BEF Artillery unit on the Western  Front

Rumours about military set-backs circulated in Fleet Street and lists of casualties grew by the day through the spring of 1915. Blame was not laid at the feet of those in the field, and certainly not on their commanders in France. Months of propaganda had reinforced an expectation that ‘our lads’ would sweep all before them and what better reason to explain failure than the accusation that the government had not provided sufficient armaments? There were localised shortages, an imbalance between high explosives and shrapnel and, as we have shown, the navy claimed and received a priority in explosive shells over the army. [1] The impression from those at the front was that, if anything, British artillery fire on German trenches was increasing, and in February 1915 Captain James Jack of the Cameronians recorded his great joy in watching British shells smash through German parapets on he western front, adding that ‘these days we shell the Germans more than they do us.’ [2] Yet history would have it that in May 1915, there was a shell crisis. But how real was this ‘crisis’ and to what extent were events driven by other political objectives?

The Northcliffe-dominated press, in particular The Times and the Daily Mail, began a very personal attack on Lord Kitchener after the ill-fated offensive at Aubers Ridge on 9 May.[3] Aubers was an unmitigated disaster for the British army. No ground was won and no tactical advantage gained. On that single day, 9 May 1915, 11,000 British casualties were sustained and it took three days to process the wounded through the Field Ambulances. [4] German losses were reported to be under 1,000.

Sir John FrenchThis dreadful failure has been blamed on Kitchener’s inability to provide high explosive shells. But, was that really the case? Prior to the attack, Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief in France, had assured the War Office that he had sufficient ammunition [5] and he had written a letter to Kitchener on 2 May stating; ‘the ammunition will be all right.’ [6] After the disaster Sir John French deflected attention from his own poor leadership by telling The Times correspondent, whom he had personally invited to witness what he anticipated as ‘one of he greatest battles the world has ever seen’, [7] that it had failed because of a shortage of shells. [8] This wasn’t just disloyalty; it was a lie. The attack at Aubers was preceded by an intense and prolonged artillery barrage which those present thought heralded ‘the complete destruction of the enemy’s lines’. [9] It did not.

The ‘crisis’ of the shell ‘shortage’ was blown into a furore to address political objectives. Observe its origins. Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Repington, The Times war correspondent, played a major role in creating the ‘crisis’ in conjunction with Lord Northcliffe, and The Times editor, Geoffrey Dawson, a Secret Elite inner-core member. [10] They planned to release Repington’s exclusive story behind the failure of Aubers in order to bring down the Asquith government and discredit Lord Kitchener and the War Office. If the general public could be turned against Kitchener and his ability to run the war, then control of armaments would be wrested from him and given to the trusted Lloyd George.

The Secret Elite organised and supported the attack on Kitchener. Geoffrey Dawson shared the plan with Lord Milner, their undisputed leader, [11] who was equally determined to bring down Asquith’s liberal government. This deeply contrived ‘shell shortage’ added to the problems the government was facing over Gallipoli and riots in the streets after the sinking of the Lusitania. Milner told his close friend, and member of the Secret Elite’s inner core, Sir Harry Birchenough [12] that the ‘chickens are indeed, coming home to roost.’ [13] But there was a major stumbling block. The conditions imposed through the Defence of the Realm Act meant that before any news from the front was published, it had to be given formal approval by the censor. On 11 May, Repington sent a private letter to Geoffrey Dawson with the curious message that his report would be stamped ‘passed by the censor’, though he (the censor) would not have seen it. [14] In other words an un-named source was about to fabricate official permission from the censor so that The Times could print French’s lie. It was a criminal act dressed as a duty to expose the ‘truth’ in order to undermine Kitchener and Asquith.

Times Newspaper begins attack on Kitchener on 14 May

On 14 May, 1915, headlines in The Times screamed of Need for Shells and Lack of High Explosives. The piece began with the blunt statement that ‘the want of an unlimited supply of high explosives was a fatal bar to our success [at Aubers].’ [15] The dam was burst. Northcliffe maintained the pressure on Kitchener through his Daily Mail which wrote of the folly of using shrapnel against the powerful German earthworks and wire entanglements, claiming that it was as effective as using a peashooter. [16] On 21 May Northcliffe threw all caution to the wind and wrote the editorial for the Daily Mail with the headline, Kitchener’s Fatal Blunder. He pulled no punches; ‘Lord Kitchener has starved the army in France of high explosive shells. The admitted fact is that Lord Kitchener ordered the wrong kind of shell – the same kind of shell which he used largely against the Boers in 1900. He persisted in sending shrapnel – a useless weapon in trench warfare. He was warned repeatedly that the kind of shell required was a violently explosive bomb which would dynamite its way through the German trenches and entanglements and enable our brave men to advance in safety. This kind of shell our poor soldiers have had has caused the death of thousands of them.’ [17]

At the front, soldiers were ‘raised to a pitch of fury’ by the ‘perfectly monstrous’ attack on Kitchener. Major General Sir Henry Rawlinson lambasted the ‘diabolical plot’ to focus attention on high explosive shells stating that: ‘the true cause of our failures is that our tactics have been faulty, and that we have misconceived the strength and resisting power of the enemy. To turn round and say that the casualties have been due to the want of H.E. shells for the 18-pounders is a perversion of the truth’. [18] In the trenches, soldiers were likewise disgusted by the press attack at a time when everyone should have been working against the enemy. Douglas Haig made nothing of shell shortages, advocating that heavier guns be tried in the future. He stressed that accurate observation of the effect of a bombardment should be made before an infantry attack was launched. [19]

Lord Kitchener with General Joffre observing near the front

Instead of stirring public outrage against Kitchener, Northcliffe’s tirade provoked a torrent of loathing against him and his newspapers. ‘It shocked the public, shook Whitehall and threw Northcliffe’s critics into paroxysms of rage.’ [20] Reaction was swift. The Services Clubs in Pall Mall barred The Times and Daily Mail from their doors. Subscriptions were cancelled; advertising slumped. Copies of the Daily Mail and The Times were burned on the floors of the London Stock Exchange, the Liverpool Provision Exchange, the Baltic Exchange in London and the Cardiff Coal and Shipping Exchange. Though the Westminster Gazette praised ‘the manly and honourable impulse’ of the stockbrokers who cheered for Kitchener and booed Northcliffe, [21] there was more than just a whiff of payback about this allegedly impulsive demonstration.

Three years earlier, the city editor of the Daily Mail, Charles Duguid, had become so concerned about the high cost of dealing shares on the London Stock Exchange, that he decided, with Northcliffe’s blessing, to launch the Daily Mail’s own cut-price share service. Readers with stock to sell would write to the City Editor who then printed a small ‘ad’ that matched-up the buyers and sellers. Demand was so heavy that Duguid had to establish a small bureau to handle the administrative burdens of running a do-it-yourself stock market. When the London Stock Exchange closed its doors to trading on 31 July 1914, the Daily Mail Exchange took out half-page adverts in the Financial Times and the Financial News declaring it was open for business. [22].The  Stockbrokers did not burn Northcliffe’s papers out of patriotism. Theirs was an act of spiteful revenge. But it caught the popular mood. Kitchener was an untouchable; a national icon whom the masses still revered. And, neither he nor Asquith resigned. Sales of the Daily Mail on the morning of the attack on Kitchener topped 1,386,000 copies and overnight slumped to 238,000. [23] This was not the effect that Northcliffe expected, but he did not desist or retract.

Lord Northcliffe

What makes this turn of events even more significant is that, in rejecting Northcliffe’s claims, the public refused to treat shell shortage as a ‘crisis’, though the supply of armaments remained a high priority. Official historians later adopted Northcliffe’s line and consequently the concept of a ‘crisis’ took root.

There were however, important consequences. Herbert Asquith was unable to hold together a government that had been elected in 1910 with no inkling of war, no experience of managing a war, and increasing tensions between ministers on how best to achieve victory in that war. Had there been a general election, Liberals feared that the Conservatives would be swept into power, and Asquith surrendered to a multitude of pressures from outside parliament to agree a swift and dramatic coalition [24] We have examined the pressures on Asquith in previous blogs, [25] but the Secret Elite were reminded that public opinion had to be carefully manipulated to achieve major change. It could not be taken for granted. They did have one outstanding success. Overall control of munitions was taken away from the still popular, Lord Kitchener.

A Ministry of Munitions was created as a discrete department inside the coalition government of 1915, and it was headed by their worthy agent, David Lloyd George. It may have looked like a side-ways step for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but it was not. In many ways it was the most important post he could have held. The Secret Elite sought complete control of all war production to maximise their profits under the guise of sustaining the war effort. Lloyd George had proved his worth to them at the Board of Trade where his business-friendly approach was very profitable. [26] Once a committed pacifist who had preached arms-control, the popular Welsh MP was the one man who could have led a successful concerted opposition to war in August 1914, but sold-out to the Money Power.

LLoyd George apparently demonstrating a shell fuse to parliament as Minister of Munitions

His access went beyond the political realm and his association with businessmen and financiers in Britain and America gave him power and status greater even than the prime minister. Lloyd George had developed close relationships with men who should have been political enemies. He regularly consulted Arthur Balfour, the former conservative party leader and prime minister, and through him had the confidence of Bonar Law who fronted the opposition party in 1915. Milner, consumed by the certainty that national conscription was the only way forward, considered Lloyd George the most able man in the government. [27] Knowing full well how to manipulate the Welshman, Milner noted; ‘if properly handled, [he] will end up going for it [conscription] and he is the only man who could carry it, if he could be induced to try.’ [28]

How well the Secret Elite played Lloyd George, pandered to his ambitions, and understood his public value. Together, they had plotted a complete take over of Asquith’s Liberal government in 1915, but had only a partial success. Asquith did not surrender the key posts in his Cabinet to the men who would strangle Laissez-faire and impose the kind of conditions that the Secret Elite knew were essential to their ultimate aim, the crushing of Germany and the Anglo-American domination of the civilised world. They would have to prepare the ground more carefully.

[1] See previous blog.
[2] John Terraine, General Jack’s Diary, War on the Western Front, 1914-1918, p. 99.
[3] The battle is variously known as Festubert, Givenchy and Fromelles. See A M Gollin, Freedom or Control in the First World War, Historical Reflections, 1976, p. 148.
[4] http://www.1914-1918.net/bat11.htm
[5] Hugh Cecil and Peter H Liddle, Facing Armageddon, The First World War Experienced, p. 42.
[6] Trevor Royle, The Kitchener Enigma, p. 292.
[7] Ibid., p. 290.
[8] Cecil and Liddle, Facing Armageddon, p. 42.
[9] Royle, The Kitchener Enigma, p. 290.
[10] Carroll Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment, p. 312. and pp.101-106.
[11] Gerry Docherty and Jim Macgregor, Hidden HistoryThe Secret Origins of the First World War, p. 50.
[12] Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment, p. 13.
[13] Milner Papers, Milner to Birchenough, 13 May, 1915.
[14] A. M. Gollin, Proconsul in Politics, p. 253.
[15] The Times,14 May 1915, p.8.
[16] Reginald Pound and Geoffrey Harmsworth, Northcliffe, p. 477.
[17] Daily Mail, 21 May 1915. See also Daily Mail Historical Archives at http://gale.cengage.co.uk/daily-mail-historical-archive/subjects-covered.aspx
[18] John Pollock, Kitchener, pp. 443-4.
[19] Haig, Private Papers, 11 May 1915. as cited in http://www.1914-1918.net/bat11.htm
[20] Pound and Harmsworth, Northcliffe, p. 478.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Alex Brummer, Daily Mail, 28 Dec 2012, citing research from Professor Richard Roberts, Kings College, London.
[23] Pound and Harmsworth, Northcliffe, p. 479.
[24] Edward David, Inside Asquith’s Cabinet, p. 242.
[25] See blogs, 25 and 27 May 2015.
[26] Donald McCormick, The Mask Of Merlin, p. 102.
[27] J. Lee Thompson, Forgotten Patriot, p. 315.
[28] Milner to Gwynne, 10 May1915; in Thompson, Forgotten Patriot, p. 315.