Almost two years before the outbreak of war, the Secret Sub-Committee set up in Whitehall to advise the prime minister, the Committee of Imperial Defence, considered how Britain should approach trading with the enemy in what they knew to be the approaching war. Its conclusions put raw cotton at the top of a list of goods prohibited from export to Germany. [1] This was not what the Foreign Office had intended so an appendix was drafted by their representative C J B Hurst highlighting the risks involved in alienating America by such a policy [2] Cotton was consequently removed secretly from the initial list of contraband with calamitous effect for Allied troops on the Western Front.

Cotton steamer on the Mississippi

During the first year of the war cotton was not included in the contraband list, and the blockading squadron had no authority to stop its transportation to Germany. Comprising 90 per cent cellulose, cotton was essential for explosives production. Cellulose is inflammable, but when treated with nitric and sulphuric acid it becomes the basic substance for a large group of explosives and propellants. Cotton was to the munitions industry what bricks were to the housing trade. When war broke out Germany immediately imported as much cotton as possible through her neighbouring neutral Scandinavian countries. In the pre-war years Sweden, Norway and Denmark maintained relatively constant annual imports of the material, but from August 1914, these suddenly and dramatically increased.

Though there was incredulity at the decision, the British government confirmed in October 1914 that cotton would not be declared contraband. Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, British Ambassador in Washington was instructed to reassure the American Secretary of State on the matter. He immediately sent a letter to William Jennings Bryan with an assurance given on behalf of Sir Edward Grey that, ‘Cotton has not been put in any of our lists of contraband, and, as your department must be aware, it is not intended to include it in our new list of contraband. It is, therefore, as far as Germany is concerned, on the free list and will remain there.’ [3] So there can be no doubt. The British government held open the door for Germany to import the most vital of constituents for explosive projectiles, and ensured that the Americans could continue to export cotton without fear of retribution.

Thereafter, the United States shipped 3,353,638 one-hundred pound bales of cotton to Scandinavia and Holland during the first five months of 1915 while previous shipments to these countries had averaged only 200,000 bales. The vast bulk of the excess was forwarded to Germany. British businessmen were quick to take advantage of the bonanza and made large profits by boosting the cotton trade to neutral countries which bordered Germany. Huge amounts of American cotton were also imported into Britain for munitions manufacture, but between January and May 1915, cotton dealers in England re-exported 504,000 one-hundred pound bales of that cotton to Scandinavia. This was around fifteen times higher that a comparative five month period. For example, between April and May 1915, Sweden imported 17,331 tons of cotton (pre-war imports for the same time-period averaged 3,900 tons) of which 1,500 tons came directly from Britain. Holland virtually doubled her cotton imports during the month of April to 16,217 tons, of which 5,352 tons were exported from Britain. At the same time British re-exports to countries which did not border Germany were considerably reduced. [4] It was a scandal.

millions of heavy artillery shells were manufactured in WW1 with cotton as a propellant

Millions of German shells rained death on Allied troops on the front line propelled by high explosives that were dependant on cotton purchased from Britain. Sweden’s total importation of cotton in 1913 was 24,800 tons, of which 1,940 tons came from Britain and the Empire. In 1915 there was a five fold increase to 123,200 tons with 10,300 tons exported from Britain. Sweden’s export of cotton to Germany increased from 236 tons in 1913 to 76,000 tons in 1915. [5] Before any finger is pointed at others who profiteered from the war, the first and most disgusting culprits came from Britain herself.

Though Britain generously contributed to German cotton imports by ensuring its re-export through Scandinavia, most of the produce came from America where the right to sell cotton to any buyer was steadfastly defended, and cotton millionaires prospered as never before. The British Government had been offered the option to buy up much of the 1914 crop from the United States at a comparatively low price, but the proposition was never taken up. [6] Asquith’s government made no attempt to challenge the Cotton Lobby in America. Indeed Lord Robert Cecil, under-secretary for foreign affairs in the coalition government, and a member of the Secret Elite, [7] insisted in Parliament on 12 July 1915 that Britain had a responsibility ‘to respect the legitimate rights of neutrals’ and take into consideration the needs of both America and the Scandinavian countries. [8] His excuse was that if the cotton supply to neutrals was cut off it ‘would land us in international difficulties.’ Members of parliament ‘could not understand this cowardly policy in keeping cotton out of the contraband list.’ [9] No-one could. The British public was outraged and feeling was so strong that Lord Cecil was called a ‘murderer of his own countrymen.’ [10]

Commander Keble Chatterton of the Royal Navy could not hide his disgust that the government continued to ignore the loud demands that cotton supplies to Germany be stopped.

‘It was pathetic to know that Germany had obtained practically all she wanted of the last American cotton crop via neutral countries, though we could have stopped almost the whole lot… So long as the Blockading Fleet was left alone to do its persistent duties, Germany was doomed… She had gambled on a short, quick victory – and lost. Nothing could now save her from eventual collapse except some further folly that might issue from Whitehall.’ [11]

Germany should have been doomed. The blockading squadrons were doing their duty but, as we have demonstrated, were repeatedly obstructed by Foreign Office intervention. And, of course, there were further ‘follies’, but what transpired was much more sinister than mere folly. In late June 1915, British delegates were sent to an Anglo-Swedish conference on cotton in Stockholm, and the result was that Britain permitted Sweden to import even more cotton. Despite all of the clamour raised against cotton exports, the Secret Elite continued to have their way.

American ambassador at London, Walter Hines Page

The Foreign Office historian Archibald Bell recorded that, in complete contrast, the government in France consistently urged that cotton should be declared contraband. The French were astonished to learn through their ambassador that Sir Edward Grey had actually recommended that the British cabinet relax the blockade. The American ambassador at London, Walter Hines Page, a man ‘on intimate terms’ with Sir Edward Grey, reported to Washington in mid-July: “I think that the government will make a vigorous effort to resist the agitation to make cotton contraband, with what result I cannot predict.” [12]

Such was the wide-ranging clamour against cotton being exempt from contraband that The Times published a letter on 20 July 1915 from ‘A Neutral’ which raised the issue to a higher level. It hit a chord with public anguish by reporting that, ‘the mothers of French soldiers think it inconceivable that you should her supplying the enemy with the means of killing the sons of your allies. French people are continually asking, “What is the English fleet doing to allow cotton to go into Germany?” [13] Next day The Times responded through its editorial pages and raised the question of exportation of cotton and rubber to Germany, and of the ‘inadequacy of the steps so far taken by the British government to prevent these vitally important products from reaching an enemy destination,’ which was arousing serious anxiety both at home and abroad. A further alarming point was raised by the Consulting Chemist to the Crown, Bertram Blount, that ‘there can be no doubt that if cotton had been made absolute contraband from the start the Russians would not now be retreating. If the proper steps had been taken at the beginning of the war to prevent Germany from obtaining supplies of cotton, the British and French troops would now be operating on German soil.’ [14] Here, from the pen of a government scientist was proof that the allies had been denied a quick victory. He had no notion that the war was being deliberately prolonged.

shell-shocked WW1

Despite the widespread disgust in Britain that cotton was being allowed into Germany to make the bombs and bullets that were killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers, the government repeatedly stated they they could not place it on the contraband list for fear of losing American support. They held out against the swell of public opinion and attempted to justify their inaction. Figures were later produced to make it appear that the cotton exports were not as great as had been widely reported. Lord Lansdowne, former Conservative Foreign Secretary and trusted member of the Secret Elite, told the House of Lords:

‘Take the import of cotton to Scandinavia and Holland. The figure for 1913 is 73,000 tons. The figure for 1915 is 310,000 tons. That is a very alarming figure – an increase nearly fourfold. But if you make the comparison that I conceive ought to be made, and compare the year, not as a whole, but month by month, you will find – I put it this way for convenience sake – that in the last six months of 1913 the amount was 49,000 tons and for the last six months of 1915 was 52,000 tons.’ [15]

This was supposed to demonstrate an important turning point to the advantage of the Allies, but Rear-Admiral Consett worked through the statistics properly. He proved that while it could be argued that the last six months of the year comparison showed only a 3,000 ton increase, the growth in the first six months of the year was from 24,000 tons in 1913 to a stunning 258,000 tons in 1915.[16] Lansdowne omitted to point out that the availability of cotton depended on the harvest. It took place in the autumn and through the latter part of the year, and consequently was only ready for exportation in the early months of the following year. There was always going to be a massive difference between statistics at different points in the cycle, but the Government manipulated the facts to indicate an improving situation.

French War dead 1914-18

Other factors intervened. The implications for maintaining the status quo were staggering. The men in the trenches, the families of those already sacrificed, the ordinary people in Britain and France would not have allowed the government to continue their ludicrous policy. Feelings were running high. It had been all very well for the leader of the Secret Elite, Alfred Milner, to instruct his supporters to ‘disregard the screamers’ [17] during the Boer War, but in an era of total war such high-handed disregard for public opinion was critically dangerous. In 1914 it had been simple to neutralise opposition to the war. One year on the climate had changed. When MPs like the Liberal Sir Henry Dalziel refused to be muzzled on the cotton scandal no matter the implication for his career, [18 ] the writing was on the wall. The Secret Elite urgently needed an exit strategy. Their solution was to announce that the Americans no longer objected to cotton as a contraband.

Suddenly the claim was made that the munition contracts placed in America by Britain and France had increased their domestic consumption of cotton to the extent that loss of the German market would hardly be felt by big business. Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, British ambassador at Washington reported that President Wilson was ‘quite satisfied’ that cotton should now be placed on the contraband list. [19] It smacked of the ‘old pal’s act.’

On 21 August 1915 , Alfred Milner, gave an interview to the New York Times in which he ‘supposed’ that the British government and their advisers ‘did not realise in the early months of the war that a vast demand for cotton for military purposes would arise.’[20] What puerile nonsense. The Committee of Imperial Defence had put cotton at the top of the list of contraband in 1912. Its subsequent removal had been a deliberate act approved by the Secret Elite.

Raw cotton, cotton waste and cotton yarn were finally placed on the contraband list on 22 August 1915.

[1] PRO CAB 16/18A, p. 45.
[2] PRO CAB 16/18 pp. 424-6.
[3] Archibald Bell, A History of the Blockade of Germany. http://www.wintersonnenwende.com/scriptorium/english/archives/blockade/bgy15.html
[4] Ibid.
[5] Rear Admiral Montague Consett, The Triumph of Unarmed Forces (1914-1918), p. 221.
[6] Lord Sydenham of Combe, Studies of An Imperialist, London 1928 p. 3.
[7] Carroll Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment, p. 313
[8] Hansard House of Commons Debate 12 July 1915, vol. 73, cc719-20.
[9] E Keble Chatterton, The Big Blockade, p. 167.
[10] Bell, A History of the Blockade of Germany http://www.wintersonnenwende.com/scriptorium/english/archives/blockade/bgy15.html
[11] Chatterton, The Big Blockade, pp. 166-167.
[12] Bell, A History of the Blockade of Germany. http://www.wintersonnenwende.com/scriptorium/english/archives/blockade/bgy15.html
[13] The Times 20 July 1915, p. 7.
[14] The Times 21 July, 1915, p. 8.
[15] Lord Lansdowne House of Lords Debate, 22 February 1916 vol 21 cc97-98.
[16] Consett, The Triumph of Unarmed Forces, pp. 264-5.
[17] Gerry Docherty and Jim Macgregor, Hidden History, The Secret Origins of the First World War, p. 53.
[18] Hansard House of Commons, 12 July, 1915 vol. 73 cc712-13.
[19] Bell, A History of the Blockade of Germany. http://www.wintersonnenwende.com/scriptorium/english/archives/blockade/bgy15.html
[20] Viscount Milner, Cotton Contraband, libcudl.colorado.edu/wwi/pdf/i73516569.pdf