Shell filling

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

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Why I wrote Ordnance

War on Wheels took me two years to write.

I researched my mother's albums of my father's war - he led the RAOC which carried out the mechanisation of the army and supplied the troops with all else they needed except food and fuel.

I researched reminiscences and diaries of many of the men and women who had served in the RAOC.

I researched the massive roles of the British and American Motor Industries.

I came away with questions.

Many of those who served had, only a quarter of a century earlier, gone through the hell of the Great War. It was clear that many lessons had been learnt but also ignored. I needed to find out what and why.

For example in both 1914 and 1939 a well equipped British Expeditionary Force had crossed to France. In both cases massive depots were set up in Le Havre and elsewhere to hold stores.

In 1914 the stores had to be evacuated at speed to escape the German advance and became so disorganised that little could be supplied until the advance and retreat ground to a halt.

In 1940 the Germans advanced again, but this time so quickly that men had to be evacuated back to England at Dunkirk leaving thousands of tons of stores behind.

Ordnance, which is to be published on 1 June 2018 by The History Press tries to answer this and other questions.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Women and Ordnance

On this centenary of some women being given the vote, I have to take issue on an aspect of their role in WW1 and offer a couple of further observations.

The news report this morning spoke of the huge contribution of women to the war effort particularly in the armament factories. This was true. What the news item didn't say was that they had to fight hard to be let into workplaces.

The armaments story begins with a very few factories all manned by skilled men. In a time of precarious employment, those skilled men fought tooth and nail to keep out any unskilled workers, not least to preserve their pay differential. Employers were perfectly happy to go along with this; one less battle to fight.

It didn't take long before the scandal came to light of our troops being starved of ammunition; guns were being rationed to a handful of rounds per day. The consequence was the death and injury of a great many allied troops.

It was the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George, who took up the fight to ensure adequate supplies got through.

It wasn't just the need to bring unskilled workers alongside those with skills, there were many other barriers that needed tackling. But the issue of dilution, as it was called, was pretty central.

Skilled male engineers had to face more than unskilled men; they had to accept unskilled women. This was a cultural rubicon.

A key encounter took place between Lloyd George and Mrs Pankhurst. Thousands of women had marched on 17 June 1915, demanding the right to contribute to the war effort. Lloyd George accepted their arguments including, interestingly, equal pay.

Thousands of women entered the factories. Some factories were designated women only; others required substantial improvements in terms of women's toilets and proper welfare facilities. A great many young women were 'posted' to factories and lived away from their families in hostels.

The contribution women made to the war effort was immense.

In later 1918, as the troops began to return home, the women who had done so much were told that their jobs were needed by the returning troops. They were sent home in their thousands.

Home was where many remained until 1940 when again the country realised that there were simply not enough men to do the work of equipping a mechanised army.

This time women were welcome at all levels of the work place, including the vast administrative machine that had been created, and, again, their contribution was immense.

In 1945 the men came home and the same thing happened, the women were sent home.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

The detail of Ordnance

Much of the challenge of Ordnance was in the detail. These are just a few examples.

Watchmakers had to be found to repair sufficient time pieces in Mesopotamia for zero hour to be set.

Thirty four different shapes and sizes of horseshoe, each with their own nails, had to be provided and matched to the horses each unit held.

Guns experienced far greater use than previously imagined possible.  Measurements were taken of the wear to gun barrels in order to estimate the scale upon which replacements could be planned. Mobile workshops were set up immediately behind the lines to keep them firing.

In Gallipoli, grenades were in such short supply that the Ordnance workshops took empty cans, NCT and detonators and made their own.

Wheels by their thousands were made in workshops in France. These demanded the skills of hundreds of wheelwrights.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Ordnance in the Dardanelles

The plan for ordnance supplies was to set up a supply base on the island of Lemnos. 

The process of getting supplies from Lemnos to the invading troops was to be by means of two ships. The model was in a sense simple: a floating ordnance warehouse close enough to the troops to replenish supplies at short notice, but far enough away to escape enemy attack. Stores would be set out on shelving in every available space, but most particularly the cargo holds.

The plan, like so many plans, proved a disaster. It was only be the inventive and hard work by Ordnance men that the troops were supplied at all.