Looting, requisitioning and food shortages




At the outset of the war the Germans, like the other belligerents, thought the fighting would be over quickly and this led, in the first few months, to the undisciplined commandeering of goods.

However by the end of 1914 the Germans were far more organized and had inventoried all the raw materials and goods produced in the occupied territories. In 1916 a report on the state of every branch of industry in occupied France was published in Munich by the German General Headquarters. Its purpose was twofold: to eliminate rival companies and to punish factories which refused to work for the occupiers. Elsewhere, German inspectors inventoried farm resources (cattle, grain, potatoes, straw, hay, cultivated areas, sowed areas and so on) and reported to a local economic committee which kept the relevant Kommandaturen informed of requisitions and tax collections.

From 1916 every householder was required to make a list all their material possessions and display it in a prominent position on their house. Everything was subject to requisition, such as linen, furniture, mattresses, corks, wine, tools, metal, wood, cutlery, leather, rubber and so on. Metals were much sought-after by the Germans and so copper pipes were removed from factories, statues and bells were melted down, zinc gutters were taken from roofs and even wire fences were collected up. Wool was removed from mattresses to make uniforms and forests were felled (notably the forests of Mormal and Raismes) to provide timber for the trenches. Farm production had to comply with the Kommandatur's forecasts for each harvest. Some French farmers continued to cultivate their land, handing over most of their harvests to the occupiers, although some land was worked by forced labour.

Emergency money

Towns in the occupied zone were completely isolated from the French authorities and were required to pay exorbitant fines and taxes, provide emergency services and feed the troops. They were also obliged to issue municipal vouchers to be repaid after the war. This "emergency money" was not quite official and certainly not legal, because it was not issued by any government; however it had been made necessary by the circumstances. In January 1916 the German authorities, alarmed by the proliferation of the vouchers, decided to restrict their issuance to large towns, inter-council partnerships and professional groups. They also laid down printing standards which regulated the type of paper used, its format and colour, what was written on it and so on. Older vouchers which did not comply with the new rules had to be withdrawn progressively from circulation (decrees issued on 6 May 1917 and 1 April 1918 reiterated this obligation).


The naval blockade set up by the British Navy at the beginning of the war meant that Germany had to rely on her own resources to feed her population. The dismal harvest of 1916 forced the authorities to start rationing (for example bread was rationed to 200 grams a day), a measure which not only ensured people got fed but also helped maintain prices. Official bodies were set up to distribute, requisition and tax agricultural produce such as cereals, potatoes and beetroot.

Research was also made into developing substitute or ersatz foods, such as replacing potatoes with kohlrabi, tobacco with hops and oak leaves, and butter with a mixture margarine, tallow and starch. Working hours were also increased and factories started employing women, the elderly, children and disabled persons.

In the spring of 1917 a German infantryman was issued a daily ration of 400 grams of bread accompanied with potato starch or pulses and a bit of butter or lard (alcohol was only issued before a battle). The only way for the troops to supplement these meagres rations was to requisition food in the conquered territories.

The tightening of the blockade in 1917 resulted in even harsher rationing for the civilian population with allowances restricted to 200 grams of wholemeal flour per day and five pounds of potatoes, 250 grams of meat and fifty grams of butter (usually margarine) per week, per person... Coal, leather and textiles were also in great shortage. The army took priority over the civilian population when it came to food and clothing.

The undernourished population of the occupied territories soon became prone to diseases such as dysentery, cholera, tuberculosis, scurvy and smallpox. Fewer babies were being conceived because of infertility and child mortality rates soared. The black market got more organized and soup kitchens emerged to provide people with food in the larger towns.

In Germany the food shortage was exploited by the left-wing socialists of the Spartacus League to start strikes and mutinies and foment trouble to bring about their goal of ending the war through revolution. Austria-Hungary and Germany's eastern allies, such as Turkey and Bulgaria, all suffered from severe food shortages and requisitioning measures provoked disorder, riots and revolts in rural areas. In France, Great Britain and Italy the relentless underwater warfare of 1917 hindered imports and the levying of troops deprived rural areas of manpower and compromised harvests. Inflation, borrowing and deficits brought with them despondency and discontent and huge strikes broke out among the women working for National Defence.

Malnutrition and relief organizations

Initially set up to provide relief for US citizens caught up in the war in Europe, the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) was founded in Brussels on 22 October 1914 by the American Brand Whitlock, the Spanish ambassador Marquis of Villalobar, and future US president Herbert Hoover. The organization was funded by Great Britain and the United States of America.

The Commission for Relief in Northern France (Comité d’alimentation du Nord de la France) was created a few months later when the Lille industrialist Louis Guérin made contact with the Belgian National Commission and the American Commission for Relief in Belgium. In April 1915 the Germans approved Guérin's relief organization, seeing an opportunity to rid themselves of the responsibility for feeding French civilians, and agreed not to requisition any food aid. The CRB played the role of supplier, forwarding the foodstuffs ordered by the local relief organizations to the Belgian National Commission which then transported them to Northern France. The Commission for Relief in Northern France then distributed the foodstuffs to the various local committees set up in the towns and villages of the occupied territories. Unable to export money from the occupied zone, the Commission for Relief in Northern France relied on the Belgian National Committee to pay for the goods it distributed.

Although the food aid had to be paid for, the philanthropic character of the relief organization cannot be ignored. In his annual report Hoover compared occupied France to "a vast concentration camp in which all aspects of economic life are entirely suspended" and populated by 2,125,000 people in need of help. The United States sent ships loaded with food to Rotterdam, the main depot and distribution centre. From Rotterdam the food had to be transported by river because the railway was reserved for the exclusive use of the German Army. The Germans did not control the aid outlets and agreed not to requisition the donated foodstuffs, allowing them to go the French population only. The Germans also helped with transporting the aid.

For the purposes of assessing needs and distributing the aid, the department of Nord was divided into three districts: Lille, Douai and Fourmies (aid for the Maubeuge sector transited Belgium). Each district was divided into various regions headed by regional committees. Nearly half of the aid (42%) came from the United States, 25% from British colonies, 24% from Great Britain and 9% from neutral countries, notably the Netherlands. Initially, aid consisted mainly of wheat flour, maize, rice, pasta, beans, bacon, fat, oil, salt, sugar, coffee and soap; however other items were later added to the list such as potatoes from Holland, vegetables, seeds, special products for children and medicines.

In 1916 the average daily ration for one person included 240 g of flour, 14 g of maize, 60 g of rice, 48 g of bacon or tinned meat, 15 g of sugar, 19 g of coffee, 19 g of milk and 16 g of soap. The regional committees supplied each inhabitant with about 1,100 to 1,300 calories a day. All recipients of aid were treated on a strictly equal basis with those who could afford it buying their food and those who could not, receiving it for free.

After the United States entered the war a Spanish-Dutch relief organization (Comité Hispano-Néerlandais) took over aid operations; however the increasing activity of submarines on the supply routes severely affected supplies and traffic to Rotterdam fell fifty-five per cent. As a result more and more aid was sent through Holland. This mostly consisted of seeds for kitchen gardens which the Germans agreed not to requisition either in transit or when harvested. At the end of the war the organization helped repatriate 40,000 persons through the Netherlands and it also did its utmost to feed the inhabitants of the occupied zones who suddenly found themselves liberated after the German retreat.

The Commission for Relief in Belgium was dissolved at the end of December 1918 after more than fulfilling its aim to save the people of Nord from starvation.

However the health of the civilian population at the end of the war was far from satisfactory. According to the director of Lille's Pasteur Institute, Albert Calmette, mortality rates went from 19-21% before the war to 41-55% in 1918 and cases of tuberculosis were soaring.


Claudine WALLART, Head Curator of Heritage
at the Archives Départementales du Nord (Nord Records Office)

Archive pictures

Réquisition des matelas à Lille

[30 Fi guerre 14-18 / 328] Archives Départementales du Nord (jpg - 0.04 MB)

Réquisition des matelas à Lille

L'usine textile de la Société d'Esquermes-Lille vidée de ses machines

[30 Fi guerre 14-18 / 147] Archives Départementales du Nord (jpg - 0.03 MB)

L'usine textile de la Société d'Esquermes-Lille vidée de ses machines

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