Daily artillery barrages from both sides added to the waste and horror on the Western Front.According to official histories of the First World War there was a great shell crisis in Britain in 1915. [1] In truth, the phenomenon was universal. The French army became acutely aware of the problem caused by lack of munitions as early as 24 September 1914. By November, the German gunners around Ypres were instructed to cut their daily barrage and their commander, General Falkenhayn reckoned that there were only enough shells for four more days of German bombardment in Flanders. [2] Whatever the preparations for war in Europe, no-one had anticipated its rapid descent into a stalemate of entrenchment accompanied by wasteful daily artillery barrages whose only purpose appeared to be stultifying proof that the enemy was still there. Never in the history of warfare had so many resources been wasted on futile exchanges of explosives to such little effect, nor so much profit made by those who provided the ammunition.

There are two schools of thought governing Kitchener’s attitude to increasing the supply of munitions. The first is that he obstructed the verve and purpose shown by Lloyd George as Chancellor, to ramp up the purchase of much needed munitions. In truth, that was Lloyd George’s view, jaundiced by his antipathy towards the Secretary of State for War and bolstered by his selective use of information from the ghost-written History of the Ministry of Munitions. [3] The second is that Kitchener refused to be influenced by agencies outside the War Office because there was no crisis. His judgement was that his commanders in the field cried wolf too often and used the excuse of shell shortage to cover their own inadequacies. He was correct.

Aubers Ridge 1915. Briefing the Cameronians before the battle.

Before the ill-fated offensive at Aubers Ridge on 9 May 1915, Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief in France, had assured the War Office that he had sufficient ammunition for the assault [4] and he had written a letter to Kitchener on 2 May stating; ‘the ammunition will be all right.’ [5] But 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. [6] Can you even begin to imagine the horror and excruciating pain of the men sacrificed for a cause they did not comprehend? German losses were reported to be under 1,000. After the disaster Sir John French deflected attention from his own poor leadership by telling The Times correspondent, Charles Repington, 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 miserable lie.

Kitchener had enemies outwith his military subordinates. His behaviour and style angered vested interests inside the Secret Elite, particularly the financial – armaments sector which backed Lloyd George’s free-market, unrestricted approach to enhancing their profits. When the desperate need for armaments and munitions was fully realised in the first months of the war, and steps were being taken to utilise American industrial power, Kitchener and the War Office considered it an effrontery when the Treasury set up such facilities without his knowledge or approval.

Kitchener on way from War Office to address MPs in May 1916.The British Cabinet Committee meeting on 21 October 1914 agreed to contact the War Office agent in America with a request for 400,000 rifles and three days later sent their representative, Captain Smyth-Pigott to New York. They did not know that Lloyd George, whom the Secret Elite had determined would have ultimate control, had already acted independently. He had sent his most able Treasury expert, Basil Blackett, to America to evaluate the logjam that had built up in military procurement. First reports insisted that the War Office and the Admiralty had to start co-ordinating their purchasing strategies because suppliers were raising prices and playing one off against the other. [9] What did they expect? It was business in time of war. Profits were there to be made.

In November 1914, the Chancellor of the Exchequer contacted his acquaintance, Edward Charles Grenfell, senior partner of Morgan-Grenfell & Co., and director of the Bank of England, to discuss whether rifle production in the United States could be increased and engineering production switched to munitions manufacture. The line of contact started in the Treasury with Lloyd-George, through Edward Grenfell to J.P. Morgan & Co., the largest investment banking firm in America and back through the same channel to London. Morgan immediately promised to liaise with two firms, Remington and Winchester, ‘friends’ of his group, and an understanding was reached. [10] Delivery would however take eleven months, [11] though considerable quantities of rifles and munitions were carried regularly by the Lusitania. [12] Trusted Secret Elite agents had created a very pro-British accord which would benefit them all.

But Kitchener would not have it. The War Office complained loudly about this civilian arrangement and Kitchener contacted J P Morgan directly, demanding that the order be cancelled. In his view, munition supply was War Office business and no-one else’s. Lloyd George was furious; Edward Grenfell, outraged. Kitchener had crossed swords with the Anglo-American establishment. The carefully-planned transatlantic accord would have been smothered by Kitchener’s intervention, but the Chancellor had powerful friends on both sides of the ocean. Grenfell complained bitterly that ‘the manner in which the War Office have dealt with the proposed rifles contract with Morgan, Grenfell and Co, will have a detrimental effect on public opinion in America.’ [13] It was always a good line to take. American public opinion mattered to the British government. That same day, Lloyd George smoothed Edward Grenfell’s ruffled feathers by stating that Kitchener’s communication to Morgan was based on a regrettable ‘misapprehension’ and asked for Morgan’s cooperation’. [14] Subsequent orders were placed with Morgan’s chosen men without War Office interference.

shell-wastage by 1916

In fact, though Kitchener had a good record of using civilian businessmen in procuring munitions, he did not move fast enough for Lloyd George. The two never acted in tandem. Kitchener set up a Armament’s Output Committee under George Booth, a director of the Bank of England, in April 1915, but at the same time Lloyd George brought together a Munitions of War Committee. Within a month, his persistence won the day. The Chancellor was determined to take control, although it was to be some time before all the relevant responsibilities were removed from the War Office. [15] Letters of complaint and detailed memoranda were sent to Asquith from Arthur Balfour [16], Winston Churchill, Edwin Montagu and others, berating Kitchener and his War Office staff for their ‘bigoted, prejudiced reluctance buy rifles or to increase the munitions of war’. [17]

Kitchener was defiant. Despite his obvious worth in correcting the public mind-set to the duration of the war and his dynamic appeal to volunteers for the rank and file in his new armies, his disdain for politicians and business devalued his standing in the eyes of the Secret Elite. Their agents in the press to begin an assault on Kitchener, and indeed on prime minister Herbert Asquith whose government they believed, had served its purpose. Consequently, Lord Northcliffe’s powerful newspaper empire unleashed an unwarranted attack on the Secretary of State for War. On 14 May, 1915, headlines in The Times screamed of the ‘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].’ [18] 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. [19]

Lord Kitchener's Tragic Blunder - Headline in the Daily Mail

On 21 May Northcliffe threw all caution to the wind and wrote the editorial for the Daily Mail, headlined, Lord 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.’ [20] It was a salvo intended to destroy Kitchener’s reputation which exploded in Northcliffe’s face.

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. [high explosive] shells for the 18-pounders is a perversion of the truth’. [21] Instead of ruining Kitchener’s career, Northcliffe damaged his own public standing. 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. There were ulterior motives for this public display of stockbroker indignation, [22] but it all added to Kitchener’s teflon-laced reputation

Kitchener may no longer have been an asset to the Secret Elite, but he was the public face of Britain’s fighting best. Asquith could not sack him for fear of the public back-lash and so tried to move him away from real decision-making. Kitchener was sent on a tour of inspection to Gallipoli and the Near East in the hope that he would stay there, but he did not. When he returned at the end of October 1915, the Secretary of State for War found Sir Archibald Murray had been appointed as the new Chief of Imperial Staff. His was a brief appointment for Sir William Robertson took his place in December with over all responsibility for strategy. He alone was to advise the government and issue orders to commanders in the field. Kitchener’s authority was more or less reduced to matters of manpower and recruitment.

Kitchener and Sir William Robertson

As he himself put it, he was ‘curtailed to feeding and clothing the army’. [23] The same men who had dragged Kitchener into the War Office in 1914 had effectively stripped him of his power but did not want his resignation. Each time he offered or threatened to resign, Asquith persuaded him that it was his duty to serve the King. [24] Essentially, Kitchener provided a buffer between the prime minister and his critics. Why did he not force the issue and resign, despite Asquith’s insistence that he stayed? Kitchener was a proud man, yet he stood stripped of meaningful power like a glorified quartermaster. He had a good working relationship with Douglas Haig who had been promoted to commander in chief in France and with Robertson to whom he confided ‘I think I shall be of real use when peace comes. I have little fear as to our final victory – but many fears as to making a good peace.’ [25]

So Kitchener had good reason not to resign. He saw purpose in his holding on to office; great purpose. He imagined that he would be permitted to step back onto the centre-stage of world politics to ‘make a good peace’. That could never be allowed to happen.

[1] The full story has already been recorded in our blog Munitions 6: Crisis? What Crisis?, 8 July 2015.
[2] Hew Strachan, The First World War, pp. 993-4.
[3] Peter Fraser, The British Shells Scandal of 1915, Canadian Journal of History, Vol. 18. no.1 1983, p. 85.
[4] Hugh Cecil and Peter H Liddle, Facing Armageddon, The First World War Experienced, p. 42.
[5] Trevor Royle, The Kitchener Enigma, p. 292.
[6] http://www.1914-1918.net/bat11.htm
[7] Royle, The Kitchener Enigma, p. 290.
[8] Cecil and Liddle, Facing Armageddon, p. 42.
[9] Kathleen Burk, War and the State, The Transformation of British Government 1914-18, p. 89.
[10] Kathleen Burk, Britain, America and the Sinews of War, p. 14.
[11] J P Morgan, New York, to E C Grenfell, 11 November 1914, PRO LG/C/1/1/32.
[12] See blog: Lusitania 8: The Anglo-American Collusion. posted 18 May 2015.
[13] Edward Grenfell to Mr Lloyd George, 13 November, 1914, PRO, LG/C/1/1/33.
[14] Lloyd George to Mr Grenfell, PRO LG/C/1/1/34.
[15] David Lloyd George, War Memoirs, pp 97-127.
[16] Arthur Balfour had previously been prime minister (1902-1905) and was identified by Carroll Quigley as a member of the inner core of the Secret Elite, the Society of the Elect.
[17] Lloyd George, Memoirs, p. 109.
[18] The Times,14 May 1915, p. 8.
[19] Reginald Pound and Geoffrey Harmsworth, Northcliffe, p. 477.
[20] Daily Mail, 21 May 1915. See also Daily Mail Historical Archives at http://gale.cengage.co.uk/daily-mail-historical-archive/subjects-covered.aspx
[21] John Pollock, Kitchener, pp. 443-4.
[22] 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 to launch the Daily Mail’s own cut-price share service. 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. The  Stockbrokers did not burn Northcliffe’s papers out of patriotic loyalty to Kitchener. Theirs was an act of spiteful revenge. But it caught the popular mood. 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] A J P Taylor, English History, 1914-1945, p. 79.
[24] Pollock, Kitchener, p. 458.
[25] Sir George Arthur, Kitchener, Vol III, p. 299.