Episode 108: Life on the Homefront Pt. 3

Episodes 1917 Homefront

Last episode we looked at the food situation in Germany during the war and this episode will begin by looking at Germany's two most important allies, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Austria would be in a position similar to that of Germany, although it would in general be far worse, especially in the Austrian heartland and in the capital of Vienna. For the Ottomans their situation would more closely resemble that of Russia where there was food produced in the Empire in some quantity but they found it very difficult to then transport that food to the population centers, particularly the capital of Constantinople. The second half of these episode will cover some of the things that the countries did during the war to try and keep the morale and support for the war high on the home front. We will particularly focus on the Central Powers and Britain during this discussion because there will be quite lenghy discussions of Russia and France in later episodes as I think it is essential to roll those discussions in with the chronicles of the Russian Revolution and the French Mutinies. The Central powers would have something of a crisis on their hands during the war, with a constant need to convince their citizens that the war was still winnable, and when that started to disconnect from reality the governments had to find ways to contain their anger and frustrations, and in some cases their desperation. In Britain the government would struggle with public opinion as the society was called upon in ways that they had not felt since the days of Napoleon.


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Last episode we looked at the food situation in Germany during the war and this episode will begin by looking at Germany's two most important allies, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Austria would be in a position similar to that of Germany, although it would in general be far worse, especially in the Austrian heartland and in the capital of Vienna. For the Ottomans their situation would more closely resemble that of Russia where there was food produced in the Empire in some quantity but they found it very difficult to then transport that food to the population centers, particularly the capital of Constantinople. The second half of these episode will cover some of the things that the countries did during the war to try and keep the morale and support for the war high on the home front. We will particularly focus on the Central Powers and Britain during this discussion because there will be quite lenghy discussions of Russia and France in later episodes as I think it is essential to roll those discussions in with the chronicles of the Russian Revolution and the French Mutinies. The Central powers would have something of a crisis on their hands during the war, with a constant need to convince their citizens that the war was still winnable, and when that started to disconnect from reality the governments had to find ways to contain their anger and frustrations, and in some cases their desperation. In Britain the government would struggle with public opinion as the society was called upon in ways that they had not felt since the days of Napoleon.

Before the war Austria-Hungary had been self-sufficient when it came to its food supply, because of this the government had every right to be optimistic about what the situation would be if and when a war started. However, through a variety of issues, and a healthy dose of official incompetence, Austria would find itself far worse off than its Germany ally and in fact there would be several instances of the Empire having to import food from Germany. The first problem was a military one. Right from the start of the war the Russians invaded Galicia and the Austrians were mostly powerless to stop them. This meant that the Austrian army was pushed back to the Carpathians. The loss of the land was bad for many reasons, but few were more important than the fact that before the war the area lost had raised a third of the cattle, a third of the wheat, and half of the potatoes available to the Empire. It also contained a much smaller proportion of the entire population while producing these goods, so the loss of these food items was harder felt than even those percentages I just mentioned would lead you to believe. The next problem was the same as every country was having in that there was a huge loss of manpower on the farms which caused a decrease in production almost across the board. The final problem was one specific to the Austro-Hungarian empire. In general there was a lack of solidarity between the Austrian and Hungarian sides of the empire, and this manifested in a situation similar to what was happening in Germany with Bavaria that we discussed last episode, only on a much larger scale. The Austrian half of the Empire was heavily dependent on Hungary for the food that it produced, and the Hungarians had a large food surplus early in the war. However by 1916 Hungarian exports to Austria had dropped dramatically. This was because of a general decrease in supply but more importantly due to the resistance of the Hungarian landed aristocracy. This group of citiziens in Hungary held a disproportionate amount of power within the government and this prevented the Hungarian government from imposing the kinds of price ceilings and mandatory requisitions that were present in other countries during the war. This group refused to export their food, even when the Austrians were starving and they were well fed. This issue was unique to the dual monarchy nature of the Empire and the makeup of the Hungarian portion of that monarchy but it shows one of the great weaknesses of their system, with one side, in this case the Austrian, not able to exert the kind of power needed during total war.

Because of all of the problems that they had the Austrians began introducing rationing in early 1915. At first it was bread anf lour and in these efforts they were different than some other countries. Instead of trying to make sure that everybody got their fair share the government wanted to try and make some money off of the situation. To do this they setup a situation where people could buy the amount of bread on their ration ticket for a certain, somewhat reasonable fee, but then they could also buy more at a very heavy markup. This helped the government to then subsidize the price ceiling on the normal ration of bread and to help to meet the needs of most of the population. This was not a horrible system in theory, but the most important requirement is that there was some level of surplus beyond basic needs to sell for that higher price, and this would rapidly not be the case. As the shortages increased people then tried to hoard food. I think this is a very reasonable reaction for the population in the situation that they were in. There was not much food, so they tried to get as much as possible and store it for later. However, there was a big problem with this, and it was not just people taking more than their fair share. Long term food storage in any situation is hard, and most private citizens in Austria-Hungary at this time did not have the knowledge, experience, or facilities to make it work. Because of this a huge amount of the food spoiled, molded, or went rancid. As supplies continued to shrink even further ration lines lengthened. By the spring of 1917 in Vienna, a city hit the hardest of any in the Empire, a quarter of a million people, or more than 1/10th of the cities population stood in food lines every day. These lines would start to form at 10PM the night before and if you were not there by midnight the changes of getting food rapidly declines. As it was 20% of the people in line generally left with nothing. In such an atmosphere, morale, perseverance, and patriotism became currencies in short supply.

Inflation in the empire would hit the lower classes hard. The general cost of living was 2.5 times higher by 1916 and by the end of the year that would balloon to 6 times higher. The Empire, in rickety financial situations before the war even started, found itself unable to compensate even the skilled war industry workers. By 1918 Czech workers in Bohemia were at wages that gave them just 35% of the purchasing power that they had before the war, and they were some of the lucky ones. Much like in Germany, the Austrian war bread went from something that resembled peacetime bread to something that was cut so much by substitutes that it barely resembled bread at all. Lentils, peas, chestnuts, soybeans, clover, brain, all were used to try and stretch the rye, potato, and most importantly wheat flour that was available. By the end of the war even this was not greatly helping and the ration for Vienna was down below 1000 calories a day. All across the empire, and to a lesser extent in Germany, children were sent to the countryside from the cities. These children were expected to work in the fields while their caregivers were expected to feed them while also receiving some monetary compensation from the government. This could not happen for everybody though and during the last years of the war children in Vienna almost stopped growing ta all because their nutrition was so poor. 12 to 14 year old children were more reminiscent of sickly 8 to 10 year-olds. They were a generation starved by war, and they would be the generation that 25 years later would have to send their own children out into the countryside once again, although in that case not to avoid starvation but instead allied bombing.

One final country that we will touch on is the situation in the Ottoman Empire. For this empire the pinch was felt the hardest in its largest city and capital, Constantinople. The issue was that the city got most of its food in peacetime from the various waterways into the city. The Bosphorous and the Black Sea from the north and the Dardanelles and the Mediterranean to the south were critical to keeping the capital fed. Due to the efforts of the Russian and British navy many of these became unusable and instead they were forced to look to land based transportation to make up the shortage, a real challenge. The city ate through the supplies that it had, and then things started to get tight. Early in the war there was more than enough food in the empire, but it was very difficult to transport it from where it was, to the city where it was needed. After the first year of the war even the more agriculturally inclined areas were running short. This was due to the burden of conscripting so many of the men into the area, especially from the areas of the Empire that were the most fertile like parts of Asia-Minor. This resulted in the amount of land being cultivated reduced by half during the war, not due to a lack of demand but instead due to a simple lack of labor. Unlike in Germany, France, or Britain there was not a large amount of mechanization of the farming which might have allowed them to handle so many men being pulled away and so much of the land could only lay fallow. There would be acute bread shortages across the empire by 1917, made worse by corruption in the government which often kept what supplies were available out of the nads of those that were most in need, this was done for the sole purpose of increasing profits. For both the Ottomans and the Austrians the worst part was that they definitely could have both handled their needs just fine and kept all of their citizens well fed if things had went a little better. Maybe if fewer men had been needed at the front for so long, maybe if a few better management decisions were made by the government they could have utilized their agricultural strengths to keep the food flowing during the war. Instead of being a strength though, food production in both Empires became their greatest weakness which would slowly sap the ability of both countries to continue their role in the war. By 1918 both the army and the citizens back home would be half starved shadows of their former selves, barely able to offer physical, emotional, or mental resistance.

Now we move onto talking about a different important aspect of the war, morale, both at the front and at home. For citizens of the countries in the war they were often fed a steady diet of propaganda from their governments, often with the press helping it along. Ludendorff would say of propaganda that "Good propaganda must keep well ahead of actual political events. It must act as pacemaker to policy and mold public opinion without appearing to do so." Sometimes this propaganda was close to the truth, but sometimes it crossed a line into straight falsehood that maybe took some small grain of truth but then twisted it and expanded it so that little of the truth could be found. An example of this would be the atrocities in Belgium that were done by the Germans. They absolutely happened, civilians were absolutely killed by German military soldiers and officers. However, the press in Britain blew it completely out of proportion, greatly inflating the numbers of those affected and the motivations of the Germans. Photographs of old Russian programs against the Jews were used to punctuate the situation, claiming of course that they were from Belgium. This is just one example of an entire list where the governments and the press took something and made it much larger than it was, all in the name of keeping the ever critical public support behind the war. This had one very tragic downside, outside of lying to their citizens, the governments were very good at these lies, so good that they made their citizens believe that their very way of life would be destroyed if they lost the war. This created a situation that when it came time to negotiate peace the negotiators had almost no wiggle room because they were hemmed into a position of maximum punishment due to now they had billed the war to that point with their people. Every government had raised the stakes of the war beyond all reason, in the name of maintaining support, and they could not in the end bring it back. For the French and British they had told their people that the goal of the war was to destroy Prussian militarism, to crush Germany's power to wage a future war, they were fighting the war to end all future wars before they started. This made it easy for the Germans to preach to their populations that they were fighting for their very survival, that the enemy would tear it all down. Therefore nobody could suggest a peace on real terms, they could not entertain peace before somebody had been pushed to the very end of their strength. When peace did finally come they could not negotiate in good faith and instead had to punish the losers. Punish them in a way that they could never possibly recover…or maybe they would recover in about 15 years and come back with a vengeance.

For their part the British understood early on that they would need a propaganda campaign to keep the public behind the government, and it would have to be on a tremendous scale. Because of this Charles Masterman was put in charge of the effort and to accomplish it he reached out to all of the literary heavyweights of British society. Thomas Hardy, Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, just to name a few. They all came together to write a letter to the British people to plead with them to fight for the ideals of Western Europe against the militarism of Germany. This was just one of the early efforts and soon the War Propaganda Bureau was pushing out countless propaganda items, books, pamphlets, newspapers, posters, every possible way to communicate with the people was used. These items were created by the Bureau but were not published by it, instead the government reached out to the publishing houses of Britain and had them print and distribute copies to try and maintain some feeling of legitimacy. It was a clever game, it in many ways it worked. In the early months of the war they focused on Belgium and made every whisper of a rumor of a German action a front page story. Later they would move onto other items, after the initial rush of volunteers began to taper off they started to put their weight behind the recruiting efforts. They always tried to utilize famous authors for these efforts, with a great example being Rudyard Kipling who would initially be a strong supporter of the war. He would write "What will be the position in years to come of the young man who has deliberately elected to outcast himself from this all-embracing brotherhood." Kipling would also give his son, just 17 years old at the time, permission to go on overseas service, a tale with its own tragic ending. These are just a few of the examples though, and the Propaganda Bureau was active throughout of the war and they would have a discernable effect on the mindset of British society, maybe not enough to keep the number of volunteers up to the required levels, but enough to firmly paint the Germans as a monstrous enemy, the dirty Hun.

Propaganda was just as important to the Central Powers during the war, especially as it began to go badly later on. They pushed slogans like Siegfrieden, or Peace through Victory. During the first two years of the war this was enough, because there was great success at the front. However, in 1916 things began to change. By the end of that year over a million German soldiers had been killed, sure they had successes and Belgium, Northern France, a good bit of Russia were all in German hands, but this did not seem to offset the cost to the average German who was having problems finding food. Here is John Keegan from The First World War "By the end of 1916, life … for most citizens … became a time of eating meals never entirely filling, living in underheated homes, wearing clothing that proved difficult to replace and walking with leaky shoes. It meant starting and ending the day with substitutes for nearly everything." The hunger that everybody felt was just the most noticeable and constant irritant and unfortunately for the government the blame for these shortages had shifted by the end of 1916 away from the British Blockade and onto the government. Confidence in Berlin would reach a new low in 1916 and when they put out a call for the Fifth War Loan they were met with anything but enthusiastic support. War Loans were a critical way for the government to leverage the wealth of its citizens to finance the war and the first several had been received quite well, but by the fifth this was not the case. Instead of lining up to give money the people were instead actively withdrawing money from their savings accounts because of rumors that the government was going to start confiscating money direction from citizens to pay for the war. There was also growing distrust within the society as well, primarily between the urban and rural segments of society. Both were united in only one sentiment, that the government was powerless to help them against their internal hardships, even if they could protect them from external enemies. It was all of this that resulted in strikes increasing between 1915 and 1916 with more than five times the number of work days lost in 1916, this totaled almost a quarter of a million work days, at a time when Germany needed every last shell and gun at the front. It was under these conditions that Bethmann-Hollweg began to push for peace talks in late 1916 which we talked about in episode 104. It was also against these conditions that Hindenburg and Ludendorff came to power and retrenched and pushed for greater economic productivity, greater governmental control, greater societal exertion, as they prepared to take the war to another level and to see it through, they did not want peace through negotiation or peace through understanding, they wanted Peace through Victory.

There was no nation that should have been more concerned about internal morale and unity when the war started than the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was made up of countless ethnicities all of them with their own thoughts and desires and the growing trend of nationalism. Nowhere was this better illustrated than when the Reichsrat reopened in May 1917, which could be considered their biggest propaganda move of the war. The Reichsrat was the legislature of the empire, think House of Commons or US House of Representatives. It had been suspended when the war started, but was reopened in 1917 with the hope that by doing so the government could garner more support from the people of the Empire. However, it was during this opening, and the statements made by the various groups within the empire, that it was shown that the Empire was still very much a group of peoples with competing demands. The Czech Union's chairman would read out a statement that "The representatives of the Czech nation are deeply convinced that the present Dualist system has led to the emergence of ruling and subject nationalities which is detrimental to the interest of all of them, and that in order to remove every national injustice and assure the general development of each nation in the interest of the empire and dynasty as a whole it is necessary to transform the Habsburg-Lorraine monarchy into a federal union of free and equal national states. Basing ourselves at this historic moment on the natural right of nations to self-determination and free development, reinforced moreover in our case by inalienable historic rights, we shall demand the unification of all branches of the Czechoslovak nation in one democratic state, including the Slovak branch living in a unit contiguous to its Czech motherland." In short, they wanted a complete reworking of how the Empire worked, all of its power structures and its organization, in 1917, when the nation was deep in a seemingly never ending war. The Czech's held power as well, they were often well-educated and they represented a good amount of the Empire's industrial capacity in Bohemia. They were also joined in this call by the Southern Slaves, the Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs who wanted their own autonomous state within the empire. The goal of reopening the Reichsrat had been to make the people feel like they were more involved, and to co-opt their representatives to gain support for the war. In this effort it was partially successful however it could not undo the economic hardships suffered by the people of the Empire. In 1918 the private correspondence of the people, as collected by Imperial censors, points to a population around the empire that if not in a full blown revolutionary mindset at the very least felt completely alienated from Vienna. Austria-Hungary is one example of a country where propaganda was not enough to bring the citizens behind the government, and they would not be alone in this failing. Italy and Russia would find its citizens losing all confidence in their government, and even in almighty Germany there would be unrest, a situation which we will discuss next week.