Netherlands during WW1: an Island

Countries will have to rely more on their own resources: Not not by culture, but since there is a lot of outside world, with ever more people that will need their own resources… It will be more difficult to import more and more resources, that will be scarcer as well. Can a country like the Netherlands fulfill their own needs? Currently we have a Ecological footprint of 6 times our country size. Can we reduce this to within our own borders? Exploring this, I found an answer going back around 100 years, and not far away: my own country, the Netherlands, during World War I. The Netherlands remained independent during that period and was not at war. However, it was surrounded by countries that were fighting each other , and cut off from normal distribution as developed during the first decades of the Industrial Revolution. Initially, there was an escape from this isolated position: import and export via the sea routes, mainly to the US. But as the war developed, the Germans started a “ submarine war” and this route was cut off too. The Netherlands had become an island, amidst countries fighting each other in a terrible war. This had serious consequences, as we will see.


Illustration 1: WW1 , fuel shortages: Police control of the distribution of coal.

rom the very start of WWI, the Dutch had to start re-arranging their flow of goods. The first measure taken in 1914 was a law banning the export of many goods. This was initially based on the fear of becoming involved in the war and having to fight too: leather exports were abandoned to preserve leather for soldiers’ boots, for example. But the list was long, 50 or 60 items at the beginning and expanding over time. Many food sources, metals, horses, fuels, gold and even bicycles were on the list.

During the course of the war, shortages of all kinds started to influence daily life and led to riots of all kinds. Bread transports, meat transports and potato ships were plundered.

In 1916, fuel became a real problem and the “coal ship riots” took place. People were desperate for (heating) fuel, plundering coal transports and demanding government measures. A rationing scheme was introduced, whereby everyone was entitled to 10 hl (hectolitres) of anthracite, heating stove coal or equivalent fuel (brown coal, peat). It was also in this period that the winter and summer time were introduced to reduce need for artificial light.

By 1917, the situation had got worse. In Amsterdam, the “potato uprisings” took place. Food became a critical issue. The government decided to introduce a distribution scheme: everyone was entitled to a maximum of 4 kg potatoes a week. Meat was a big issue at that moment and the government decided to abandon the existing pork rationing and to turn to beef, because: “agricultural land used for the production of pig feed should be made available to feed people. And eating beef cattle meant a further reduction in animal feed (for the cows). In other words, the Dutch slowly moved towards vegetarianism, due to the lack of production land.

Illustration 2: potato uprisings Amsterdam 1917

That was not all. It became apparent that the productivity of the land was decreasing, the country was running out of artificial fertilizer. A new ministerial agency was established to manage the fertilizers in society… Needless to say, building construction was practically 0 at that time.

During the last year, 1918, land and its productivity where under such stress that the government introduced the “land ripping law”, a law entitling local governments to claim land from private persons, even gardens, to add to the agricultural area. Some municipalities like Utrecht developed ‘urban farming’ to help reduce the food shortages.

In 1918 the war ended, but for many years the Dutch maintained a special agency for fertilisers and other remnants from the war. It is ironical to read a national newspaper article from 5 years after the war, knowing what we know now, stating:

Blijvende aanwinst uit de distributie zelf is ook de zooveel grootere onafhankelijkheid, waarin wij verkeeren ten aanzien van kolenvoorziening uit het buitenland, wat van moeilijk te overschatten beteekenis is.”

Translated: “The continued advantage resulting from the distribution (during WWI) is the vastly increased independence from coal imports, whose value can hardly be overestimated.
”(The Dutch developed their own coal mines which were closed again in the sixties). Nowadays, it’s hard to believe that we were happy to have our own coal-based energy system…

Its now, hundred years later, a ironical message: knowing that we try everything to get rid of coal power plants, and fossil fuels in general. We want to become independent again, we are even forced by the circumstances: material scarcity and climate change. Now on a global scale, and for sure political scarcity: The Netherlands has no metal sources for instance, and with growing amount of people worldwide, claiming the same resource consumption as the industrialised world, there is less for each to go around. And they will claim their own resources.

We are forced to live of our own land again: renewable energy, biobased material, vegetarian food. For food we can survive, just, with a vegetarian diet, if we manage the land properly. But materials? In any case no metals, we will have to live from biomass: vegetarian for every resource.

Back to the old day, forced to become more nationalistic. Own resources first, so to say. And the rpessure rises, and it will take enormous effort to to establish that without potato riots, and energy uprisings…. But we have the example to learn form: the Netherlands as an island during World War I.

sources ( Dutch)

[1] eco footprint is 6,34 ha/cap , available biocapacity globally is 1,8, but within the Netherlands just 1.03 ha/cap:

[2] Of Geweld Zal Worden Gebruikt !: Militaire Bijstand Bij De Handhaving En Het Herstel Van De Openbare Orde 1840-1920, Auteur: R. van der Wal


Author: ronald rovers