Churchill's Starvation Blockade

A statue of Winston Churchill at Parliament Square. Source: (Getty Images)

The cost of war is well known, but what of the cost of peace? When the fighting is done, the winners must choose between justice and revenge. So many leaders throughout history have chosen the latter, thus sowing the seeds for the next generation’s conflict. In 1919, just months after Europe suffered over 30 million casualties and almost eight million civilian deaths, the winners descended upon their prize. England and France chose revenge, and stripped Germany to the bone. Winston Churchill was the architect of the suffering. As First Lord of the Admiralty, he’d been imposing a starvation blockade on the German people since 1914. This story shows us that revenge is always a two way street - and that a trampled people will eventually return to seek their own vengeance.

Churchill was a career politician, and was known to change sides when public opinion shifted. He began politics as a Tory conservative like his father, before flipping to the Liberal party over disagreements on free trade. He would eventually reinvent himself as a conservative again after the war. His lust for war was well known, and while many English statesmen were reluctant to join the conflict in 1914, Churchill was elated. After the fighting began he was quoted saying “I know this war is smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment and yet - I cannot help it - I enjoy every second.” 

A depiction of the Third Battle of Picardy, a turning point for Allied success. Source: (Getty Images)

The War

The American Civil War opened the world’s eyes to modern military technology, and the destruction it would bring. It was something the world had never seen, and The Great War would only up the ante. Britain was the lone great power who lost less than one million fighting men. Germany lost the most of all, a death toll just over 2 million. With no end in sight to the stalemate on the western front -and fresh American troops reinforcing the Allies - Germany opted for surrender. They hoped that their decision would earn them peace talks in good faith. They were wrong.

The HMS Centurion, a WW1 era British warship. Source: (Getty Images)

The Starvation Blockade

Historians acknowledge the Treaty of Versailles as a catalyst for the second World War. It was such a subversion of justice that Woodrow Wilson denounced it and Congress refused to ratify it. The terms included: annexation of German land to other countries, confiscation of all German colonies (given to Britain and France), forfeiture of the navy, and forbidding the Germans to build any heavy equipment or expand their army past 100,000 men. England even forced Germany to pay the pensions of British veterans. Two million of their young men killed, and now the survivors must pay the pension of the men they fought against? Why on earth would Germany agree to these terms? Quite simply, they were starved into submission.

The blockade began in 1914. Britain used its overwhelming naval supremacy to block German ports in the Baltic sea, no food was to be allowed in. It is estimated that anywhere between 400,000 to 760,000 Germans died of starvation or disease during the five year span. These were not soldiers; these were women, children, and the elderly. Four months after the fighting stopped, Churchill once again celebrated, saying “we are enforcing the blockade with rigor, and Germany is very near starvation.” A British commander on the ground in Germany urged the Allies to send food; his men were tired of watching “hordes of skinny and bloated children pawing over the offal from British cantonments.” Berlin begged for relief - asking for permission to buy 2.5 million tons of food - the Allies denied the request. The Germans capitulated and agreed to the terms of Versailles. They were to pay 32 billion gold marks in reparations, and forced to accept all the blame for causing the war.

Did this directly lead to the rise of Hitler and the National Socialists? We can never say for sure. What we do know is that any nation who is subjected to such humiliation and barbarity is sure to resent those responsible. The Germans surely would remember, which is exemplified by a quote from Vorwarts, a popular German newspaper: “Treaties based on violence can keep their validity only so long as force exists. Do not lose hope. The resurrection day comes.” We don’t know whether the writer had any idea of what lay ahead, but the sentiment is clear. There is no doubt that Churchill’s blockade and his thirst for revenge changed the landscape of world affairs forever.