Stokes Mortar - one of the simplest inventions

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. 

Monday, 18 December 2017

Christmas in Selonika 1916

The Ordnance presence in Selonika was bedevilled by that which bedevilled so much of the Great War: Mud.

'There were not enough officers or men, not enough room, not enough transport, not enough labour and not enough stationery – this last a very important matter when any kind of storekeeping and accounting has to be established. Besides all these deficiencies there was one very serious surplus – mud.'

Like everywhere, though, there were flashes of normality such as the Christmas concert in 1916. The programme was signed by Colonel McVittie who later came out of retirement in the early years of WW2. His son was taken prisoner by the Japanese in Hong Kong and later led the RAOC in the Cold War.

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.