Stokes Mortar - one of the simplest inventions

Monday, 9 October 2017

Europe's Deadly Triumvirate

Writing Ordnance and before that, War on Wheels, I have gained more than an insight into the birth of the modern arms trade. It is not surprising that in my quest for the story of the men and women who equipped the army I should find the inventors and makers of armaments. Whilst it might not be surprising, it is salutary.

As my own father said, when speaking of the RAOC, arming the British army goes back to the willow to arm the archers. It progresses through to gun powder and shot, cannon and ball. My starting point though is the rifled gun invented by William Armstrong. I talk of him quite a lot in Ordnance.

A recent biography of Armstrong by Henrietta Heald looks at the competition in armament manufacture in the years following the Crimean War. She looks at Armstrong, of course, but also Krupp in Germany and Schneider in France, together known as 'Europe's deadly triumvirate'.

She quotes Manchester's biography of Krupp. 'Over the next eighty years they were to be celebrated first as shields of national honour and later, after their slaughtering machines were hopelessly out of control, as merchants of death.'

Monday, 2 October 2017


'Steadily the Metallurgist, the Scientist and the Engineer began to rank in importance with the General in the field; the older and perhaps more chivalrous type of conflict of the Napoleonic days was passing, just as the bow and arrow of the sixteenth century had to give place to the firearm.'

This comment was made by the writers of the history of the Wolseley Motor Company about the Great War. During that conflict a great many mechanical engineers joined the Army Ordnance Department who had responsibility for maintaining all weapons or the Army Service Corps which handled all mechanical vehicles. The tank came somewhere in between, maintained in the great central workshop at Erin in France. 

One of the huge challenges in the Great War was that skilled men were joining up and being sent to the trenches in their thousands with their skills ignored. It took the initiative of Lloyd George to ensure that skilled men were either directed to the armaments factories at home or in the AOD in the field.

In the interwar period, vehicles were added to the remit of the then RAOC and this included the creation of the Army Centre for Mechanisation at Chilwell. 

In 1942 there was growing concern within the army that men skilled in engineering were disbursed too widely in the RAOC, RASC and Royal Engineers and that is would be far more efficient to bring them together in a single Corps. In the words of the Committee's report:

Until the Army gives to mechanical and electrical engineers, as distinct from civil engineers, their appropriate place and influence in the Army system, such engineers are not likely to be caught, tested and trained as well as in the Navy; there is a danger that they will be missed by men who main interests and duties lie in other fields.

It was in this way that REME came into being.

Happy Birthday!

You can read more about the mechanisation of the army in WW2 in War on Wheels and will be able to read about how the army was equipped for the Great War in Ordnance, to be published in June 2018.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Submission Day

Today is the day when I send my manuscript to the publishers. Months of work and goodness knows how many hours spent and how many words read and written, and I have but scratched the surface. I hope though that Ordnance will honour those who gave so much and had so much taken from them.

The men and women who equipped the army moved mountains. In August 1914 I believe that no one had any real idea of what lay ahead. The carnage was unforgivable; a whole generation lost. The achievement of whose engaged in supply was though remarkable.

It gave the fighting men the tools they needed to do the job. It also had other positive outcomes. War does force-feed technology, and that technology can be used in peace as in war. Work conditions were in many places transformed, with previously unheard of works canteens, for example. Women had witnessed their own potential, though tragically many would have to wait until after another war before they could fulfil it.

Lessons were learnt, though many seemingly as quickly forgotten. One can speculate endlessly why this might be. One reason surely was that they had been through hell and had no intention of returning.

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.