Thanks to the secret Contraband Committee, trade between neutral nations and Norway, Sweden and Denmark flourished as never before. Despite the blockade that nominally operated in the North Sea, the scandalous decisions of the Contraband Committee in London meant that trade in the supplies, commodities and material vital to the continuation of the war continued virtually unchecked for over two years and Scandinavia prospered. From the very first days of war, merchants and importers in Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, Helsingborg and Malmo found themselves inundated with orders from Germany to supply thousands of tons of animal feed, foodstuffs, ores, cotton and coal. Purchased from the Americas, North and South, from Britain and the British Empire, from other neutral countries world-wide these imports literally bounced from the quay-sides and dockyards to the goods trains and canal boats that ferried them to their final destination. Germany.

Map of Scandinavia showing major portsScandinavian merchants made profits beyond their wildest dreams because Germany was willing to pay grossly inflated prices to guarantee these vital supplies. [1] Denmark, and Holland too, became Germany’s sea-based importers while Sweden served additionally as her workshop. In an international game of charades, neutral ships were moderately inconvenienced in the north sea gateways to and from the Atlantic, but the loss of time was more than compensated by the immense profits that were made in America, in Scandinavia, and in Britain, for British merchants also traded unashamedly, but secretly, with the enemy.

The volume of trade that was permitted to pass across the North Sea exceeded all previous quantities. It literally saved Germany from starvation and allowed her to continue to fight the war. British trade with Scandinavia was justified by the British government on the grounds that guarantees were in place to ensure that Germany would not benefit by these exports, but the given pledges were worthless. The Secret Elite in London knew full well what was taking place for the straightforward reason that they were facilitating it. They controlled the Contraband Committee and it in turn controlled the gateways to trade. Government departments like the Foreign Office, the Admiralty and the Board of Trade knew precisely what was happening. The evidence was presented to them, but to no avail. As the British Naval attache in Scandinavia stated, ‘All representations, facts and trustworthy analysis presented to the British government about what was happening were disregarded.’ [2]

In addition to its naval supremacy, Britain boasted another strategic advantage. She held vast reserves of the next most important weapon for waging war, coal. Scandinavia had little or none. Germany had stockpiles sufficient to cover only a limited period and their shortage of coal soon gave cause for grave concern. Some was available from outside her borders. None of the Belgian coal mines had been destroyed by their retreating army, and Germany was ‘able to extricate herself from a very difficult position with Belgian coal.’ [3] But that in itself was insufficient.

The hot summer of 1914 had resulted in a surplus of British coal available for export and initially no national embargo was placed on it. Coal merchants were asked by the Admiralty not to supply ships suspected of trading on the enemy’s behalf, but that was the only restriction placed on them before May 1915. An appeal to patriotism, to do the decent ‘British’ thing, was considered sufficient, but the moral compass of the profiteer had no place for such a sentiment. British coal was always in high demand.

Colliery on Wearside showing trucks full of coal

It was recognised across the world as a high quality product, especially for the purpose of generating steam power. The boilers in warships were designed for burning Welsh coal, and railway locomotives for English coal. Consett records that in Denmark alone, State railways, gas works, electrical light and power stations, even breweries were dependent almost entirely on British coal. [4] The irony here is that Britain was supplying coal to Denmark, and Danish and German locomotives were carrying food and war materials to the heart of Germany in trains fuelled by British coal.

Coal was power. And it was a power that the British government could well have used to good effect if its export to Scandinavia had been immediately curtailed. Admiral Consett wrote of

‘Special fast trains packed with fish, the staple diet of many of the Danes, carried it to Germany, when fish was unprocurable in Denmark; incidentally, be it mentioned, the trains were run on British coal, and the fishing tackle was supplied by Great Britain.’ [5]

Most of the merchantmen in the Atlantic depended on British coal, and bunkering stations were scattered widely around the world to provide the necessary supply to the fleets of the Empire. An effective and instant blockade could have been introduced in August 1914 simply by denying coal to any ship suspected of trading directly or indirectly with the enemy. The Scandinavians expected that British coal supplies would be restricted or perhaps even entirely cut off on the outbreak of war, and were well aware that industrial and military disorganisation would rapidly ensue. The curtailment of coal supplies at the very start of the war would have had the most deadly effect. No coal meant no power, limited transport, no heat, no factory production. It spelled disaster for Germany.

Swedish factories and manufacturers were in the main working for Germany, yet no effort was made in Britain to control or limit the supply of coal which continued to be exported to them until the end of 1915. Indeed, British coal fuelled the transport of Sweden’s invaluable iron ore to Germany, yet it was not until the spring of 1918 that any serious attempt was made to compel Sweden to reduce her exports to Germany. The Germans continued to purchase all the necessary imports for weapons production until the end of the war ‘through the prodigal supplies of coal from her foolish and gullible enemy.’ [6] It beggars belief. And all the while the government was exhorting British coal miners to do their patriotic duty and work harder digging coal for the British war effort.

Digging for coal Rear-Admiral Consett had no idea that it was not foolishness and gullibility that led to this, but a very deliberate policy of the British government. He noted that ‘Throughout the war, and particularly during the first two years, large numbers of German railway trucks were to be seen in all three countries. These trucks were hauled to and from Germany with British coal. According to various newspaper reports the State railways were handling so much traffic to and from Germany that local requirements had frequently to be neglected. Not only were we actively assisting German trade in Scandinavia, but we were performing valuable transport services for the enemy.’ [7]

There was another side to this raw profiteering. The loss of coal to exports impacted on the ordinary people of Britain. In 1915, Walter Runciman, President of the Board of Trade, was alarmed at the exorbitant coal prices that were crushing the poor in the great cities of Britain, especially London. In February of that year The Times reported that coal bought at 21 shillings per ton at the pit mouth sold in London for 32 shillings per ton with further rises imminent. [8] Concerned MPs talked of the privileged class of colliery owners who, even with fixed prices at the pit head, had become millionaires. [9] Unquestionably coal owners controlled the price and, certainly in London, the London Coal Exchange coal-ring ensured that prices remained excessive. [10] While tens of thousands of miners, around twenty per cent of the workforce, volunteered for Kitchener’s army, the families they left behind were faced with coal price increases of a criminal nature.

Coal venders selling briquettes

The poor were at the mercy of coal merchants and hawkers who went round the streets selling small quantities of coal at exorbitant prices. Living hand to mouth, and having to make critical decisions between food or fuel, the poor city dweller bore the brunt of the mercenaries’ callous profiteering. [11] On the other hand, as was pointed out by MP Sir E Markham, the rich could easily buy however much coal they needed from Harrods (acting as the middleman) because they could afford the price. [12] Yet the politicians would have it that ‘we were all in this together.’ We were not. As ever it was the poor who bore the brunt.

Despite the desperate need at home, British coal continued to be exported to neutral countries. In September 1914, Sweden alone received 633,000 tons, a seventh of her whole yearly requirement. Scandinavian ships, using British bunkers, began to pour millions of tons of re-exports into Germany via Scandinavian ports. [13] The total amount of British coal exported to Scandinavia, from the outbreak of war up to the end of 1917, was 21,632,180 tons. [14] How many innocents froze to death in slums and hovels during those awful war winters, victims too of the mercenary instincts of the war profiteer?

That is another point which has been long neglected. Britain’s success in the bitter struggle against Germany depended on two factors, man power and the blockade. In other words the country had both to use its own working capacity to the utmost for war purposes, and reduce the enemy’s productivity and resources by means of the blockade. Britain’s policy on the export of coal conflicted with both these conditions. The argument could be made that our man-power was being employed indirectly for the benefit of the enemy. Hard working miners, struggling against the odds to increase output with a much decreased labour force, were, in effect, helping to maintain the enemy’s productivity because much of their coal ended up in Germany. [15] Had they known that they were digging for the enemy, the government would have fallen. The scandal of cotton was matched only by that of coal. Indeed a powerful case could be argued. that those who permitted it betrayed their nation and were guilty of a vile form of treason.

[1] George F S Bowles, The Strength of England, p. 193.
[2] M W W P Consett, The Triumph of Unarmed Forces, pp. x-xvi.
[3] Ibid., pp. 113-4.
[4] Ibid., p. 118.
[5] Ibid., p. xiii.
[6] Ibid., pp. 119–122.
[7] Ibid., pp. 127-8.
[8] The Times, 18 February, 1915.
[9] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 22 July, 1915, vol. 73, cc1674-1794.
[10] Hansard, House of Commons Debate 19 July 1915, vol. 73, cc1196-272.
[11] Hansard, House of Commons Debate, 27 July 1915, vol. 73, cc2159-84.
[12] Hansard, House of Common Debate 19 July 1915, vol. 73, cc1196-272.
[13] Consett, Triumph of Unarmed Forces, p. 119.
[14] Ibid., p. 130.
[15] Ibid., pp. 131-2.