A Conflict Never Before Seen in Europe
British Goal: Starve the Germans into Submission;
Special to The Great War Project.
(31 July-3 August) It’s now two years into this terrible war, and the toll of death is already far greater, writes historian Adam Hochschild, than during the entire Napoleonic Wars, the last great European war early in the 19th century.
“And these were not just military deaths,” Hochschild reports. “Although Britain and France had regarded Germany’s air raids on cities as shocking acts of barbarism, they themselves were now bombing Germany from the air, and the Royal Navy was indirectly killing a far larger number of civilians by its tight blockade.”
“British naval control of the key choke points of the Strait of Gibraltar, the Suez Canal, the English Channel, and the North Sea threw a near-impenetrable noose around the Central Powers,” Germany and Austro-Hungary.
Germany is unable to procure key supplies, military and civilian, “from cotton to copper, as well as the 25 percent of food it had imported before the war. Moreover, crops at home were stunted, for German farms had imported half their fertilizer” from foreign markets.
Germany’s leaders, observes Hochschild, never planned for a war like this, convinced as they were that the war would be a short one.
The military is first in line for food, so civilians begin to face hunger and then starvation in ever larger numbers.
Bad weather, observes Hochschild, made the situation far worse. “More than 50 food riots erupted,” he reports.
“When a horse collapsed and died on a Berlin street one morning, a foreign visitor described the scene:”
“Women rushed towards the cadaver as if they had been poised for this moment, knives in their hands. Everyone was shouting, fighting for the best pieces. Blood spattered their faces and their clothes. When nothing more was left of the horse beyond a bare skeleton, the people vanished, carefully guarding their pieces of bloody meat tight against their chests.”
Each side, writes Hochschild, is bent on starving the other into submission.
To break the British blockade, Germany’s submarine war makes ever more deadly attacks on British — and American — ships, military or merchant. Reports Hochschild, “It did not matter whether these were carrying arms, industrial goods, or food. All were targets.”
Thousands of ships are sunk; tens of thousands of sailors are drowned.
It is total war, never before seen on the European continent, indeed on any continent, anywhere in the world.
“The blockade,” writes historian Alexander Watson, “did more than any other action to radicalize the conflict, “most damaging was the blockade’s erosion of the distinction between combatants and non-combatants.”
In Germany the British are denounced, writes Watson, “for waging a ‘starvation’ war,”’seeking to “seal off Germany from the rest of the world and vanquish the German people through hunger.”
German writers condemn the war, Watson reports, describing it as a way of making “all of Germany a single concentration camp.”
The growing hunger in Germany is not all the fault of the British blockade, however. “Attempts at food management” writes Watson, “had been a disaster.”
Programs to ration food fail to guarantee equitable supplies.
“Nothing,” observes Watson, “did more than the food shortages to undermine the solidarity” of the German people “so carefully nurtured” in the first two years of the war.”