Shell filling

Thursday, 12 July 2018

National Army Museum book signing

I am thrilled to have been invited to do a Meet the Author Book Signing at the National Army Museum on 21 July from 11.00 until 13.00.

The story of Ordnance spans four years. It is one of hard work, frustration and astonishment inventiveness.

At one point the depot in Selonika ran out of ink and so a search was made for a chemist who could make some thus enabling orders to be written out.

Another time, local watchmakers had to be found to repair timepieces so that zero hour could be set.

The Lincolnshire Echo in the autumn of 1914, like many local newspapers around the land, contained a plea for saddles, binoculars and horse blankets.

In the Dardanelles, the troops ran short of grenades, so ordnance men had to fill empty food cans with explosives.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

D Day 6 June 1944 War on Wheels?

I try to imagine Brigadier Denniston and Colonel Cutforth in the early hours of 6 June unable to sleep, but equally unable to do anything more. Months of preparation and planning now had to stand or fall measured only by results.

I can more easy picture Colonel Cutforth since, as a child, I met him some years later when he had risen to the rank of Major General and had been Knighted. Sir Lancelot Cutforth, to a small boy, was all King Arthur and the Round Table and, from memory, Sir Lancelot did not disappoint. He was a tall dignified figure who, as a younger man, must have been the quintessential dashing army officer. His role though, with Brigadier Denniston, had been one of painstaking planning. The 21st Army Group which they supported comprised the British Second Army and the Canadian First Army each with their Ordnance units. Brigadier TH Clark and JAW Bennett were the respective Deputy Directors of Ordnance Services. Brigadier Clark had been on the disastrous Norway campaign with Colonel Cutforth and then had played a key role in North Africa.

I try also to imagine Bill Williams and Dickie Richards; Bill in particular who would carry the can if things did not go well. They too had done all they could. In the planning, the question of morale had ranked high and so Dickie’s Depots supplying camp and laundry equipment and especially clothing were in no sense less important than those supplying warlike stores. In any event all stores had to cross the channel and make it up the beaches.

The question to the fore of each of their minds was whether this time mechanisation would truly work.
Massive tank repair workshop at COD Bicester

On the back cover of War on Wheels, Max Hastings records the very positive verdict of the troops

Saturday, 2 June 2018


OK, I know it's not a best seller, but 45,000 out of 6 million in the Amazon ranking can't be too bad!

Monday, 28 May 2018

Ordnance Preview

Ordnance is a story of the men and women who equipped the British Army for the Great War. 

It follows my book, War on Wheels, about the mechanisation of the army in WW2.

In writing that book, many questions begged to be answered and that led to my researching and writing Ordnance. 

The books are not a glorification of war, but try to tell the story of the ordinary men and women, behind the lines and unsung, without whom the wars would never have been won. 

Ordnance is divided into nine chapters:

1 The British Expeditionary Force 
2 The Home Base and Supply of Warlike Stores under
the Master General of Ordnance 
3 Gallipoli, Salonika and East Africa 
4 The Shell Crisis and the Birth of the Ministry of Munitions 
5 Trench Warfare on the Western Front 
6 Vehicles and the Tank 
7 Other Theatres of War – Palestine, Mesopotamia, Italy and Russia 
8 The Role of the USA 
9 The End 

Here is the start of Chapter 1

In September 1939, Dickie Richards, who had command of the huge Ordnance Depot at Le Havre, played merry hell when tons of shelving that he had ordered from England failed to arrive. I just wonder whether he was haunted by the description of another huge depot in the same French town a quarter of a century earlier. Richards had served through the four horrific years of the Great War and, like his fellow Ordnance officers, must have been determined to ensure that costly mistakes were not repeated.   

Scattered about the gigantic Hangar au Coton and other sheds or wharves were some 20,000 tons of clothing, ammunition and stores of unknown quantities and more arriving daily. The articles were in miscellaneous heaps often buried under piles of forage; wagons had been dismantled for shipment, the bodies had not yet been erected on their wheels, machine guns had not been assembled with their mounts or cartridge belts, guns with their mechanisms, cases of horse shoes with those of nails. The very spaciousness of this immense shed tempted the Base Commandant to use it whenever he was in want of accommodation and, in spite of protests, horses were stabled among the stores and French and Belgian soldiers encamped there. The French were still removing barrels of oil and bales of cotton lying in the hangar when new arrived, and lorries belonging to the Army Service Corps depot, lodged under the same roof, thundered to and fro. Altogether the scene was one of great confusion.

This was the scene, recorded by Forbes, of the Army Ordnance Depot at Le Havre in early September 1914, just before its evacuation to escape the German advance.

I offer here some - low res - pages from the final proof which I hope will give a flavour:

Ordnance, and indeed War on Wheels, is available from all good bookshops, from my Amazon author page and from my publishers, The History Press.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Ordnance, the USA and WW1

The USA played a fundamental role in securing victory for the Entente as I fell in  my book Ordnance

It is rather like as essay question; and I have long since done with essay questions! I will though offer a few observations; my book Ordnance has a full chapter on the role of the USA and so goes into much more detail.

I guess that I had not realised the extent to which the UK was top dog in 1914, certainly in relation to finance and world trade: Stirling ruled supreme.

The attritional nature of trench warfare slaughtered many thousands of young men, it also consumed phenomenal quantities of Stirling. A massive army needed a massive number of guns, but trench warfare meant that the consumption of ammunition by those guns was exponentially greater: hundreds of millions of shells.

The greater part of the UK manufacturing sector was engaged in war work and all needed to be paid for. The funds came from taxation, from investments of War Loan (remember that?), but to a very large extend from dollar borrowings.

The New York bankers JP Morgan were appointed very early on to act for the Entente in purchasing from US companies, but also in raising the dollars needed to pay for it all. Hundreds of millions of dollars were raised. Vast quantities of food and much needed equipment was supplied by companies like Holt which made the caterpillar tractor.

All this happened before the US declared war. In a sense this changed everything. Britain sent Missions over to the US to explore the role the US might play. General Bridges who still had command of the 19th Division, Les Papillons, argued the case for standard equipment. Motor companies like Ford put their massive weight into the war effort. Many hundreds of thousands of US troops were equipped and made ready for the final months the war. Many young Americans lost their lives

The armistice brought an end to the slaughter, although for some months men continued to die. The armistice also saw the US Dollar knocking Stirling as the world's trading currency, with the UK heavily in debt. The war had been won, but at a price.
Model T Ford ambulances - image with thanks to Richard Pullen

Barely a quarter of a century later, it was all going to happen again. Perhaps in WW2, the role of the USA was even greater.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Talking about Ordnance - lessons learnt and lessons forgotten

I gave a talk on Ordnance to the Lincoln branch of the Western Front Association. This was done with some trepidation since I am not a military historian. I see myself as a writer of people's stories.

I explained that I came to Ordnance via a couple of large boxes of scrap albums which my mother had kept of my father's war. She had been his PA and he had led the RAOC. I found that the albums contained the story of how the army was mechanised in WW2; with some further research they became War on Wheels.

In writing War on Wheels it was clear to me that much had come from the earlier experience of the Great War of many of the those concerned. I needed to find out, and Ordnance is the result. It tells a story of the equipping of the British Army for the Great War.

I was pleased by the numbers attending my talk and by the questions they asked. It was not a subject well known by many. A few people knew much more detail than I do, and that was helpful to me.

Reflecting on the evening and the discussions that took place, I think more and more that it is true to say that Ordnance services learnt a great deal during the years of WW1. Many mistakes were made and much initiative used, but, by September 1918, the Ordnance supply machine was working.

It reminded me of what Max Hastings wrote of D Day, which I quote in War on Wheels:

To almost every man of the Allied Armies, the predominant memory of the campaign, beyond the horror of battle, was the astounding efficiency of the supply services…for young British soldiers, who had grown up with the legend of the War Office’s chronic bungling, and of the Crimea and the Boer War, Second Army’s administration in Normandy seemed a miracle.

It also seemed that in the years between 1918 and 1939 much had also been forgotten and so a great deal had to be re-learnt between 1939 and 1944. That is in the story of War on Wheels.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

The Ordnance role against the German offensive - one hundred years on

In researching my book, Ordnance, I found how the allies had been preparing for a German offensive on the western front since the time when the Russian Revolution resulted in their armies withdrawing from the eastern front.

Divisions were brought back from Palestine and Italy amongst others. American had come under pressure to commit before she was really ready.

The challenge for Ordnance was threefold. To salvage what equipment and ammunition they could in the face of the German advance. To set up mobile repair workshops to maintain guns in the retreat and to ensure that the retreating troops were as fully equipped as possible for defence and counterattack.

I was fortunate in finding wonderful first hand accounts of quite incredible work done under fire and under pressure.

Four years of trench warfare had resulted in mobile workshops taking root; also, supplies had accumulated close to the front. All this made the retreat more difficult and much had to be left behind. The British, though, were retreating toward their base depots which eased re-supply and over ground which had not been turned into a mud bath by years of war. The Germans advanced into and were seriously held up by that same mud bath.

Some witnessed the first appearance of the light Whippet Tank and, not having been previously informed, assumed it was German.
The French Renault equivalent to the British Whippet with the contrasting horse drawn wagon