chapter  8
The Countryside in War and Peace
Pages 31

The First World War opened without immediate effects on agriculture, except tha t the needs of the army soon began to weaken the industry’s resources. Skilled farmworkers, together with estate workers and village blacksmiths, wheelwrights and carpenters, were allowed, indeed encour­ aged, to join up, and horses were taken from the stables of manor houses and farms to satisfy the demand for remounts and haulage animals. I t was not until almost the end of 1916 that indiscriminate recruiting was seen to be a mistake, and the urgency of expanding home production of food was appreciated. The harvest in North America proved to be a poor one that year, but a more immediate problem was the effect of the shipping losses tha t threatened to starve the country of food and essential war supplies. At the outbreak of the war Britain had imported four-fifths of its cereals, two-fifths of its meat and threequarters of its fruit, to say nothing of all its sugar and colonial produce and large proportions of other foodstuffs. The German U-boats found the slow, unarmed merchant vessels easy targets, and although the belated introduction of convoys guarded by warships — a system used to counter the depredations of French privateers in the Napoleonic Wars - reduced the losses, shortages of food, fuel and other vital imports became critical to the fighting of the war.