The First World War is known for the horrors of the trenches, of bodies blown to bits by artillery shells or cut down by rifle and machine gun bullets. To the extent that anyone discusses civilian deaths, the familiar names of Belgium, East Prussia and Serbia (some know of Galicia) come to mind.

This is understandable – and wrong. By doing this, we end up looking at the WWI civilian experience primarily through the lens of WWII, when most civilian deaths were indeed due to mass shootings, aerial bombing or other forms of direct killing. But the overwhelming majority of civilian deaths of WWI were due to nothing quite so dramatic as a bullet to the back of the head. Most of the literally millions of civilian dead died from silent killers – hunger, malnutrition and infectious diseases. Their deaths are compiled in dry statistics, but provide few dramatic stories of the kind that permeate WWII literature. Too many are unaware of their magnitude.

How could this happen, in a war which was ostensibly the epitome of the “clean” war, when soldiers focused largely on killing each other?

One explanation is the mutual blockade argument. Britain and the Entente imposed a naval blockade on the Central Powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey. This blockade included food which might help the enemy armies and thus drove these powers to starvation. Against this, the Germans imposed an effective blockade of Russian Baltic ports and enacted submarine warfare which also took its toll on food supplies. To this day, many attribute the deaths exclusively or primarily to the blockade, placing especial moral turpitude on Britain.

H.L. Mencken famously said that “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” Lest there be any doubt – the blockade certainly contributed to the problem. The Central Powers could not buy food from abroad to replenish their stocks, and the stoppage of trade meant that many in the cities could not earn as much money to buy food or were dependent on the government to supply rations. But to say that the blockade was the only or primary factor is too neat. After all, Italy suffered over half a million civilian dead and the Russian Empire perhaps 1.5 million from much the same causes – and they were not cut off from the world quite so thoroughly.

Civilians and the Army: A Struggle for Resources

A major contributing factor was the very fact of the war itself. As Frederic Bastiat famously pointed out, soldiers may protect the country, but they are a drain on resources that could be used elsewhere. This was especially true in WWI. For every warring party, the army had first dibs on the limited food supplies or the finite number of trains at any given side’s disposal. Every army drafted increasing amounts of pack animals to move supplies and weapons – animals which were then no longer available to work the land or manure the ground. The very drafting of so many fit men of working age meant less people available to work the land.

The result was an ever shrinking supply of food, a decreasing amount of transport to supply them to cities which needed them most and in every case large and often very ineffective – and corrupt – government offices in charge of ensuring the civilian population stayed alive while the army remained well fed. It is a testament to the determination of all sides to “win” the war – whatever that meant – that no-one thought of moderating their positions even when their own people were often starving.

Another serious contributing factor were refugees. Especially on the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman battlefields, millions of civilian refugees fled or were expelled in various directions. Whether from administrative chaos as in the Russian case, or deliberate lethal neglect in the Ottoman treatment of the Armenians, these civilians had no adequate medical care or treatment and resided in unsanitary conditions rife with lethal diseases and few provisions. All these were common features of the war on most of the fronts.

Harbingers of the Future

But it is not just the similarities, but the differences in how the warring powers reacted which is of interest. Imperial Germany dealt with the food situation largely through payment in not-very-valuable fiat money or by “requisitioning” – legalized plunder – of conquered territories in the East and West. Perhaps the best and worst example of this was Romania, which entered the war in 1916 only to have 2/3 of its territory conquered that same year. A country rich in grain and oil, it likely helped keep Germany going longer than it might have had it stayed neutral.

But Germany would learn here, as elsewhere, that plunder is only a short-term strategy. Peasants refused the fiat money, hid the grain or otherwise resisted the requisitioning in a thousand other ways (even burying it in coffins!). Many simply absconded from their plots rather than work to be ripped off. By the end of the war, Romania, formerly a major exporter of grain, was on the brink of famine, with as many as 500,000 dying from malnutrition and starvation.

Indeed, the Germans’ huge land grab at Brest-Litovsk in 1918 can be seen not just as an attempt to dominate Europe but to secure food supplies independent of a blockade – to no avail, for much the same reasons as Romania. It is not for nothing that when he invaded the USSR, Hitler kept a strong focus on occupying the Ukrainian breadbasket. The experience of WWI and its deprivations had made a large impression on him.

Meanwhile, the food dilemma helped shatter the delicate social fabric of Austria-Hungary. The politicians of each nation – especially the dominant Hungarians who occupied the most grain rich lands – spent all possible time haggling for short term political gains, either unaware or uncaring of the dire emergency they faced. While people in Vienna starved, many leaders in Hungary refused to even consider reducing the high rations for “its” citizens or give at least some of the food it was selling to Germany. Once a delicate balanced and pluralistic system, mutual suspicion among all groups about many issues – including food – meant that Austria-Hungary as a state was in very serious danger of collapse, even if it were not pushed over the edge by the Entente.

Yet the Central Power which suffered the most from the war was undoubtedly Ottoman Turkey. Cursed with an incomplete rail system, an underdeveloped medical system and not blessed like Germany with very efficient agriculture or as many grain-rich lands like Austria-Hungary, everyone in the Ottoman Empire suffered hunger. Even soldiers often deserted because they simply couldn’t function on the rations they were given. Even excluding the Armenian Genocide, probably about a million “regular” civilians died from malnutrition and disease in the war years. Unlike the endless argument over German deaths at the end of the war as the result of the British blockade, Ottoman suffering seems to have gone by the wayside. It’s time we brought it back.

WWI was a devastating conflict on many levels – the soldiers lost, the treasure spent, the political upheaval it engendered. Understanding the devastation it wrought to civilians on both sides of the line helps complete our understanding of one of the most terrible conflicts of the 20th century.