (from Reports of Doctors, School Nurses, Children's Judges and Teachers) (London: National Labor Press, 1919); Ernest Starling, "The Food Supply of Germany during the War", Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 83 (1920): 225-254.
  13. ^ Reichsgesundheitsamt, Schägigungen.
  14. ^ Archibald Colquhoun Bell, A History of the Blockade of Germany and of the countries associated with her in the Great War, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey, 1914–1918. London: H.M. Stationery Off., 1937, p. 691.
  15. ^ Howard, 1993
  16. ^ Vincent, C. Paul (1985). The Politics of Hunger: The Allied Blockade of Germany, 1915–1919. Athens (Ohio) and London: Ohio University Press.
  17. ^ "Spotlights on history - The blockade of Germany". The National Archives. Archived from the original on 22 July 2004. Retrieved 12 July 2017.
  18. ^ Fischer 2010, p. 75
  19. ^ Germany. Gesundheits-Amt. Schaedigung der deutschen Volkskraft durch die feindliche Blockade. Denkschrift des Reichsgesundheitsamtes, Dezember 1918. (Parallel English translation) Injuries inflicted to the German national strength through the enemy blockade. Memorial of the German Board of Public Health, 27 December 1918 [Berlin, Reichsdruckerei,] the German Board of Health report provided an English translation of the German text. On page 17, it stated, "The high accumulation of cases of death from influenza which is to be noticed only in the second half-year of 1918 has consequently not been taken into account at all, although a considerable part of these cases of death was the consequence of bad constitution of the body, caused by malnutrition".
  20. ^ Blockade and sea power; The Blockade, 1914–1919, and Its Significance for a World State, by Maurice Parmelle New York, Thomas Y. Crowell Co. [1924] pages 221–226
  21. ^ The Times, London, 18 January 1919
  22. ^ The Blockade of Germany after the Armistice, 1918–1919 Bane, S.L., 1942, Stanford University Press, pp. 699–700
  23. ^ Bumm, Franz, ed., Deutschlands Gesundheitsverhältnisse unter dem Einfluss des Weltkrieges, Stuttgart, Berlin [etc.] Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt; New Haven, Yale University Press, 1928, p. 22 to 61
  24. ^ Jay Winter, "Some Paradoxes of the First World War," in The Upheaval of War: Family, Work and Welfare in Europe, 1914-1918, ed. Richard Wall and Jay Winter, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988
  25. ^ Fuller, J.F.C. (1993). The Second World War, 1939-45 A Strategical And Tactical History. Da Capo Press. p. 19. ISBN 978-0306805066.
  26. ^ a b The New Cambridge Modern History, Volume 12, (2nd ed.), Cambridge University Press, 1968, pp. 213
  27. ^ Sally Marks, ‘Mistakes and Myths: The Allies, Germany, and the Versailles Treaty, 1918–1921’, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 85, No. 3 (September 2013), p. 650.
  28. ^ "Lebensmittelabkommen in Brüssel," Archived 11 July 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  29. ^ Marks, pp. 650-651.
  30. ^ C. Paul Vincent, The Politics of hunger: The Allied Blockade of Germany, 1915–1919, Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, c1985ISBN 978-0-8214-0831-5, p. 145
  31. ^ Marks, p. 651.
  32. ^ Verhandlung der verfassungsgebenden Nationalversammlung: Stenographische Berichte und Drucksachen, Vol 24, Berlin, Norddeutschen Buchdruckerei, 1919, pp. 631-635
  33. ^ Peter Krüger, Deutschland und die Reparation 1918/19: Die Genese des Reparationsproblems in Deutschland zwischen Waffenstillstand und Versailler Friedensschluß, Stuttgart, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1973, p. 93
  34. ^ "Die Finanzierung des Lebensmittels," Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, 2 February 1919.
  35. ^ Anne Roerkohl, Hungerblockade und Heimatfront: Die kommunale Lebensmittelversorgung in Westfalen während des Ersten Weltkrieges, Stuttgart, Franz Steiner, 1991, p. 348; Wilfried Rudloff, Die Wohlfahrtsstadt: Kommunale Ernährungs-, Fürsorge, und Wohnungspolitik am Beispiel Münchens 1910-1933, Göttingen, Vandenhooeck & Ruprecht, 1998, p. 184
  36. ^ Dr. Max Rubner, Von der Blockde und Aehlichen, Deutsche Medizinische Wochenschrift Berlin, 10 April 1919 Vol. 45 Nr.15
  37. ^ Common Sense(London)5 July 1919.
  38. ^ Mary Elisabeth Cox, "Hunger games: or how the Allied blockade in the First World War deprived German children of nutrition, and Allied food aid subsequently saved them". Economic History Review 68.2 (2015): 600-631.
  39. ^ "Hunger in War and Peace: Women and Children in Germany 1914-1924" Cox, Mary E. 2019. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-882011-6


Further reading

Primary sources