Caption: In this sketch by Geoffrey Stephen Allfree, the harbour at Kirkwall is a hive of activity.

When the First World War began in 1914, the long held idea that it would quickly be over led to deficiencies in planning for a number of dangers, including supplying the civilian and military populations with food, and over the course of the conflict this would impact on all the countries involved.

The British Isles at the start of 1914 had witnessed major changes in farming practice in the preceding decades. Improvements in transportation and reductions in the cost of imports meant that much of the island’s food supply was purchased from other countries. Germany, for example, was a major supplier of wheat products, of which 80% of the supply was imported. Dairy produce like cheese was heavily imported from Denmark and Holland, (although milk was still wholly provided by farmers at home), and most of the fruit and all of the country’s sugar supply came from overseas.

Since the mid-1800s, farmers in the British Isles had increasingly focused on raising livestock, where profits remained strong against imported goods, and the quality of the home grown produce was better. Even here imports played a part, however, with certain meats such as bacon being imported in large amounts, and there was a high level of imports to provide feed for the animals.

Despite the enormous reliance on imports to feed the populace, in the immediate run up to the First World War and even in the early part of the war there was no political will to change the situation, despite warnings of the risk. The British Empire still stretched across the globe, and the merchant fleet was vast.

The prevailing feeling among those in power was that the ships of the Royal Navy would have little difficulty keeping the shipping lanes open, and allow Britain’s policy of free trade to continue uninterrupted. New markets could easily replace those belonging to the enemy. The ongoing belief that the war would be over in a few months reinforced the belief that there was no need to worry about food shortages.

In the early part of the war, this idea appeared to be vindicated, as food supplies continued without much difficulty. However, as the war drew on into 1915 and beyond, the weakness of continuing to rely on imports during the conflict became almost catastrophically clear.

Image copyrights:

© IWM (Q 18547) http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205253028

© IWM (Art.IWM ART 146) http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/164

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