The Comite des Forges represented a powerful group of iron and steel producers whose links with the French government were so dominant that the two were often as one. Imitating the American business practice by which major manufacturing heavy industry companies acted together in monopolistic collusion, the Comite des Forges harmonised its prices and liaised with other international iron and steel groups which completely dominated the world market. The Comite was the epitome of capitalist power structure in France. [1] It bound together individual iron and steel companies by strict agreements on quotas and prices. These ranged from large conglomerates like the Comptoir Siderurgique de France to smaller units like the Comptoir des Rails.

Portrait of Comite des Forges with Wendel (2nd left seated) and Schneider (4th left seated).

The Comite neither sold nor produced products. It acted in a far more subtle manner, retaining political, strategic and economic influence by means of elected politicians and well financed propaganda. The Comite des Forges had no subsidiaries, though its members paid annual dues to the central treasury based on the size of their output and number of employees. Under the leadership of the President of the Comite this power-bloc controlled all of the major iron and steelworks in France through regional committees in Loire, Nord, l’Est, Miniere d’Alscace-Lorraine, Forges de Lorraine and Champagne. It controlled regional and national press. It influenced the French Foreign Office at the Quai d’Orsay and many top level national politicians emerged from these roots in later years. [2]

Its first President was Eugene Schneider, a director of the Creusot Company, Depute for Saone-et-Loire and at one point, Minister of Agriculture and Commerce. He grew rich on the monopoly gained from the French government to supply armaments and railway construction material. [3] The French navy purchased its armour plate from Schneider Creusot which became a market leader in naval artillery. [4] Eugene Schneider was also a director of the Credit-Lyonnais and a founder of Banque de L’Union Parisienne. A mutually supportive blueprint for success emerged from the turn of the century where arms firms, government ministers and banks collaborated at the highest level to win foreign orders and maximise profits. [5]

Francois de Wendel

Before the war began, the Comite des Forges appointed Francois de Wendel as its president, the man dubbed by the socialist leader Joseph Caillaux as ‘the symbol of the plutocracy’. He embodied every aspect of the industrial elite in France. Elected Deputy to the National Assembly, acknowledged as a maitre de forges (iron master) from a dynastic line of iron and steel producers, Wendel became a Regent of the Banque of France and worked closely in conjunction with his great ally, Edouard de Rothschild. [6] Coming from a family which suffered the embarrassment of being torn in two when Lorraine was ceded to Germany in 1871, Francois was deeply anti-German and a strong supporter of Raymond Poincare and his Revanchist party.

His father, Henri Wendel remained behind in the annexed section of Lorraine as a subject of the new German Empire in order to keep control of the family’s extensive industrial interests there. Indeed he quickly reoriented his political loyalties and was elected to the Reichstag as a Representative for Lorraine from 1881-1890. In like vein his cousin Charles sat in the Reichstag from 1907-1911. Thus the Wendel family retained both its political and economic interests on both sides of the border, with Francois in the French National Assembly and his father and cousin in the Reichstag. Together they owned the mines and factories, the plants and smelters in Briey and Thionville.

The Wendels completely controlled French iron and steel supplies. With the Germans allowed unchallenged ownership of the Briey basin in August 1914, there was precious little left for the French iron and steel industry. Although the Comite des Forges was permitted to import 19,0000 tons of metal from Britain each month, nothing happened for seven months. At which point a tried and tested method was itself imported into the system. Just as the British appointed J.P. Morgan as their sole agent for all purchases from the United States, so the French government decided to approve a single agent to purchase the importation of iron and steel; it was Francois de Wendel’s brother,  Hubert. The French military attaché in London responsible for overseeing the purchasing agent was de Wendel’s brother in law, General de la Penouze. It only got worse. In the ministry of munitions in Paris, responsibility for checking these vital imports rested with a director of the Comite des Forges’s bank [7]  who was given the rank of captain and raised to the position of general secretary of the Commission of Woods and Metals. [8] When accusations were made of speculation and profiteering in the iron and steel industries towards the end of 1915, they were referred to the Committee of Markets at the Chamber of Deputies and duly investigated by its most experienced member, Francois de Wendel. Three years later the Chamber of Deputies was still waiting on the report. [9]

Can there be any wonder why both during the war and at the end of that terrible conflict the Wendels were accused of using their immense power to protect their vast mineral assets at Briey and Thionville? The mineral rich Briey basin extending to the left bank of the Moselle around Thionville was the Wendel’s personal fiefdom. They owned it, they ran the great mines and factories, they represented the people both in the French Assembly and the German Reichstag, they patronised the Catholic Church and owned the local newspapers. From 1906, Francois Wendel subsidised L’Echo de Lorraine and the family controlled Le Journal de Debats, a loss-making political journal which was sent free to every teacher in Wendel’s electoral district.[10]

When in 1919 bitter accusations were raised against him in the French National Assembly, and in particular the charge that he had blocked the destruction of the Briey steelworks, Francoise Wendel haughtily dismissed them. He cited a list of generals who claimed either not to have had the technology capable of such long-ranged destruction, or who considered the target inappropriate as a military objective. [11] Accusations that the Comite des Forges had paid a pliant journalist to write an article in Le Temps in 1916 were rejected on the basis that according to Francoise Wendel, President of the Comite itself, it did not have a publicity fund. This was truly an outrageous claim since the Comite controlled whole swathes of the press. The story written by Max Hoschiller suggested that the destruction of the Briey complex would not substantially weaken Germany, a ridiculous claim that flew in the face of every other assessment. [12]

Wendel and members of the comite des forges are included in the international group often referred to as The Merchants of Death

Unsurprisingly, the Regent of the Banque de France, President of the Comite des Forges, Deputy of the National Assembly and international associate of the global munitions family, a friend and colleague of the Paris Rothschilds and long term supporter of President Poincare survived these attacks relatively unscathed. The verdict of supportive historians was that ‘none of these claims about a Wendelian conspiracy were ever substantiated or corroborated’. [13] The reader must make her /his own decision as to what can be defined as corroboration when key documents are missing or destroyed and the wealth of the Wendel family is given a higher priority than the lives it cost. But such a focus on one family, one example, no matter how pertinent, could deflect the spotlight away from a greater influence.

[1] Jean Noel Jeanneney, Francois de Wendel en Republique, L’Argent et le Pouvoir, Revuie Historique, T. 257, Fasc. 2 (522) Avril-Juin 1977, pp.495-498.
[2] Congressional Record for March 6 and 12, 1934, Text of the Nye Resolution to Investigate America’s Armament Makers, United States Government Printing Office Washington : 1934; 52620 – 10175. Article from Fortune Magazine, 22 May 1934, A Primer on Europe’s Armament Makers who prolong War and disturb Peace.
[3]Carroll Quigley, Tragedy and Hope, p.518.
[4] David Stevenson, Armaments and the Coming of War: Europe, 1904-1914, p.29.
[5] Ibid., p.30.
[6] Michael J Rust, The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 37, issue 2, June 1977, p.531.
[7] The Demanchy Bank was controlled by the Comite des Forges.
[8] Clarence K Streit, Where Iron Is, There Is The Fatherland, pp.24-25.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Harold James, Family Capitalism, p.185.
[11]Ibid., p.186.
[12] Streit, Where Iron Is, There Is The Fatherland,  pp.29-32.
[13] James, Family Capitalism, p.187.