The Economic history of World War I covers the methods used by the major nations to pay the costs of the First World War (1914–1918), as well as related postwar issues such as war debts and reparations. It also covers the economic mobilization of labor, industry and agriculture. It deals with economic warfare such as the blockade of Germany, and with some issues closely related to the economy, such as military issues of transportation.
All of the powers in 1914 expected a short war; none had made any economic preparations for a long war, such as stockpiling food or critical raw materials. The longer the war went on, the more the advantages went to the Allies, with their larger, deeper, more versatile economies and better access to global supplies. As Broadberry and Harrison conclude, once stalemate set in late in 1914:
- The greater Allied capacity for taking risks, absorbing the cost of mistakes, replacing losses, and accumulating overwhelming quantitative superiority should eventually have turned the balance against Germany.
The Allies had much more potential wealth they could spend on the war. One estimate (using 1913 US dollars) is that the Allies spent $58 billion on the war and the Central Powers only $25 billion. Among the Allies, Britain spent $21 billion and the U.S. $17 billion; among the Central Powers Germany spent $20 billion.
Total war demanded total mobilization of all the nation's resources for a common goal. Manpower had to be channeled into the front lines (all the powers except the United States and Britain had large trained reserves designed just for that). Behind the lines labor power had to be redirected away from less necessary activities that were luxuries during a total war. In particular, vast munitions industries had to be built up to provide shells, guns, warships, uniforms, airplanes, and a hundred other weapons both old and new. Agriculture had to be mobilized as well, to provide food for both civilians and for soldiers (many of whom had been farmers and needed to be replaced by old men, boys and women) and for horses to move supplies. Transportation in general was a challenge, especially when Britain and Germany each tried to intercept merchant ships headed for the enemy. Finance was a special challenge. Germany financed the Central Powers. Britain financed the Allies until 1916, when it ran out of money and had to borrow from the United States. The U.S. took over the financing of the Allies in 1917 with loans that it insisted be repaid after the war. The victorious Allies looked to defeated Germany in 1919 to pay "reparations" that would cover some of their costs. Above all, it was essential to conduct the mobilization in such a way that the short term confidence of the people was maintained, the long-term power of the political establishment was upheld, and the long-term economic health of the nation was preserved.
- 1 Europe
- 2 Allies
- 3 United States
- 4 Central Powers
- 5 Postwar
- 6 See also
- 7 Footnotes
Gross domestic product (GDP) increased for three Allies (Britain, Italy, and U.S.), but decreased in France and Russia, in neutral Netherlands, and in the three main Central Powers. The shrinkage in GDP in Austria, Russia, France, and the Ottoman Empire reached 30 to 40%. In Austria, for example, most pigs were slaughtered, so at war's end there was no meat.
The Western Front quickly stabilized, with almost no movement of more than a few hundred yards. The greatest single expenditure on both sides was for artillery shells, the chief weapon in the war. Since the front was highly stable, both sides built elaborate railway networks that brought supplies within a mile or two of the front lines, with horse-drawn wagons used for the final deliveries. In the ten-month battle at Verdun, the French and Germans fired some 10 million shells in all, weighing 1.4 million tons of steel.
Economic warfare against Germany worked—the British blockade was effective. The German counter-blockade with U-Boats was defeated by the convoy system and massive American ship building. Britain paid the war costs of most of its Allies until it ran out of money, then the US took over, funding those Allies and Britain as well.
The economy (in terms of GDP) grew about 14% from 1914 to 1918 despite the absence of so many men in the services; by contrast the German economy shrank 27%. The War saw a decline of civilian consumption, with a major reallocation to munitions. The government share of GDP soared from 8% in 1913 to 38% in 1918 (compared to 50% in 1943).
Despite fears in 1916 that munitions production was lagging, the output was more than adequate. The annual output of artillery grew from 91 guns in 1914 to 8039 in 1918. Warplanes soared from 200 in 1914 to 32,000 in 1918, while the production of machine guns went from 300 to 121,000.
By 1916, Britain was funding most of the Empire's war expenditures, all of Italy's and two thirds of the war costs of France and Russia, plus smaller nations as well. The gold reserves, overseas investments and private credit then ran out forcing forced Britain to borrow $4 billion from the U.S. Treasury in 1917–18. Shipments of American raw materials and food allowed Britain to feed itself and its army while maintaining her productivity. The financing was generally successful, as the City's strong financial position minimized the damaging effects of inflation, as opposed to much worse conditions in Germany. Overall consumer consumption declined 18% from 1914 to 1919.
Trade unions were encouraged as membership grew from 4.1 million in 1914 to 6.5 million in 1918, peaking at 8.3 million in 1920 before relapsing to 5.4 million in 1923. Women were available and many entered munitions factories and took other home front jobs vacated by men.
Clydeside shipyards before 1914 had been the busiest in the world, turning out more than a third of the entire British output. They expanded by a third during the war, primarily to produce transports of the sort that German U-boats were busy sinking. Confident of postwar expansion, the companies borrowed heavily to expand their facilities. But after the war, employment tumbled as the yards proved too big, too expensive, and too inefficient; in any case world demand was down. The most skilled craftsmen were especially hard hit, because there were few alternative uses for their specialized skills.
Canada was prosperous during the war but ethnic conflict escalated almost out of control. In terms of long-run economic trends, the war hardly affected the direction or the speed of change. The trajectory of the main economic factors, the business and financial system, and the technology continued on their way. Women temporarily took war jobs, and at the end of the war there was a great deal of unrest among union members and farmers for a few years.
Prime Minister William Hughes led Australia into the war to support the mother country and to improve Australia's strategic advantages, such as building up new industries, gaining control of the German colony of New Guinea, and securing high prices for the export products. He expanded the government's role in the economy, while dealing with intense debates over the issue of conscription. Historian Gerhard Fisher argues that the Hughes government aggressively promoted economic, industrial, and social modernization. However, Fischer also says it was done by means of exclusion and repression. He says the war turned a peaceful nation into "one that was violent, aggressive, angst- and conflict-ridden, torn apart by invisible front lines of sectarian division, ethnic conflict and socio-economic and political upheaval." In 1914 the Australian economy was small but the population of five million was very nearly the most prosperous in the world per capita. The nation depended on the export of wool, mutton, wheat and minerals. London provided assurances that it would underwrite the war risk insurance for shipping in order to allow trade amongst the Commonwealth to continue in the face of the German u-boat threat. London imposed controls so than no exports would wind up in German hands. The British government protected prices by buying Australian products even though the shortage of shipping meant that there was no chance that they would ever receive them. On the whole Australian commerce expanded. In terms of value, Australian exports rose almost 45 per cent, while the number of Australians employed in the manufacturing industry increased over 11 per cent. Iron mining and steel manufacture grew enormously. Inflation became a factor as consumer prices went up, while the cost of exports was deliberately kept lower than market value in an effort to prevent further inflationary pressures worldwide. As a result the cost of living for many average Australians was increased. The trade union movement, already powerful grew rapidly, though the movement split on the political question of conscription. Despite the considerable rises in the costs of many basic items, the government sought to stabilize wages, much to the anger of unionists. the average weekly wage during the war was increased by between 8–12 per cent, it was not enough to keep up with inflation and as a result there was considerable discontent amongst workers, to the extent that industrial action followed. Not all of these disputes were due to economic factors, and indeed in some part they were the result of violent opposition to the issue of conscription, which many trade unionists were opposed to. Nevertheless the result was very disruptive and it has been estimated that between 1914 and 1918 there were 1,945 industrial disputes, resulting in 8,533,061 working days lost and £4,785,607 in lost wages.
The cost of the war was £377 million, of which 70% was borrowed and the rest came from taxes. Overall, the war had a significantly negative impact on the Australia economy. Real aggregate Gross Domestic Product (GDP) declined by 9.5 percent over the period 1914 to 1920, while the mobilization of personnel resulted in a 6 percent decline in civilian employment. Meanwhile, although population growth continued during the war years, it was only half that of the prewar rate. Per capita incomes also declined sharply, failing by 16 percent.
The Germans invaded Belgium at the start of the war and held the entire country (except for a tiny sliver) for the entire war. They left Belgium stripped and barren. Over a 1.4 million refugees fled to France or to neutral Netherlands. Over half the German regiments in Belgium were involved in major incidents. After the systematic atrocities by the German army in the first few weeks of the war, German civil servants took control and were generally correct, albeit strict and severe. There was never a violent resistance movement, but there was a large-scale spontaneous passive resistance of refusal to work for the benefit of German victory. Belgium was heavily industrialized; while farms operated and small shops stayed open most large establishments shut down or drastically reduced their output. The faculty closed the universities; many publishers shut down their newspapers. Most Belgians "turned the four war years into a long and extremely dull vacation," says Kiossmann. In 1916 Germany shipped 120,000 men and boys to work in Germany; this set off a storm of protest from neutral countries and they were returned. Germany then stripped the factories of all useful machinery, and used the rest as scrap iron for its steel mills. Neutrals led by the United States set up the Commission for Relief in Belgium, headed by American engineer Herbert Hoover. It shipped in large quantities of food and medical supplies, which it tried to reserve for civilians and keep out of the hands of the Germans. Many businesses collaborated with the Germans, and some women cohabitated with them. They were treated roughly in a wave of popular violence in November and December 1918. The government set up judicial proceedings to punish the collaborators.
No one had plans for a long war, so the learning process was slow. The German invasion captured 40% of France's heavy industry in 1914, especially in steel and coal. The French GDP in 1918 was 24% smaller than in 1913; since a third went into the war effort, the civilian standard of living fell in half. But thousands of little factories opened up across France, hiring older men, women, youth, disabled veterans, and even some soldiers. Algerian and Vietnamese laborers were brought in. By standardizing on basic but effective models early on, the French produced enough artillery, tanks and airplanes to equip not only their own army but the United States as well. The network of small plants produced 200,000 75mm shells a day. The US provided much food, steel, coal and machine tools, and $3.6 billion in loans to finance it all; the British loaned another $3 billion.
Considerable relief came with the influx of American food, money and raw materials in 1917. The economy was supported after 1917 by American government loans which were used to purchase foods and manufactured goods that allowed a decent standard of living. The arrival of over a million American soldiers in 1918 brought heavy spending for food and construction materials. Labor shortages were in part alleviated by the use of volunteer workers from the colonies.
France's diverse regions suffered in different ways. The northeast was occupied and exploited by the Germans during the entire war, and was left in ruins. While the occupied area in 1913 contained only 14% of France's industrial workers, it produced 58% of the steel, and 40% of the coal. Combat never reached Massif Central region but its the farms and industries were hurt. The heavy loss of men into the army manpower was partly restored on the farms and in the construction industry by using prisoners of war, migratory workers, women, and older children. War contracts made some firms prosperous but on the whole did not compensate for the loss of foreign markets. There was a permanent loss of population caused by battle deaths and emigration.
The economy of Algeria was severely disrupted. Internal lines of communication and transportation were disrupted, and shipments of the main export, cheap wine, had to be cut back. Crime soared as French forces were transferred to the Western Front, and there was rioting in the province of Batna. Shortages mounted, inflation soared, banks cut off credit, and the provincial government was ineffective.
The French government floated four war bond issues on the London market and raised 55 million pounds. These bonds were denominated in francs instead of pounds or gold, and were not guaranteed against exchange rate fluctuations. After the war franc lost value and the British bondholders tried, and failed, to get restitution.
J.P. Morgan & Co. of New York was the major American financier for the Allies, and worked closely with French bankers. However its dealings became strained because of growing misunderstandings between the Wall Street bankers and French bankers and diplomats.
The Russian economy was far too backward to sustain a major war, and conditions deteriorated rapidly, despite financial aid from Britain. By late 1914 there was a severe shortage of artillery shells. The very large but poorly equipped Russian army fought tenaciously and desperately despite its poor organization and lacks of munitions. Casualties were enormous. By 1915, many soldiers were sent to the front unarmed, and told to pick up whatever weapons they could from the battlefield.
Italy joined the Allies in 1915, but was poorly prepared for war. Loans from Britain paid for nearly all its war expenses. The Italian army of 875,000 men was poorly led and lacked heavy artillery and machine guns. The industrial base was too small to provide adequate amounts of modern equipment, and the old-fashioned rural base did not produce much of a food surplus.
Before the war the government had ignored labor issues, but now it had to intervene to mobilize war production. With the main working-class Socialist party reluctant to support the war effort, strikes were frequent and cooperation was minimal, especially in the Socialist strongholds of Piedmont and Lombardy. The government imposed high wage scales, as well as collective bargaining and insurance schemes. Many large firms expanded dramatically. The workforce at the Ansaldo munitions company grew from 6,000 to 110,000 as it manufactured 10,900 artillery pieces, 3,800 warplanes, 95 warships and 10 million artillery shells. At Fiat the workforce grew from 4,000 to 40,000. Inflation doubled the cost of living. Industrial wages kept pace but not wages for farm workers. Discontent was high in rural areas since so many men were taken for service, industrial jobs were unavailable, wages grew slowly and inflation was just as bad.
Economic confusion in 1917
In terms of munitions production, the 15 months after April 1917 involved an amazing parade of mistakes, misguided enthusiasm, and confusion. Americans were willing enough, but they did not know their proper role. Washington was unable to figure out what to do when, or even to decide who was in charge. Typical of the confusion was the coal shortage that hit in December 1917. Because coal was by far the major source of energy and heat a grave crisis ensued. There was in fact plenty of coal being mined, but 44,000 loaded freight and coal cars were tied up in horrendous traffic jams in the rail yards of the East Coast. Two hundred ships were waiting in New York harbor for cargo that was delayed by the mess. The solution included nationalizing the coal mines and the railroads for the duration, shutting down factories one day a week to save fuel, and enforcing a strict system of priorities. Only in March 1918 did Washington finally take control of the crisis 
The war saw many women taking what were traditionally men's jobs for the first time. Many worked on the assembly lines of factories, producing tanks, trucks and munitions. For the first time, department stores employed African American women as elevator operators and cafeteria waitresses. The Food Administration helped housewives prepare nutritious meals with less waste and with optimum use of the foods available. Most important, the morale of the women remained high, as millions join the Red Cross as volunteers to help soldiers and their families. With rare exceptions, the women did not protest the draft.
Samuel Gompers, head of the AFL, and nearly all labor unions were strong supporters of the war effort. They minimized strikes as wages soared and full employment was reached. The AFL unions strongly encouraged their young men to enlist in the military, and fiercely opposed efforts to reduce recruiting and slow war production by the anti-war labor union called the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and also left-wing Socialists. President Wilson appointed Gompers to the powerful Council of National Defense, where he set up the War Committee on Labor. The AFL membership soared to 2.4 million in 1917. In 1919, the Union tried to make their gains permanent and called a series of major strikes in meat, steel and other industries. The strikes, all of which failed, forced unions back to their position around 1910.
While Germany rapidly mobilized its soldiers, it had to improvise the mobilization of the civilian economy for the war effort. It was severely handicapped by the British blockade the cut off food supplies, machinery and raw materials. Walter Rathenau played the key role in convincing the War Ministry to set up the War Raw Materials Department (Kriegsrohstoffabteilung - 'KRA'); he was in charge of it from August 1914 to March 1915 and established the basic policies and procedures. His senior staff were on loan from industry. KRA focused on raw materials threatened by the British blockade, as well as supplies from occupied Belgium and France. It set prices and regulated the distribution to vital war industries. It began the development of ersatz raw materials. KRA suffered many inefficiencies caused by the complexity and selfishness KRA encountered from commerce, industry, and the government. Some two dozen additional agencies were created dealing with specific products; the agencies could confiscate supplies and redirect them to the munitions factories. Cartels were created and small forms merged into larger ones for greater efficiency and ease of central control.
The military took an increasingly dominant role in setting economic priorities and in direct control of vital industries. It was usually inefficient, but it performed very well in aircraft. The army set prices and wages, gave out draft exemptions, guaranteed the supply of credit and raw materials, limited patent rights, and supervised management-labor relationships. The industry expanded very rapidly with high quality products and many innovations, and paid wages well above the norm for skilled workers.
Total spending by the national government reached 170 billion marks during the war, of which taxes covered only 8%, and the rest was borrowed from German banks and private citizens. Eight national war loans reached out to the entire population and raised 100 million marks. It proved almost impossible to borrow money from outside. The national debt rose from only 5 billion marks in 1914 to 156 billion in 1918. These bonds became worthless in 1923 because of hyperinflation.
As the war went on conditions deteriorated rapidly on the home front, with severe food shortages reported in all urban areas by 1915. Causes involved the transfer of many farmers and food workers into the military, an overburdened railroad system, shortages of coal, and the British blockade that cut off imports from abroad. The winter of 1916–1917 was known as the "turnip winter," because that vegetable, usually fed to livestock, was used by people as a substitute for potatoes and meat, which were increasingly scarce. Thousands of soup kitchens were opened to feed the hungry people, who grumbled that the farmers were keeping the food for themselves. Even the army had to cut the rations for soldiers. Morale of both civilians and soldiers continued to sink.
In the Ottoman Empire Turkish nationalists took control before the war began. They drove out Greeks and Armenians who had been the backbone of the business community, replacing them with ethnic Turks who were given favorable contracts but who lacked the international connections, credit sources, and entrepreneurial skills needed for business. The Ottoman economy was based on subsistence agriculture; there was very little industry. Turkish wheat was in high demand, but transportation was rudimentary and not much reached Germany. The war cut off imports except from Germany. Prices quadrupled. The Germans provided loans and supplied the army with hardware, especially captured Belgian and Russian equipment. Other supplies were in short supply; the soldiers were in rags. Medical services were very bad and illness and death rates were high. Most of the Ottoman soldiers deserted when they had the opportunity, so the force level shrank from a peak strength of 800,000 in 1916 to only 100,000 in 1918.
Like Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a poorly organized rural society, with a weak industrial base. The population of 51 million was highly diverse, with the Germans (in Austria) dominating economic policies, although the Hungarians had a veto power. The national government set up a highly centralized war economy, resulting in a bureaucratic dictatorship. It drafted skilled workers and engineers without realizing the damage to the economy.
The Czech region had a more advanced economy, but was reluctant to support the war effort. Czechs rejected any customs union with Germany, because it threatened their language and culture. Czech bankers had an eye to early independence; they purchased many securities from the Czech lands, thus insuring their strong domestic position in what became Czechoslovakia in 1918.
Bulgaria, a poor rural nation of 4.5 million people, at first stayed neutral. In 1915 it joined the Central Powers. It mobilized a very large army of 800,000 men, using equipment supplied by Germany. Bulgaria was ill-prepared for a long war; absence of so many soldiers sharply reduced agricultural output. Much of its best food was smuggled out to feed lucrative black markets elsewhere. By 1918 the soldiers were not only short of basic equipment like boots but they were being fed mostly corn bread with a little meat. The peace treaty in 1919 stripped Bulgaria of its conquests, reduced its army to 20,000 men, and demanded reparations of £100 million.
Conditions on the Continent were bad for every belligerent. Britain sustained the lightest damage to its civilian economy, apart from its loss of men. The major damage was to its merchant marine and to its financial holdings. The United States and Canada prospered during the war. The reparations levied on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles were designed to restore the damage to the civilian economies, but little of the reparations money went for that. Most of Germany's reparations payments were funded by loans from American banks, and the recipients used them to pay off loans they had from the U.S. Treasury. Between 1919 and 1932, Germany paid out 19 billion goldmarks in reparations, and received 27 billion goldmarks in loans from New York bankers and others. These loans were eventually paid back by West Germany after World War II.
- Stephen Broadberry and Mark Harrison, eds. The Economics of World War I (2005) ch 1 online p 2
- Gerd Hardach, The First World War, 1914-1918 (1977) p 153, using estimated made by H. Menderhausen, The Economics of War (1941) p 305
- Gerd Hardach, First World War: 1914–1918 (1981)
- John Horn, ed. Companion to World War I (2012) pp 58, 218
- David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 (2011) pp 350–438
- Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War (1998) p 249
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- Mitchell, Abstract of British Historical Statistics (1962) p 68
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- Thorough coverage is in Ernest Scott, Australia During the War (1941) pp 480-738; see pp 516-18, 539.
- Russel Ward, A nation for a continent: The history of Australia, 1901-1975 (1977) p 110
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- Scott 1941, p. 663.
- Scott, Australia During the War (1941) pp. 663-65
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- Kossmann, p 533
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- * Philippe Bernard, and Henri Dubief. The Decline of the Third Republic, 1914–1938, (1985) pp 21–101
- Pierre-Cyrille Hautcoeur, "Was the Great War a watershed? The economics of World War I in France," in Broadberry and Harrison, eds. The Economics of World War I (2005) ch 6
- Patrick Fridenson, The French home front, 1914–1918 (1992).
- Gerd Hardach, The First World War: 1914–1918 (1977) pp 87–88
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- Francesco Galassi and Mark Harrison, "Italy at war, 1915–1918," in Broadberry and Harrison, eds. The Economics of World War I (2005) ch. 9
- Luigi Tomassini, "Industrial Mobilization and the labour market in Italy during the First World War," Social History, (Jan 1991), 16#1 pp 59–87
- Tucker, European Powers in the First World War, p 375-76
- David Kennedy, Over Here 113-25
- Lettie Gavin, American Women in World War I: They Also Served (2006)
- Philip Taft, The A.F.L. in the time of Gompers (1957)
- D. G. Williamson, "Walther Rathenau and the K.R.A. August 1914-March 1915," Zeitschrift für Unternehmensgeschichte (1978) Issue 11, pp 118-136.
- Hew Strachan, The First World War: Volume I: To Arms (2001) pp 1014-49 on Rathenau and KRA
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- T. Balderston, "War finance and inflation in Britain and Germany, 1914–1918," Economic History Review (1989) 42#3 pp 222–244
- Fred Rogers Fairchild, German War Finance (1922)
- Roger Chickering, Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914–1918 (2004) pp 141–42
- Ernest H. Starling, "The Food Supply of Germany During the War" (1922)
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- Tucker, The European Powers, (1999) pp 85–91
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- Zara S. Steiner, The lights that failed: European international history 1919–1933 (2005) ch 4.
Europe and general
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