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Far from the front, WWI's heavy civilian toll

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BerichtGeplaatst: 22 Feb 2014 15:00    Onderwerp: Far from the front, WWI's heavy civilian toll Reageer met quote

Berlin (AFP) - Far from the trenches and horrors of combat, European civilians paid a heavy price in hunger and privation during World War I that left many hundreds of thousands dead.

In the capitals of Europe the march to war in 1914 drew jubilant crowds into the streets, fuelled by the expectation of swift victory, but the reality of the drawn-out conflict soon sank in.

The war broke out in August, right at harvest time, with horses requisitioned for the war effort, and fertiliser chemicals used instead for explosives -- setting the stage for a collapse in farming output across Europe.

Mass mobilisation led to drastic manpower shortages. Germany alone enlisted 13 million soldiers, while Britain and Austria-Hungary mobilised nine million each and France eight million.

"All parties to the war could only partially offset this by using prisoners of war in agriculture and women in factories," Arnd Bauerkaemper, history professor at Berlin's Free University, told AFP.

By 1915, it was clear the conflict would not -- as had been predicted by both sides -- be over within months, and national economies were overhauled to serve the war effort.

The political leaders of France and Britain succeeded in mostly sparing civilians while diverting resources to war, but in Germany and Austria-Hungary the military set the agenda, and imposed punishing sacrifices on the population.

Hardship was particularly acute in Germany and Austria-Hungary since they lacked the vast colonial empires of Britain and France and their vital supplies of labour and raw materials.

Adding to the strain, Britain's supremacy over the seas enabled it to inflict a punishing economic blockade on its enemies, said Bauerkaemper.

"The army takes whatever it needs and civilians have to make do with the rest," US historian Jay Winter said, summarising how the Central Powers made use of scarce resources.

- 'Winter of turnips' -

In 1915, food shortages hit Germany, until the war the world's largest importer of food. Cereal was severely rationed, and meat and sausages all but disappeared from market stalls.

Between 1914 and 1918 in Germany, historians estimate that between 400,000 and 800,000 people died of hunger or malnutrition.

The winter of 1916-17, which was particularly bitter, saw a famine caused by a mildew epidemic that slashed the potato harvest in half.

It became known as the "winter of turnips," a bland food eaten morning, noon and night in soups, casseroles, pudding and marmalade, or ground to make bread.

That year the average daily food ration for German civilians fell to just 1,000 calories, less than half the 2,500 recommended for an adult, according to the French historian Andre Loez.

Britain suffered the least from hunger, since on top of its colonial resources its arable land was unaffected -- unlike France where 20 percent of its richest soil was occupied or churned up in battle.

But in largely-agricultural France, rationing was not introduced until 1917, by which point the German black market was thriving on a scale never known by its adversaries.

Across Europe, some products become rare, such as butter or coffee, which were widely replaced by margarine and chicory.

In Austria-Hungary, Vienna's Prater park was transformed into a giant market garden, and towards the end of the war, the office of supplies resorted to seizing barges loaded with Romanian grain intended for its German ally.

Deprivation and war-related seizures throughout central and eastern Europe provoked civil unrest that contributed to the collapse of the great empires after the war.

In Russia, the desperation fuelled the riots in Petrograd and the Revolution of February 1917 which led to the abdication of Tsar Nicolas II and, a few months later, the October Revolution.
If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied
-Rudyard Kipling-
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