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Starving Them Out

Martin Tyrrell

In power politics there are no crimes, because there are no laws.

George Orwell

We are almost through the centenary of the First World War. I am writing this in October 2018, so technically, there are another six months of it left. But my guess is that the end of the war will be commemorated in November, the anniversary of the armistice, and not next July, the anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles. Until the German delegation grudgingly accepted that treaty, the war was merely on pause. But resumption was unlikely. Germany was parlous, teetering on the brink of revolution and famine, the prospect of famine having set in train a general collapse. Käthe Kollwitz’s edgy contemporary images suggest that this was the worst of times ‑ oedemic children jostling for handouts, an emaciated woman grieving her dead or dying baby, an elderly man about to hang himself. 

It was not by chance that Germany faced famine in late 1918. From almost the start of hostilities, the Allies had used their considerable naval superiority to seal the country off from international trade. This was the First World War blockade, to the Germans the Hungerblockade. Its aim was to cause enough general hardship ‑ food shortages especially ‑ to weaken morale to the point of collapse. After a slow start, it succeeded.

Writing of an earlier blockade ‑ the one enacted against Napoleon in the 1800s ‑ American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan described how it had created a “noiseless pressure on the vitals of France”, the impact of which was both “striking and awful”. The 1914-19 version was similar ‑ the same noiseless pressure, the same striking and awful impact, but on a much larger scale. Estimated civilian deaths range from around 400,000 to more than three-quarters of a million. Not until there were German signatures on the Treaty of Versailles was it fully lifted. The blockade was in its time of brief but high regard by then. An American commentator, Maurice Parmelee, thought blockading, or the threat of it, could be the way a future international authority might discipline wayward states. 

The centenary of the First World War has been more commemoration than analysis, with the blockade absent from both. As far as I can tell, there has been no official acknowledgement, while Eric Osborne’s book, Britain’s Economic Blockade of Germany, 1914-1919, published nearly fifteen years ago, remains, at the time of writing, the most recent analysis. In Osborne’s view, the blockade was Britain’s main contribution to the Allied victory. It was, he alleges, effective twice over ‑ first as a weapon of war, and then, following the armistice, as what he terms a weapon for peace. Before the armistice, when it was a weapon of war, the blockade brought Germany to the brink. And afterwards, when it was a weapon for peace, it helped keep things there ‑ on the brink ‑ until the German delegation was willing to sign.

All of which seems factual and evident. It is to Osborne’s credit that he sets it out so bluntly. Lately, if the blockade has been mentioned at all, it has been mentioned in passing and dismissively, as a minor and inconveniencing thing, incidental to the war and its outcome. And well before that, when the war was still fresh in living memory, bluntness was discouraged. Two accounts in the 1920s, by William Arnold-Forster and HWC Davis, and the 1937 official history, by AC Bell, were suppressed on publication. This despite their authors’ impeccable establishment credentials (all three had worked in the wartime administration). Bell’s official history ‑ a substantial work, heavy on detail but with many sharp, authorial asides ‑ was kept from the general public (“under lock and key” says official security marking) until 1961.

American historian Marion Siney met all three proscribed authors in London in the 1930s. Her notes of these discussions, together with a French history by Lieutenant Louis Guichard, and a German pirate edition of the AC Bell book (published as Nazi propaganda) informed her 1957 monograph The Allied Blockade of Germany, 1914-1916. A second volume, taking the story up to Versailles, was apparently planned. But although Siney lived into the present century, and though she taught and researched for the rest of her long life, no such work ever appeared. It was C Paul Vincent (The Politics of Hunger, 1985) who looked at the blockade as a whole, particularly its later, weapon of peace, phase. Siney is broadly supportive of the blockade; Vincent, less admiring. And Osborne, particularly when he reaches the post-armistice, pre-Versailles phase, is a kind of apologist for whom the blockade was a kind of necessary evil, “essential to ensure [British] national survival”.

“If it wasn’t for the First World War, we’d all be speaking German.” Twice in the last month I’ve had someone say that to me, say it in a matter-of-fact way, as though it were self-evident. We’d all be speaking German. And speaking it by diktat not choice. The people who said this, both, were educated men in their fifties, one of them a medic, the other a writer (of history among other things). Both had given the matter more than a passing thought, and both were satisfied that Germany had, in 1914, initiated an aggressive war of conquest which, if successful, would have reduced us to a germanophone serfdom. It was not an idea they’d arrived at on their own; they’d fished it fresh from the mainstream. Five years of centenary commemorations had not diminished it; they might well have reinforced it. Even Eric Osborne, an academic historian, defers to it ‑ the United Kingdom was fighting for its survival, he says, and therefore the blockade and all that came of it can be justified.

The idea of Germany as prospective conqueror was ubiquitous pre-war. It was a staple of speculative fictions such as Saki’s When William Came and Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands, and of wartime propaganda. But there is no evidence that Germany was out to conquer the United Kingdom. Nothing in Germany’s pre-war preparations, or in its conduct when the war was under way, suggests it. And nothing in the military state of play at the start of the war or at any time during it indicates that it was even possible. The Royal Navy outnumbered the kaiserliche Kriegsmarine in almost every category of warship, even submarines, and certainly in state-of-the-art Dreadnought-class battleships.

AJP Taylor got closer to the mark. “What is wrong with Germany,” he once wrote, “is that there is too much of it, there are too many Germans, and Germany is too strong, too well-organised, too well-equipped with natural resources.” It did not matter if Germany was contented or bent on conquest, Wilhelmine, or some new republican variant. Regardless of the appearance, the substance was the same. Germany was bad in itself, bad just for being there, for being big, and rich and powerful and good at things. In Britain and France, this was a common perception pre-war, during the war, and following the armistice.

It was also a view that worked against any negotiated settlement. There were German, American and Vatican peace proposals in 1916, all of which the Allies rejected. Likewise, in 1917, France and Italy appear to have been tempted to the extent that they speculated on a negotiated end to hostilities that would have left Europe divided into two, uneasy camps ‑ a kind of cold war. Marion Siney mentions a conference at Cernobbio in northern Italy that hatched plans for a Franco-Italian economic partnership, one that might mirror and rival the kind of partnership that Germany was expected to lead postwar ‑ two European Unions coexisting uneasily. It was Lloyd George who dismissed all overtures for peace, emphasising the rogue nature of Germany and the need to eradicate it: “The fight must be to the finish, to a knockout.”

Was Germany rogue? Was it uniquely rogue? And uniquely culpable for the war and all that came of it? One reason the blockade is worth considering is that it lets us see that there was lawlessness all round; that “we were all orcs in the Great War”, as Tolkien said. If particular German actions ‑ submarine attacks on merchant shipping, aerial bombardment—were criminal, the blockade was surely criminal too. 

International efforts to codify and regulate the conduct of war had intensified in the decades before 1914 with a particular flurry of activity in the early 1900s. All of this international law should have got in the way of the war had it ever been adopted as a guide to action. In Osborne’s account, politicians and diplomats come across as a kind of drag on the blockade, forever trying to keep within the niceties of international law. Only when these diplomatists stepped back, he contends, and the navy was given its head did the strategy really begin to bite.

But if, as Osborne suggests, the politicians and diplomatists were wary of violating international law in a way that the generals and admirals were not, it was, I suspect, because politicians and diplomatists wanted to be seen to be acting within the law as far as possible, or as closely within it as pragmatic considerations allowed. And if there was no choice but to break international law, a great show was made that it was being broken with a heavy heart. I don’t see, however, that they had any particular problem breaking it. Also, I’m not so sure there was such a difference of opinion between the navy and the politicians. Jacky Fisher, the standout British naval officer of his generation, said that war was hell and that there was as much chance of humanising war as there was of humanising hell and if he, as a naval officer, had the chance to sink a merchant ship en route for the enemy, he’d sink it and fret over the legalities afterwards. But even Fisher had the nous to wait until the war was safely won before he put all that in writing.

Had international law been respected in 1914, it would have been impossible to shut down German international trade in the way that this was actually done. A blockade that accorded with international law would have shut down nothing. Under international law, a blockade was literally that ‑ a cordon of ships, located close to a coast or port thereby creating a physical barrier to anyone trying to get in or out. That had been the consensus on what a blockade was since the Declaration of Paris in 1856. But torpedo boats, submarines and onshore artillery would have made short work of any close cordon of ships. The Admiralty had known that for at least a decade. What was enacted instead was a blockade of sorts ‑ the sort that seventy years or so of international agreement had ruled illegal. Not so much a blockade, reckoned Louis Guichard, more an economic encirclement. Bell, in his official history, advises his readers that every time they see the word blockade in the text, they should imagine inverted commas around it. Similarly, William Arnold-Forster, in a 1939 Oxford Pamphlet of World Affairs, writes that the term “is used throughout ... in its loose popular sense, as covering all that is involved in the prevention of seaborne commerce ...” (italics mine).

Under this inverted comma blockade Royal Navy cruisers patrolled the North Sea and the Channel with a view to stopping and inspecting any ships en route for continental Europe. After 1915 there was a minefield ‑ also illegal ‑ that made it foolhardy for ships to refuse detention and inspection. Between 1914 and 1917, Osborne writes, fewer than 700 ships slipped through, most of them in the first twelve months of the war. This compares with the 15,000 ships that either stopped, or were made to stop, for a search. In parallel, a system of intelligence-gathering was operated that made use of agents, diplomatic and consular staff, and mail and cable intercepts to identify those ships that might be particularly worth detaining and inspecting.

On their own, I think, these measures, as comprehensive as they were illegal, would have disrupted German trade, not prevented it. And any disruption would have been short term only, insufficient to influence the outcome of the war. This was because international law gave neutral states significant trading rights during wartime. As long as the neutrals limited their trade to innocent goods with no military relevance (like food for the civilian population), they could legally trade with or on behalf of both sides in a conflict. That had been agreed in the late 1800s. In 1914, any neutral country could have freighted any amount of non-military goods to Germany, either directly into a German port or indirectly via a neutral port.  Consequently, even if Britain had blockaded Germany’s main ports, and the Royal Navy had harassed every German merchant ship from the sea (as it did), Germany could still have carried out an extensive overseas trade via its neutral neighbours until the impact of economic encirclement was reduced and, in time, negated.

London was alert to this risk and had planned accordingly. Belgium and the Netherlands were here the biggest problem. Churchill reckoned neither country’s neutrality could be tolerated ‑ if they remained neutral they would have to be invaded. Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality was therefore fortuitous, not just because it made for excellent propaganda but also because it meant British plans to invade Belgium through Antwerp could be shelved.

As for the Netherlands, although it and the other “northern neutrals” (Denmark, Norway and Sweden) remained formally neutral, all were in practice recruited, de facto, to the Allies. In Osborne’s opinion, this compromised their neutrality, made them vassal states of Britain and its partners, complicit in the delivery of the blockade. But without their participation, the blockade would have had little significant impact.

Osborne, like most historians of the blockade, gets drawn into the fine detail of the neutrals’ vassalage, how the conditions under which they were allowed to trade were made, step by step, more onerous and restrictive. The principal problem from the Allies’ perspective was that neutrals were importing large quantities of goods from America for re-export to Germany. This was dealt with by imposing upper limits on the amounts that could be imported, quotas that could be strictly enforced since all ships crossing the Atlantic had to return to port through the blockade. In addition, on account of increased demand from the German market, most neutrals had upped domestic production of anything that was now in demand in Germany. The Allies dealt with this by compulsorily purchasing the relevant neutral surpluses, often at prices lower than the Germans would have paid. Finally, life was made difficult for neutral shipping firms known to be trading with Germany, and for neutral banks and finance houses suspected of advancing Germany credit.

As the war progressed, the ability of the European neutrals to resist these attempts to manage and control their trade weakened, particularly once the United States had entered the war ‑ Osborne notes that, between 1915/16 and 1917/18, US exports to the Netherlands decreased by around two-thirds, those to Sweden halved, and those to Norway, dropped by 90 per cent.

Marion Siney later speculated that the reason the early, insider histories of the blockade by Bell and others had been kept from the public was because they gave too much detail on how the neutral states had been, in effect, recruited. Bell, especially, is quite unguarded describing how their participation was secured through a carrot and stick approach that was generally more stick than carrot. Here were neutral rights being violated by the very people who had officially gone to war to protect them.

Undoubtedly, the most important feature of the blockade was the way in which it reduced the amount of food available to German civilians. It did this by cutting off German imports, not just of food, but also of fertiliser and animal feed, thereby reducing the efficiency of domestic production. This was a further aspect of the blockade that went against pre-war international law, which had categorised these commodities as free goods ‑innocent goods that could never be categorised as contraband of war. Now, however, they were restricted. This was fundamental to the blockade’s success since it created the kind of shortages that directly affected most German civilians. Regular monitoring was undertaken to ensure that the blockade was, indeed, hitting home and, where it was found to be underperforming efforts were made to tighten it up. When the still neutral United States proposed, in early 1917, that Britain allow food imports to Germany in return for Germany abandoning the submarine campaign, the British were dismissive. A blockade that permitted food imports was no blockade at all and would not have the desired impact on civilian morale. The submarine campaign was a small thing in comparison. There was no strategic equivalence between the two.

Monitoring reports indicate that the blockade was beginning to have an impact from as early as 1915. Food shortages were already being reported that year, especially among low-income groups, and industrial productivity had fallen markedly. This prompted the first stirrings of social unrest—“[O]ne could argue,” writes Osborne, “that Germany was beginning to rot from the inside out.” The 1916 harvest was poor, due mainly to low supplies of imported fertiliser, while shortages of fodder had led to a decrease in the quantity and quality of German livestock. Winter 1916-17 was a time of hardship and shortages—the “turnip winter”.

Opinions differ as to how many died on account of food and other shortages arising from the blockade, or, more recently, if anyone died at all. Bell cites the official German estimate of 763,000 approvingly. This high figure was arrived at by calculating what is sometimes called the “civilian excess” ‑ the total excess of wartime over peacetime civilian deaths, taking 1913 as the peacetime baseline. I don’t think that the excess itself has ever been questioned ‑ the fact that there were an additional three-quarters of a million civilian deaths over and above what was normal in peacetime. What has been challenged is whether all, many, or any of this excess can be attributed to the blockade. On the face of it, the attribution seems reasonable enough. The wartime spike in German civilian mortality did not happen of itself. It happened in the context of the blockade, and the shortages it caused, shortages of food, and shortages that limited Germany’s ability to produce food domestically. Malnutrition was an outworking of these shortages and people who are malnourished are more vulnerable to disease and death, especially older people and people on the margins, groups whose mortality rates did, indeed, increase.

While Bell’s official history is commendatory of the official German estimate, Paul Vincent sees it as methodologically “peculiar” and likely to be excessive. (A postwar German analysis reduced the toll to around 424,000 ‑ close to half the official estimate but surely not any more acceptable.) However, it is Niall Ferguson who is most dismissive, not just of the estimates, but of the very idea that the blockade resulted in civilian deaths. His criticism comes in his 1998 The Pity of War. It is an interesting book that buzzes, gadfly-like, over a great deal of received opinion and its final conclusion is a kind of cost-benefit analysis of the war in which the costs, to the British empire, vastly outweighed the benefits. On that basis, Ferguson decides, the war was indeed a pity, the way any bad investment is a pity.

Regarding the blockade, The Pity of War disputes that Germany was “starved into defeat”. “The idea,” says Ferguson, “is one of the most tenacious in modern European historiography, yet it is almost certainly wrong.” There were shortages, he acknowledges. But nothing that couldn’t have been endured: “Instead of sausages and beer, they had to make do with nasty ersatz products and East European wine.” But there is no evidence, he says, that anyone starved. The official figure ‑ the 763,000 ‑ is, he claims, “fantastic”. And as he offers no alternative figure for total blockade-related deaths, I assume that he believes there were none.

In support of his claim that the official estimate is unsustainable, Ferguson compares pre-war and wartime female mortality rates for Germany and England (England rather than the United Kingdom, because UK registration of births, deaths and marriages is decentralised). He writes that Germany’s female mortality rate increased from 14.3 in 1913 to 21.6 in an (unspecified) wartime year while the corresponding English rate went from 12.2 to 14.6.

 I am puzzled why Ferguson cites these rates as evidence against the 763,000 estimate as by my reckoning they support the opposite conclusion—i.e. that the 763,000 is reasonable. Perhaps he believes that the change in the actual ratios is small—the German rate has gone up by 7.3 and the English by 2.4. But that looks sizeable enough to me, and the change in mortality underlying these rates is considerable.

A mortality rate expresses the total number of deaths in a country in a given year per thousand population. In Germany, in 1913, there were, using the rate cited by Niall Ferguson, 14.3 deaths for every thousand girls and women. And in England, in the same year there were 12.2 deaths per thousand.

In the 1913-1918 period, Germany had a population of 65 million. Assuming that around half that population (32.5 million) was female, then there were some 465,000 female German deaths in 1913. (That’s the total you get when you apply a mortality rate of 14.3 per thousand to a population of 32.5 million). And if Ferguson’s later, wartime female death rate (21.6) is applied to the same population, there were 702,000 female German deaths in a single war year. Therefore, in Germany, in just one year of the war, the excess civilian mortality for girls and women was 237,000.

English demography statistics give the population of England in the period 1911-21 as around 35 million. Assuming, as before, that half that population was female and applying the corresponding English death rates, I make it that there were around 213,500 female deaths in England, pre-war (17.5 million divided by 1,000, multiplied by the 12.2 mortality rate) and, on the same basis, there were 255,000 female deaths in the war year—a civilian excess of just 41,500. Therefore, using Ferguson’s figures, both England and Germany show a female civilian excess, but the English excess (41,500) is significantly lower than the German excess (237,000). True, the German population was larger than the English population ‑ around twice as large. But the German excess ‑ 237,000 ‑ is six times the English excess.

Ferguson’s figures therefore seem to suggest something different from what he intends. They suggest that wartime conditions in Germany coincided with notably more female civilian deaths than did wartime conditions in England. In a particular war year, there were more female deaths in both countries compared with pre-war, but the German increase was 237,000 higher than the base figure and close to 200,000 higher than the English figure. There were therefore some 237,000 more female deaths in Germany in a particular war year than there were in 1913. And there were around 200,000 more female deaths in Germany in a given war year than there were in England in (presumably) the same war year.

Given this, it seems reasonable to me to conclude that wartime conditions for the German civilian population were more hazardous to health than either: (i) pre-war conditions in Germany or (ii) wartime conditions in England. Being a civilian in wartime Germany was a great deal riskier than being either a civilian in pre-war Germany or a civilian in wartime England. Moreover, if the female civilian excess in Germany was 200,000 in a single wartime year, and if there was at least some excess in each of the other war years (say 200,000 for the rest of the war combined), and if there was a similar excess for non-combatant males (infants, boys, men above conscription age), then a total civilian excess in the order of 750,000 is not at all fantastic.

That’s not all. Although the 763,000 estimate is the highest I’ve seen, Bell and others who cite it suggest that it might be understated. The German state began to break down in 1918 and the compilation and analysis of mortality statistics was a casualty of this disintegration. There are no mortality statistics for the months immediately before the armistice or for the period immediately after. NP Howard, in a paper published in the journal German History in 1993, reckons another 100,000 might have died after the collection of official statistics was suspended. Moreover, well into the 1920s, the after-effects of the blockade were evident, not least in the chronic illnesses of people who had spent several of their childhood years malnourished.

Osborne states that the blockade, with its threat of imminent famine, “goaded the Germans into democratisation”. A German republic was cobbled together in the closing months of 1918 and all of the parties that had had issues with the previous arrangement ‑ Social Democrats, Catholic Centrists, Liberals ‑ were in its government. I believe that this happened not just on account of the blockade but also because the Allies let it be known that their fight was with the old Kaiserist Germany and that a new, more democratic version would be treated favourably. 

“That had been the burden of speeches in which Mr Wilson and Mr Lloyd George had held out the hope in plainer words than statesmen often use,” wrote Noel Henry Brailsford, a member of the Independent Labour Party, who toured the areas of Europe affected by the blockade at the start of 1919.

The plug was duly pulled on the war in the expectation that the Allies would treat the new Germany generously, permitting, at the very least, the resumption of food imports. Instead, the blockade was extended to the Baltic, thereby killing off what remained of German trade with Scandinavia and confining German trawlers to port. This was the “weapon of peace” phase of the blockade, when it was used to put pressure on Germany to agree terms. Britain and France were keenest on this approach, whereas the United States was more conciliatory. 

Only in March 1919 did the Allies show some leniency ‑ the somewhat underwhelming concession whereby Germany could import food commercially to relieve the more immediate hardships cause by the blockade, which naturally remained in place. The deal was that a devastated Germany would somehow purchase food imports using what remained of its gold reserve up to a quota set by the Allies. (Arnold-Forster comments, without irony, that the total amount of relief purchased this way was below the quota allocated.)

This concession came about solely because of a shift in the British position over the course of 1919. Although Lloyd George had fought and won the 1918 general election offering to hang the Kaiser, and squeeze Germany until the pips squeaked, and so forth, the realpolitik of the situation was that a diminished Germany would likely mean a resurgent France, and Britain no more wanted a Europe dominated by France than it wanted one dominated by Germany. As a result, the British rolled back somewhat from their earlier antagonism and this would continue in the postwar years. (“One of the greatest I have ever met in the whole of my life,” said Lloyd George of Hitler when they met in 1936.)

But there was no backsliding at Versailles, where Germany was obliged to sign up to an indemnity yet to be calculated as well as territorial losses that would leave a truncated polity based on non-contiguous territory. Furthermore, parts of what was left ‑ the Rhineland, the Saar ‑ would be occupied by the Allies, with the coalmines of the Saar worked for the benefit of the occupiers. All this on a take it or leave it basis.

“A peace of violence,” Friedrich Ebert, Social Democrat chancellor of the new Germany said of Versailles, one that set the new republic got off to a bad start. Extremism, right and left, threatened its stability. Matthias Erzberger and Walther Rathenau, politicians closely associated with the armistice, the Treaty and the new republic, were assassinated by ultranationalists.

According to Brailsford there had been considerable respect in Germany for Wilson and Lloyd George, if not Clemenceau. There had been an acknowledgement that Germany would have to pay its share of reparations. Some had even advocated that Germany send volunteers to France and Belgium to make good the damage caused. But “[t]his mood visibly passed with the publication of the Treaty ...”

Almost all of the analyses of the First World War that were published in the twenties and thirties are dismissive of the war and of the political and military leaders who took Britain into it. And much of the cultural reaction was the same. At the time, there was hardly a good word said for it and as late as the 1990s there was still a healthy disrespect even as the war ceased to be a living memory ‑ from war poets to Oh, What a Lovely War!, to Gallipoli and Blackadder Goes Forth.

The Second World War was remembered more positively, possibly because, in retrospect at least, it is more readily justifiable. But without the ill-remembered First, there would have been no justifiable Second. If the First World War had not happened, or if calls for a negotiated settlement had been listened to, the circumstances that led to the Second would not have occurred.

Lately, though, I’ve seen that challenged. On the one hand, an attempt to downplay the First World War and Versailles as causal factors in the Second World War. On the other, a hint or two that the First World War was a little like the Second ‑ against an imagined German conquest and therefore for “freedom”. And if the First World War was like the Second, then it must share the same moral justification. Mustn’t it? This is a narrative that has gathered pace in Britain in step with a burgeoning Europhobia.

The First World War is commemorated. But it is otherwise forgotten. Bits of it stand out from its fog, but there is little sense of the substance of the conflict ‑ what it was for, what was at stake. And of the blockade, the economic encirclement, there is widespread ignorance. Lowdown and unheroic, it is hardly the stuff of commemoration, or spin. Besides, too close a look at it might detract from the view that the war was a necessary evil. Or even necessary.

Eric W Osborne’s Britain’s Economic Blockade of Germany, 1914-1919 was published by Frank Cass in 2004.


A former Eurocrat and Fulbright scholar, Martin Tyrrell is a tutor in literature and creative writing at Queen’s Open Learning, Belfast.