Crowds of young men desperate to recruit in London, August 1914Despite all the advantages which private British armaments companies enjoyed, the supply of guns, shells and ammunition was hindered by the infighting, lack of co-ordination and traditional red-tape that haunted the War Office when war broke out. Richard Haldane’s reforms from 1906 onwards had created the small, well-armed British Expeditionary Force, but leadership of the army was controlled absolutely through the ‘Roberts Academy’ [1] which remained wedded to the primacy of cavalry regiments and was rooted not in the coming war, but in the Boer War. Britain’s reserves of shells in 1914 were reckoned to be two and a half times greater than they had been in 1899. [2] The requirements had been based on guess-work and assumptions, covering a notional supply for four major battles of three days duration each over the first two months. [3] No-one suggested otherwise in August 1914. Lloyd George’s later condemnation of the War Office was biased. He blamed their failures on ‘traditional reactionism’ which based future wars on past, but irrelevant, glories. [4] But take care. As we will show in future blogs, Lloyd George had his own vested interest in painting a ‘history’ which flattered his insight and actions.

While the volunteers pressed themselves through recruiting stations in the vain expectation that they would see off the Germans before Christmas, little thought had been given to the fact that there were insufficient rifles, cannon, machine guns, mortars, uniforms or basic equipment on hand for the eager young men who signed in droves. The stark truth that you will rarely read in history books is that the Cabinet anticipated around 100,000 volunteers when Kitchener’s campaign began in 1914, but the swell of public enthusiasm obliged them to raise the limit to 500,000 and then beyond.

Of volunteers there was no scarcity. But what use was this, even had they been given competent leadership from their Generals, when they did not have explosive shells, sufficient machine guns, aircraft or artillery?

British Cavalry, 1914

There were horses; 25,000 in 1914 and over half a million had been used by the end of the war. When horses and men faced explosive shells and machine-gun enfilades, the result was inevitable. The Roberts Academy, so trusted by the Secret Elite, proved inadequate for the task. They had prepared for the wrong war. Of course Sir Henry Wilson had liaised with his French counterparts, and his regular visits to Flanders and the North of France between 1908-1914 identified precisely where the BEF would go, but they failed collectively to anticipate the nature of this twentieth century war.

The national arsenals, (they were called Royal Arsenals) at Woolwich, Enfield Lock and Waltham Abbey had been in decline since the end of the Boer War and much of their machinery was run down. [5] The private munitions companies had largely specialised in ship-building and naval contracts but Vickers at Newcastle, Armstrong, Whitworth at Elswick and the Birmingham Small Arms Company also diversified into other engineering ventures including motorbikes, cars and airplanes. On the one hand the potential for increased production existed in theory, but the practice turned into a nightmare of red tape, tradition, pig-headedness, self-interest and greed.

War Office procedures choked under the volume of newly placed orders. The Ordnance Department had only ever dealt with a small circle of approved contractors and was reluctant to expand its suppliers. The years of underinvestment in the Royal Arsenals reaped an embarrassing dividend. They were not fit for purpose. Privately, many of the recognised contractors accepted orders that they could not complete within the required timescale and, at the same time, committed themselves to undertake massive additional orders from the Russian government. Greed is a powerful master, and these men were in a position to maximise the benefits for themselves, so the armaments’ ring talked of the risk of over-expansion. What would happen to them if they built new factories and the war was indeed over by Christmas?

The mind-set of the Roberts Academy had been moulded by the criticism made during the Boer War that the War Office had not provided sufficient shrapnel. It was outstandingly the most effective shell in the open veld.

A barrage over Ypres

The western front was a completely different battleground. It quickly became a stalemate. The high explosive shell, used to such shattering effect by the German howitzers, had not been part of their original strategic thinking. [6] Mobility and speed of action dominated the ‘Roberts Academy’ pre-war plan. Shrapnel was the undisputed shell of choice and in consequence, the demand for high explosives was originally relegated to around 30% of total orders. Ironically, despite years of careful preparation, the British Army was not as well equipped for the war that lay before it, as had been presumed. In August 1914, all of the British Army’s 13- and 18-pounder guns were entirely supplied with shrapnel. [7]

And it only got worse. Shrapnel had no effect whatsoever on well constructed parapets, deep trenches with blockhouses, on machine-gun posts or barbed wire defences. By the first week in September the General Headquarters in France was requesting supplies of high explosive shells which simply did not exist. Repeated pleas for increasing numbers of this ordnance were specifically made on 15th and 21st September, 1914. The army claimed that they desperately needed 50% of their shells to be high explosive but the War Office treated their requests as if the men in the field were over excitable schoolboys. The grounds on which the Ordnance Department based this attitude was that ‘the nature of these operations may change as they have done in the past.’ [8] But just how far was munitions shortage a reality?

In one critical area there was never a shortage; indeed, there was constantly an oversupply. When shell shortage was proclaimed a national ‘crisis’ in 1915, a focus manufactured by the Northcliffe press to damage the Asquith government and deflect attention from military failures, historians and journalists followed this explanation unquestioningly. Truth to tell, there was an abundance of shells; for Dreadnoughts and battleships. [9] The navy claimed its long-assumed priority over shells and the cordite required to fire these immense projectiles over five to nine miles. Early in 1914, the Admiralty agreed to raise the number of rounds from 80 to 100 per gun on battleships and to 110 per gun on battle cruisers.

There was no shell-shortage of the British Navy

In fact, by 1916, 8-gun battle cruisers were stocked with fifty per cent more ammunition than they were designed to carry. [10] Churchill was obliged to recognise the navy’s over provision in October 1914 by permitting the transfer of 1,000 tons of cordite to the army. [11] Yet over-supply to the navy was not meaningfully reduced. The Armaments companies continued to produce their heavy calibre shells despite the fact that there were very few naval engagements which would have consumed the ammunition. The navy continued to have priority over the army with the private producers and while there were perceived shortages on the western front, stocks hoarded by the Admiralty were ‘bountiful’. [12] Clearly heavy calibre explosives were being produced in great quantities, but not for the army, for whom the word ‘shortage’ had become a mantra.

High explosives were deemed to be the technological panacea, [13] and the lack of these became the ready excuse for failure. It also became an integral part of the problem. If the only solution to stalemate on the western front was even more extravagant use of heavy artillery, then the more these great guns blasted, often aimlessly, the more they accentuated the shortage. With governments ever willing to throw increased expenditure at the perceived ‘solution’, the armaments trusts could only reap untold profits. Kitchener believed that the shortage was exaggerated, but his generals in the field became fixated by this god-given ‘reason’ which rationalised their failures and justified their strategies. At every turn they wanted more.

kitchener at war office

There was an impasse. Kitchener’s War Office wanted to retain full control of munitions. They were suspicious of offers from American companies or orders placed in America by British government agents. Likewise they had no faith in dozens of smaller engineering companies across Britain which offered to switch production under license. Kitchener’s stubborn Master General of Ordnance, the man at the War Office who had to approve all orders, Sir Stanley von Donop, insisted that only firms experienced in the delicate operation of arms manufacture, firms that had a skilled workforce capable of safely producing the guns and shells, should be used.

The men who controlled the private armaments firms, their supply, manufacture and price, effectively a sub-set of the Secret Elite, were determined to secure their stranglehold by taking control away from the War Office. But how? Lloyd George found a way. Despite Kitchener’s objections, the government set up a Cabinet Committee in October 1914 to examine the issues of munitions’ supply. Absolute control did not immediately pass from the War Office, but within eight months Kitchener would be sidelined.

When Lloyd George, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, met on 13 October with the major representatives from Armstrong, Vickers, the Coventry Ordnance Works and Beardmore, he offered them a blank cheque. Incredibly, the nation had been held hostage. Lloyd George promised that the British taxpayer would cover whatever the cost of extending production lines, building new factories or investing in new machinery, irrespective of how long the war lasted. He committed the government to compensate them and any of their sub-contractors for any subsequent loss. The War Office protocols to protect the public purse were torn to shreds. Not surprisingly the open cheque-book had a miraculous effect. The merchants of death immediately promised to increase output by every possible means. For example, artillery gun production, which was doubled from 878 to 1,606, was to be completed no later than August 1915. [14] These great firms owned and run by self-serving capitalists who boasted their patriotism in parliament, pulpit and the press, were literally subsidised by the government to increase production and make outrageous profits. The Secret Elite removed the impasse.

What price patriotism?

[1] For detailed information about the Roberts Academy, the privileged post-Boer War clique which dominated military strategy and planning in the year before the First World War, see Gerry Docherty and Jim Macgregor, Hidden History, The Secret Origins of the First World War, pp. 194-202.
[2] Ministry of Munitions, vol. 1. pt. 1, p. 21.
[3] Hew Strachan,The First World War, vol.1: To Arms, p. 997.
[4] David Lloyd George, War Memoirs of David Lloyd George, Vol. 1, p. 75.
[5] Hansard House of Commons Debate, 13 June 1911, vol. 26, cc1459-97
[6] Lloyd George, Memoirs, pp. 76-7.
[7] Strachan, The First World War, vol.1, p. 1000.
[8] Lloyd George, Memoirs, p.84.
[9] Strachan, The First World War, p. 998.
[10] Nicholas A Lambert, “Our Bloody Ships”, Journal of Military History, 1998, p. 36.
[11] Ministry of Munitions, vol 1, pt. 1. p. 96.
[12] Jon Tetsuro Sumido, British Naval Operational Logistics, 1914-1918, Journal of Military History, vol. 57, no. 3, July 1993, p. 453.
[13] Strachan, The First World War, p. 1001.
[14] Lloyd George, Memoirs, p. 89.