Stokes Mortar - one of the simplest inventions

Saturday, 2 September 2017


In the draft of my book, 'Ordnance', I write that 1916 saw a transformation in the way ammunition was supplied and stored.

In the March before the Somme offensive a new depot was partially destroyed by damaged ammunition exploding and causing other ammunition stored nearby also to explode. In late July 1916, once some 100,000 tons had been supplied for the opening days of the offensive, another ammunition depot received a direct hit from a single bomb. Again, a chain reaction was set in motion and the whole depot was destroyed leaving craters big enough to 'dock a battleship'. One shell became lodged among ammunition boxes, but failed to explode.

Lessons were learnt and a whole new approach was adopted, with safety and risk management at its heart, and which followed through to November 1918.

Thursday, 27 July 2017


In the archives of the Royal Logistics Corps there is a large book containing graphs recording the issues of various sorts of materiel made to the British Expeditionary Force in France in the Great War. One graph is all about boots and another all about socks.

15,088,420 pairs of boots and 41,583,000 pairs of socks.

Essentially the whole boot making industry in Britain was called into the war effort.

Boots, though, wear out; not least if they are constantly immersed in mud or exposed to the extremes of temperature and the sharp rock of the desert and mountains.

An early question to be addressed was how best to provide a repair service.

With the millions in the trenches the traditional regimental boot repairer was soon replaced with boot repair factories employing many hundreds of soldiers not fit for front line service, but also older men and local women.

In other theatres where the line was stretched over many miles, the itinerant boot repairer was the answer.

When the Americans entered the war, they saw the boot, and more importantly a well fitting boot, as a vital piece of equipment. The solution was that ‘a detachment of foot fitting experts may be attached to every regiment or division…measurements will be taken and shoes fitted as soon as practicable after the soldier enters service.’

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Some of the forgotten vehicles of WW1

I had never heard of the Vulcan Motor Company based in Southport. It produced 100 chassis a week for the War Office. By a circuitous route it became part of the Rootes Group in the early fifties.
Commer was the name given to Commercial Cars Ltd when it was bought by Humber in 1926. Commer had manufactured Field Workshops to maintain Red Cross Ambulances.
Karrier produced 3,000 3/4 ton  trucks for the services during WW1. It was later merged into the Rootes Group.
One of Bentley's major contributions to the war effort was the invention of the aluminium piston by WO Bentley which were subsequently manufactured by Humber.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Great images taking over the story?

Writing history seems to be much about serendipity. We can only discover what someone chose to save, or perhaps what was was saved by chance.

I visited the RLC Archive and was told that they had few WW1 images because some years ago the Imperial War Museum collected all they could for their 'national' collection. To have a comprehensive archive at the IWM is great, but it make life interesting for a writer who has to make do with what's left.

So, what was left?

Remember that I am writing about equipping the army and so images of battle fields are less interesting than those of workshops or stores. I found some beauties of ordinary people doing those ordinary things without which victory may well have eluded us. So, men making a wheel, women repairing tents and uniforms; men re-making boots. I already have some great photos of motor factories and shell fillings factories, but I found one of a newly repaired tank looking like new.

I tried to find images to fit each chapter in the book, but some had many more than others. Does this matter? I hope not since, for me, the text matters too. I have dug deeply into libraries and archives to pull together disparate parts of a story. My hope is that it will all come together to send to the History Press by the end of September. It is due to be published in June 1918.

It would be mean not to share at least one image.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

So many connections in the push to equip the army for the Great War

Researching Ordnance, I am finding so many connections; it is like a spider's web.

Humber cars, who produced important vehicles in WW2, armoured cars and famously Montgomery's staff car,  were manufacturing in Beeston near Chilwell in WW1 and so its workers would have heard the tragic explosion at the then Shell Filling Factory on 1 July 1918. The Chilwell site became the Army Centre for Mechanisation in WW2, as I describe in War on Wheels.

Holt tractors, helped by patents sold by Hornsby in Grantham and manufactured in the UK by Rustons of Lincoln, became Caterpillar because 'they looked like a giant caterpillar crossing the ground'. Holt caterpillar tractors were used to haul heavy artillery in WW1.

Herbert Austin was the driving force behind Wolseley which became part of the Morris, or Nuffield, group of companies. Neither Austin nor Morris were great vehicle producers in WW1, but both contributed greatly to the war effort in other armaments.

Daimler produced the engine for the first tanks and also for their own and AEC's 3 ton trucks.

Daimler 3 Ton Trucks ready to go to the front

Monday, 20 March 2017

A Prequel to War on Wheels

My new book, Ordnance on equipping the British Army in WW1, is to be published by The History Press in June 1918.

Exploring the story,  there is a strong thread of lessons waiting to be learnt. Some were, but, for others, it wouldn't be until WW2 that they bore fruit.

Alongside the lessons, are great examples of human effort overcoming shortfalls in the organisation and of human ingenuity solving endless problems.

The scale of everything was vast: so big that one constraint was a shortage of raw materials needed to produce all manner of materiel. Not enough leather for saddlery was just one such example. In order to save metal, shell cases were gathered in their thousands for re-use. Salvage became a huge operation, not just to make good shortages but also in the interests of economy.

Millions of tons of explosive used in countless variations and sizes of ammunition were stored in conditions ranging from the mud of the western front to the scorching sun of the desert and freezing cold of the mountains. Deterioration was inevitable, but men had, by hand and without protection, to render them safe and ready for use. Fatal accidents were inevitable.
The war memorial at Chilwell, remembering also those who lost their lives in a massive explosion at the Shell Filling Factory on 1 July 1918.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Children supplying the army in WW2

In the summer of 1943 the Derby depot had found itself unable to deal with the volume of material it was receiving and so Brigadier Robinson had the imaginative idea of seeing if school children on their summer holidays would help.

The Derby Evening Telegraph ran an article on how these school children helped to prepare for the invasion. What shone out from this was the enthusiasm and skill of all concerned including the teachers. One girl took on the challenge of sorting a cupboard full of 30,000 boxes by size. Another group packed in three hours what their army supervisor had thought would take days. The children didn’t complain of boredom since it was an activity quite different from their daily round.

It wasn’t just in the Midlands. The Twickenham times ran this story.

Pupils of Twickenham County School for Girls and Hampton Grammar School have shown a fine sense of patriotism by giving up their Easter holiday to do war work…boys and girls aged from 14 to 16, are working morning and afternoon for the Army in packing spare parts for tanks and other Army Vehicles. …some scholars pack the spares into cartons while others seal, label and pack the cartons into boxes ready for shipment.

Elsewhere it was reported that pupils from Eton had also leant a hand at the Feltham Depot.