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Story of the Great War - Roland Usher

How Germany Fought the Blockade

In 1915 Germany adopted the most extreme measures to organize completely her whole population for the fighting of the war. The first great blow which was to have ended the conflict had failed. The British, contrary to expectation, had entered the war, had cleared the seas of German ships, and created a blockade of Germany. It was not yet absolutely rigid and might never become so. Great quantities of metals and fats were being imported into Germany in 1915 from Holland, Denmark, and Sweden, who secured these articles ostensibly for their own use, but the amounts were so enormous compared to anything those nations had ever used before that the Germans had no confidence the British would allow this so-called neutral trade to continue.

Germany must therefore expect to live during the war from what there was in Germany or in the territory of her allies. As long as they could live on what they had they could fight the war. The moment it became necessary to have other supplies the war must end. The question of victory or defeat, the Germans saw, might resolve itself into their ability to get along with what they had.

They immediately took official control of everything in Germany. All that was raised or sold or eaten or bought was at every stage controlled by the government. By forcing people to eat a little less, the existing supply could be made to last. To this end they issued bread cards, meat cards, and very soon cards for other sorts of foods. Nobody was to be allowed to eat more than so much bread or meat in a day or week. Every time he received any he must present a card to be stamped. It was a serious offense to get any more. In this way, by limiting the consumption of food it ought to be possible to make it last indefinitely. Certain products should be limited in their use; milk, for instance, should be kept for the sick, for children, and for the aged. Other people could get along with something else.

Then the most elaborate attempts were made to increase the amount of food in Germany. Every scrap of land on which anything could be grown should grow something useful. Little plots only six or eight feet square in front of the houses along the streets of German cities were dug up and planted with potatoes. All vacant lots were worked by the school children under the direction of their teachers in accordance with the orders given by the government. Planting potatoes was more important during the war than learning lessons, and the children represented just so much labor.

Great attempts were made to increase the number of cattle so as to augment the amount of milk, butter, and meat. The breeding of swine was encouraged because bacon and ham were the meats which kept best and were therefore most suitable for the army.

They did their best to think of everything that could be reserved, or increased, or portioned out so as to make it last. The British had expected that the blockade would very soon compel Germany to surrender for lack of food, copper, cotton, and rubber with which to continue the war. But the war ended because the German army was beaten, not because the German people were starving nor because they did not have enough war material to fight on. Somehow or other, substitutes were provided for things they could not get. Clothes were made of paper, bicycles and automobiles were given iron tires, or the tire was set on springs. "Coffee" was made from grain, and a soft sort of steel served the purpose of copper. The doctors told them that they had eaten too much in Germany anyway, had worn more clothing than they needed, and had kept the houses warmer than was good for them. They could just as well get along without. And they did. The German people at the end of the war were thinner than at the beginning, but they did not die for lack of food. At first the bread and meat cards were believed in London and Paris to be proof that Germany was weakening and would soon surrender. They were, however, merely German precautions, taken with the usual German thoroughness, to make sure that they should not be defeated from lack of forethought.