Ordnance

Ordnance
Stokes Mortar - one of the simplest inventions

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Ordnance - the book

Kitchener’s ‘Contemptible Little Army’ which crossed to France in August 1914 was highly professional, but was small and equipped only with what it could carry. Facing it was a force of continental proportions, heavily armed and well supplied. The task of equipping the British Army, which would grow out of all recognition, was truly herculean.

It was, though, undertaken by ordinary men and women all around the British Isles and beyond. Men fit to fight in the trenches had been called to the colours do just that, so it was largely those left behind. In time government recognised the need for skills of engineering and logistics and such who had survived the onslaught were brought back to their vocation. Women had a key part to play.

Ordnance is the story of these men and women and traces the provision of equipment and armaments from raw material through manufacture to the supply routes which put into the hands of our soldiers all the materiel that they needed to win the war. 

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Remembrance 2017

In one year's time it will be a century since the armistice was signed to begin the end of what came to be called the Great War. There will be a host of events to mark the anniversary.
This year, in the comparative quiet, I take time to reflect.
I have spent the last four years immersed in war, as I have been writing successively War on Wheels and then Ordnance. I have read of terrible loss of life, examples of bravery but mainly the dogged work of ordinary people in trying to make sure that our soldiers would have all they needed to defeat the enemy. It was inspiring and has made me think long and hard.
The one enduring image is of waste.
My own father, who led the RAOC in WW2, gave a number of speeches with the title The Waste of War. He had witnessed massive waste of human life in both world wars, but a colossal expenditure of materiel in WWII. As he put it, the side prepared to waste the most would emerge victorious. I might now add, after researching WW1, that alongside the waste of life, the waste of material resources was on a scale so great that made a shortage of raw material a real issue.
I encapsulate this waste in the image of the War Memorial at Chilwell.
Chilwell was a major shell filling factory in WWI and the Army Centre for Mechanisation in WWII. The Memorial remembers the 134 munition workers who lost their lives in an explosion that nearly destroyed the factory on 1 July 1918; it also remembers those who have lost their lives in WWI and later conflicts.

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

REME 75

'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

Ammuntion

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

Boots

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.’