How did the British maintain an effective blockade of Germany in WWI? The distant blockade required vast resources. The policy of blockading neutrals and other unlawful matters aroused international consternation and required public relations campaigns of great depth.

The policy of buying cargos declared contraband at market rates was ruinous. The policy of buying out commodity markets to prevent other powers purchasing, for example nitrates, was also ruinous. The UK became a compulsory purchaser of last resort for at least 55% of Germany’s former imports, effectively 10% of pre-war German GDP,(wiki, archives) and that this would be necessarily purchased via gold backing or on credit dependent on the primary neutral which the blockade incensed. The composition of these purchases were not dictated by the UK’s war needs, but by Germany’s former trade arrangements.

How did the UK manage to piece together these policies, keep them effective, and avoid the wroth of major mercantile and trading neutrals such as the US over its illegal blockade?

Sources: - https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blockade_of_Germany - http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/firstworldwar/spotlights/blockade.htm

The Wikipedia article lacks much on the “How” of the mechanics and is entirely deficient on the institutional and economic capacities of the UK to develop and implement these policies.

  • 3
    OK, you should know the drill: You've made a lot of strong claims (about "ruinous" policies and "illegal" blockades) and you need to support them with sources.
    – Spencer
    Commented Nov 18, 2018 at 22:36
  • Simple - it bankrupted the largest and richest Empire the world had heretofore seen. Commented Nov 19, 2018 at 0:27
  • At least some of your questions appear to be answered by the Cabinet memorandum of 1 Jan 1917 which is cited by Wikipedia and linked from the National Archives Spotlight on History page. Commented Nov 19, 2018 at 0:45
  • 2
    Maybe you should insert the relevant sections of the sources you cite, because I fail to see any support for your claims in either of them (the Wikipedia article BTW seems to be lifted straight from the UK National Archives article).
    – Spencer
    Commented Nov 19, 2018 at 1:04
  • Am a bit baffled by the use of "mechanics" (ie for naval, ships, tactics etc) and "piece policies together" (ie diplomacy, PR etc) Is it one, the other or both? Commented Jan 8, 2019 at 18:08

1 Answer 1


Question 1
How did the British maintain an effective blockade of Germany in WWI?

The British had the largest navy in the world at the time and a lot of experience going back hundreds of years in blockades.

In WWI the British declared the British Channel and North Sea war zones. A similar blockade was maintained in the Adriatic Sea, with French and Italian aid. Neutral shipping were technically permitted to continue trading at their own risk when traversing the war zone. This was a technicality because the British contraband list was extensive and became more extensive as the war continued. The British mined these war zones and required all neutral shipping to dock at British ports. Once in port they would submit to inspection before being escorted through the mine fields less any contraband cargo headed to Germany, Austro Hungary or Ottoman Empire. Most neutral countries caught with contraband would have their ships and cargo confiscated. The United States which was officially neutral early one, complained about this policy and their contraband cargo would be purchased by the British and their ships would be released.

The policy of buying cargos declared contraband at market rates was ruinous.

Not as ruinous as it was for the central powers. The British blockade caused mass starvation, food riots, and in Germany a compulsory work program for men between the ages of 17 and 60. It also sparked the Germans to impose their own blockade through the use of unrestrictive u-boat warfare. This in turn was a major cause for the United States declaring for the allies against the central powers later in the war.


  • How did the blockade affect the Netherlands and Denmark, neutral nations in the conflict but located inside the blockade area? I've heard of shortages in the Netherlands, but nothing near starvation level deprivations. And I know there was active smuggling of many things from the Netherlands to Germany (my grandmother was personally involved in that, regularly went to Germany to sell things like soap on the black market there).
    – jwenting
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 6:29

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