Ben Eastick Written by Ben Eastick

Rationing in the Great War: the UK’s sugar industry changed forever

This is the second blog in our series exploring Ragus’ storied legacy. It focuses on Charles Eastick’s role administering sugar rations in the First World War, and how the war’s events impacted Ragus’ rich sugar heritage. The Great War demanded much from the people and businesses of the UK, but it is often in times of adversity that we discover most about ourselves as individuals and as a society.

Workers unload West Indian sugar at the Royal Albert Docks in the early 1900s.

Wartime food shortages, 1914-1917

Described at the time as the ‘war to end all wars’, the catalyst for the start of the First World War was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Within a month of his assassination, the battle lines were drawn – the Triple Entente versus the Triple Alliance. The war would last for four long years and, tragically, was one of the bloodiest wars in human history.

It also had a damaging impact on the UK’s sugar industry. While the industry had thrived in the nineteenth century, many of the UK’s sugar refineries went under during the war and beyond. This was largely a result of shortages. Foodstuffs, including sugar, were in limited supply during the war for myriad factors. Two of the most significant factors are outlined below:

• Many men that comprised large parts of the UK’s labour force had joined the military to fight in battle. Without large parts of the workforce, both agriculture and industry were operating at reduced capacity and less productive.

• Naval blockades reduced food imports into the UK.

With less food available, the then government responded by placing price controls on staple foods, which social historians, Gazeley and Newell, argue were particularly effective in changing the pattern of food spending. But by 1917 there was a much greater threat.

Unrestricted submarine warfare, 1917-1918

The Battle of the Somme, commonly recognised as one of the deadliest battles ever, had been fought in late 1916. It was a sign that the war was escalating beyond control. And after the turn of the year, the war intensified further.

On 9 January 1917, Germany announced ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’ on the Allies (The Triple Entente were more widely-known as the Allies by this point of the war). As a result, ships importing food and essential goods into the UK would no longer be blockaded, they would be at risk of being sunk by the German navy.

The effects of the strategy were devastating at first. In February 1917 alone, the German navy sank 230 ships bringing food and essential supplies to the UK, serving to exacerbate the existing shortages. Among other targets, the German U-boats sank cane sugar shipments from the Commonwealth destined for the British ports of Glasgow, Liverpool and London.

Wartime sugar rationing

As a result of the new German naval strategy, voluntary rationing of sugar and other staples was promoted domestically from 1 February 1917. The weekly allowance for sugar was 340 grams under this voluntary rationing scheme. But as the U-boat campaign intensified and shortages heightened, voluntary rationing would no longer be sufficient. In 1918, therefore, the government was forced to impose mandatory rationing measures.

At this stage of the war, Ragus’ founder, Charles Eastick, was tasked with a vital national role: administering wartime sugar rationing quotas across the nation. In truth, the scale of this undertaking is difficult for us to imagine. At one stage in the war, for example, there was only four days’ supply of sugar remaining for Charles to ration domestically.

But through resilience and co-operation, British society was able to sustain itself with the limited food and sugar supplies available. And the tide soon turned in the Allies’ favour, partly due to America’s support as an ‘associated power’. The defeat of the U-boats and the eventual German surrender on 11 November 1918 meant that Britain did not have to push the rationing system to its limits. However, the UK’s sugar industry would never be the same again.

For his efforts during the war, Charles Eastick was awarded an MBE in the 1918 Birthday Honours on 3 June 1918.

How has this impacted the Ragus of today?

Charles undertook this national role before Ragus was founded. But the Great War had a lasting impact on the domestic sugar landscape and out of this hardship, some of the inspiration for Ragus might have been born. Ten years after receiving his MBE, in 1928, Charles Eastick established Ragus – a business built to manufacture specialist sugars for industrial applications.

And Charles’ experiences during the Great War certainly carried over into the ethos and values of Ragus. Resilience, co-operation, and responsibility are crucial pillars that have formed some of the foundations of our 90-year existence.

In today’s world, perhaps these values can be illustrated through our robust sugar supply chains and our long-term commitment to continuity of supply. Via constant communication both up and downstream, we can keep our supply chains flowing and enable our customers to meet their unique delivery turnaround challenges.

Of course, this is particularly important in the current global circumstances. The impact of the pandemic on life as we know it has been hard to ignore. But while restrictions will continue into the new year and beyond, we can overcome them through resilience and co-operation – just as we have been doing over the past nine months, and as Ragus has experienced first-hand throughout its storied legacy.

Ragus manufactures pure sugars and syrups for industry. To learn more about our rich sugar heritage, watch this video. To find out more about our portfolio of pure sugar products, contact a member of our customer services team on +44 (0)1753 575353 or sales@ragus.co.uk. For more sugar news and Ragus updates, follow Ragus on LinkedIn.