The final book of the trilogy on army supply

The final  book of the trilogy on army supply
The third of my books on army supply

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. 
You can buy Ordnance and my other books by following this link

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


'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 about how the army was equipped for the Great War in Ordnance. I explore further the story behind the formation of REME in Dunkirk to D Day.

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


The British Army in August 1914 was supremely well trained; their rifle fire was so rapid that the Germans thought they were facing machine guns.

The army though was small and lightly armed.

The experience of trench warfare demonstrated a need for many hundreds of thousands more men, each fully armed. It also showed the need for very many more heavy guns. Outstripping all of these, by an order of magnitude, was the demand for ammunition: hundreds of millions of shells.

In Ordnance, I tell the story of how all this was supplied.

In 1915, as soon as ammunition arrived in France it was taken to the front and fired. By 1916 production had increased to the extend that storage facilities were needed in France.

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.

The production of ammunition was a story in itself. I tell in the book of the shell crisis in 1915 when divisions were rationed in the numbers of shells they could fire in a day. The situation was addressed by the formation of the Ministry of Munitions under Lloyd George which resulted in a network of shell manufacture and filling factories across the country. One such was at Chilwell where my maternal grandfather worked as supervisor. Its story replicated so much in this war that individual initiative and inventiveness really won the day. Accidents, though, happened and on 1 July 1918, 134 munition workers lost their lives in a massive explosion. They are remembered on the Chilwell war memorial.

Chilwell was to become the army centre for mechanisation in WW2.

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.

Thursday 27 April 2017

So many connections in the push to equip the army for the Great War

Researching Ordnance, I am finding so many connections; it is like a spider's web.

Humber cars, who produced important vehicles in WW2, armoured cars and famously Montgomery's staff car,  were manufacturing in Beeston near Chilwell in WW1 and so its workers would have heard the tragic explosion at the then Shell Filling Factory on 1 July 1918. The Chilwell site became the Army Centre for Mechanisation in WW2, as I describe in War on Wheels.

Holt tractors, helped by patents sold by Hornsby in Grantham and manufactured in the UK by Rustons of Lincoln, became Caterpillar because 'they looked like a giant caterpillar crossing the ground'. Holt caterpillar tractors were used to haul heavy artillery in WW1.

Herbert Austin was the driving force behind Wolseley which became part of the Morris, or Nuffield, group of companies. Neither Austin nor Morris were great vehicle producers in WW1, but both contributed greatly to the war effort in other armaments.

Daimler produced the engine for the first tanks and also for their own and AEC's 3 ton trucks.

Daimler 3 Ton Trucks ready to go to the front

Monday 20 March 2017

A Prequel to War on Wheels

My new book, Ordnance on equipping the British Army in WW1, is to be published by The History Press in June 1918.

Exploring the story,  there is a strong thread of lessons waiting to be learnt. Some were, but, for others, it wouldn't be until WW2 that they bore fruit.

Alongside the lessons, are great examples of human effort overcoming shortfalls in the organisation and of human ingenuity solving endless problems.

The scale of everything was vast: so big that one constraint was a shortage of raw materials needed to produce all manner of materiel. Not enough leather for saddlery was just one such example. In order to save metal, shell cases were gathered in their thousands for re-use. Salvage became a huge operation, not just to make good shortages but also in the interests of economy.

Millions of tons of explosive used in countless variations and sizes of ammunition were stored in conditions ranging from the mud of the western front to the scorching sun of the desert and freezing cold of the mountains. Deterioration was inevitable, but men had, by hand and without protection, to render them safe and ready for use. Fatal accidents were inevitable.
The war memorial at Chilwell, remembering also those who lost their lives in a massive explosion at the Shell Filling Factory on 1 July 1918.

Wednesday 1 March 2017

Children supplying the army in WW2

In the summer of 1943 the Derby depot had found itself unable to deal with the volume of material it was receiving and so Brigadier Robinson had the imaginative idea of seeing if school children on their summer holidays would help.

The Derby Evening Telegraph ran an article on how these school children helped to prepare for the invasion. What shone out from this was the enthusiasm and skill of all concerned including the teachers. One girl took on the challenge of sorting a cupboard full of 30,000 boxes by size. Another group packed in three hours what their army supervisor had thought would take days. The children didn’t complain of boredom since it was an activity quite different from their daily round.

It wasn’t just in the Midlands. The Twickenham times ran this story.

Pupils of Twickenham County School for Girls and Hampton Grammar School have shown a fine sense of patriotism by giving up their Easter holiday to do war work…boys and girls aged from 14 to 16, are working morning and afternoon for the Army in packing spare parts for tanks and other Army Vehicles. …some scholars pack the spares into cartons while others seal, label and pack the cartons into boxes ready for shipment.

Elsewhere it was reported that pupils from Eton had also leant a hand at the Feltham Depot.

Tuesday 28 February 2017

The problem of MT spares - there could be only one D Day

In March 1943 The War Diaries of the DOS Allied Forces HQ North Africa, Brigadier WEC Picknall  reported ‘Warren and McCausland have arrived and I think their visit, and that of the Chilwell party, should be most helpful'.

One issue that had haunted the North African campaign was that of spare parts for motor vehicles. There were a great many different vehicles all requiring their own spares with parts wearing at different rates, some demanding frequent replacement some less so. Somehow the right number of the right parts had always to be in the right place at the right time.

Warren and McCausland were key men at Chilwell which was the British Army's centre for mechanisation. Sending them out to Africa on a mission, which was part advisory and part investigatory, underlined just how crucial this issue was.

It wasn't though about Africa, or indeed Sicily or Italy; it was about the invasion of mainland Europe which was then being planned. It was essential that all the lessons stemming from mistakes revealed in earlier campaigns should be taken on board.

There could be only one D Day.

Landing stores after D Day

Monday 20 February 2017

Dan Snow's seal of approval for War on Wheels

Dan Snow has Tweeted this to his 155,000 followers @thehistoryguy

I learn from this excellent book that during WW2 the number of vehicles in the British Army went from 40k to 1.5mill
What can I say? I'm thrilled at this affirmation.

Friday 10 February 2017

Paris in February 1917

What would it have felt to be here, in Paris, in 1917. The war had dragged on for three gruelling years. Everyone must have known someone who had died or been injured. Yet life went on.

The firm of Joly Fils had been given the job of storing, cleaning and repairing British uniforms when summer moved on to winter. Not only uniforms but blankets, great coats and underwear. To say that Christmas had arrived early would be unfair, but there must have been a sense of clouds with silver linings. The Paris fashion houses, which had been deserted by war,  were given the job of cleaning fur lined coats.

Dressmakers remade the kilts of the Scottish regiments and, from the fine quality of the material, were left in little doubt that Scotsmen need wear nothing under them.

There were surely other examples of the war driving the economy. There were tales of the massive number of bakers gathered round Calais in order to be part of the machine feeding the troops. Of greater moment were the armament manufacturers, the ship builders, the clothing and boot companies.

Wednesday 8 February 2017

Talking at Chilwell

What an experience!
Seeing some of the places that I have been writing about; not for the first time since I was there in 1966 for the sliver jubilee of the Shell Filling factory, although I have no real memory of the occasion.
To imagine the Chilwell site, now a shadow of its former self, as a square mile of brambles and derelict buildings. To imagine the men from Long Eaton builders, F Perks & Son, setting to, to clear the site to make it fit for the centre of army mechanisation.
To imagine my grandfather, Frank Perks, overseeing the work, remembering his time as a supervisor in the melt shop, recalling the devastating explosion that killed 134 and injured 340, but also the men and women who came to work the next day and soon were beating their own production records.
To imagine my father, Bill Williams, who first visited the site in November 1934 and who in March 1935 became the Chief Ordnance Office with the remit to create what was probably the largest motor distribution business the world had ever seen.
It was a privilege to give a talk in such a place. There is so much to talk about in this story that can say so much to today's soldier.