Food Challenges During World War I

World War I Food

The onset of world war i introduced many new ways of producing, transporting and preparing food.

Food was essential to the fighting men of all the belligerent nations.

But supply was stretched as men enlisted in the armed services and naval blockades reduced food imports. Food queues became a common sight in cities and starvation stalked civilian populations.


In early 1918, Britain introduced rationing to prevent food shortages. Sugar, meat, butter and cheese were rationed, and everyone had to register to receive a ration book filled with stamps that could be exchanged for these goods. Families were encouraged to say which shops they would buy from to help distribute supplies evenly.

Rationing also encouraged Americans to find substitutes for wheat, meat and sugar. Inventive substitutes included Alcazar cakes made with potato flour, and a variety of canned products including ham, corned beef and blancmanges.

On the front line, rations were often distributed in tin cans, which made them easy to carry. They provided sufficient calories for soldiers to complete their duties, but were not nutritious enough to sustain life in the trenches. Soldiers supplemented their rations with food parcels sent from home and meals served behind the lines in canteens or kitchens. Some even cooked their own meals on a portable solid fuel stove known as a Tommy Cooker, or over charcoal braziers in the trenches.

Food shortages

The food shortages of World War I posed unique challenges for the civilian populations of Europe. Hunger stalked urban areas as men and horses were diverted to the fighting, naval blockades reduced food imports, and nitrate fertilizers were depleted.

In cities, citizens were subjected to a punishing regime of rationing and long lines to buy scarce goods. A variety of public policies was enacted, but many were ineffective. In Germany, for example, the lack of anticipation and coordination in supply led to massive fraud, theft and smuggling.

At home, the call for individual sacrifice prompted people to adopt frugal practices and recipes and to reduce their consumption of bread, meat, cheese, sugar, and wine. Industrial ersatz foods developed for military consumption provided an alternative, but these products had their own problems. Many were filled with toxins, such as salt, lead, and arsenic.

Rations for the front line

Whenever possible, troops in garrison or camp were fed hot, fresh food. When on operations or in the front line, however, they relied on tinned or canned field rations.

Getting hot food into the trenches was a challenge. A good meal could be eaten cold, but most soldiers invested in a small portable solid-fuel stove, known as a Tommy Cooker, to heat their rations.

Compo, the main tinned ration that doughboys carried into battle, typically included bread and hard biscuits tied in sandbags, tins of corned beef (bully beef) and jam, tea and sugar, and sometimes chocolate. A supplementary emergency ration was also issued, consisting of a small tin of Manconochie, a sort of Irish stew with potatoes and meat in a rich tomato sauce.

Rations for the home front

Despite long queues, people managed to find ways to stretch their rations. Food transport was limited and by the time it reached front-line soldiers, bread or biscuits were often stale and vegetables were inedible. The fact that a pound of bacon cost seven ration points didn’t help matters.

Rationing of foods was often accompanied by recipe booklets, encouraging economical cooking. Manufacturers of yeast, coffee ersatz and cocoa ersatz offered suggestions for how to make the most of their products.

People took on many new tasks in order to eat more efficiently. They raised rabbits, kept hens or grew their own vegetables in a garden or allotment. In the United States, a campaign called ‘Dig for Victory’ encouraged families to grow vegetables in their own backyards to save on food costs and free up room on shelves for other commodities. They also cut back on meat consumption, as suggested by propaganda posters. This was a culture of frugality that reflected the need to conserve food resources for the war effort.

Go Home

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *