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BLOCKADE

It is hard to see that a war waged on women and children, the elderly and the sick – after the armistice between France and Germany 1918 had been signed – was not a war crime, though it is not one mentioned in many history books, any more than is the area bombing of German cities by British and American forces in World War Two.

The nine-month blockade of Germany after the armistice showed that the much trumpeted moral principles of the Allies as the upholders of some new kind of politics to be merely a cover for business as usual. And so it is today.

For the crippling blockade to be lifted the German delegates at Versailles were forced to accept even more punitive terms than the ones agreed at the time of the armistice, to the embitterment of the majority of the German population. The German people were convinced that what happened to them was an injustice and the way in which the Treaty of Versailles was forced on them stored up resentment, which made World War Two all but inevitable. The world paid a heavy price for that appalling treaty.

The problem with revenge, which was effectively built into the treaty, is that it has consequences - one act of revenge often creates another. The way in which Versailles was conducted was disastrous. It didn't provide anything that could be worth the sacrifice of even a fraction of those who had died in the First World War.

The blockade of Germany started much earlier. ‘It is absolutely necessary’, said Captain Herbert Richmond, ‘to look at war as a whole; to avoid keeping our eye only on the German Fleet. What we have to do is to starve and cripple Germany.’ After the mixed fortunes of the battle of Jutland in 1916 and despite major British losses and German ‘victory’ the German fleet thereafter remained in harbour for the duration of the war and Britain’s naval supremacy remained unimpaired.

Economic warfare rather than battle was the point of exercising maritime supremacy. The effects of the blockade were felt least by the armed forces - it was the civilian population that suffered most. The focus of economic warfare was not primarily to deny access to raw material for production of munitions but to restrict food supply to the population at large. In times of war the state generally gives priority to its soldiers and munitions workers and the expectation is that the civilian population, under pressure, will force its rulers to sue for peace. The death rate in Prussian sanatoriums between 1914 and 1917 rose from 9.9% to 28.1%. The sick and vulnerable were the first to die. The British official history attributes 772,763 deaths in Germany during the war to the blockade – a figure comparable to the death rate of the British armed forces. By 1918 the civilian death rate was running at 37% higher than in 1913.

Key to the success of the blockade was stopping trade between Germany and neutral countries. The United States, for example, with its large German population had good reason to take exception to British policy to close off overseas markets. Britain’s highly effective propaganda machine in America together with its control of the underwater cable network gave it huge advantage over Germany. In the battle for the ideological high ground Britain had a clinching if less than idealistic argument. America's protests about obstacles to free trade were silenced by the profits that allied orders generated. In 1914 the US economy was in a depression, by the war’s end it was booming. Then, as now, war is good for business.