Sheffield: The Arsenal of the World 1914-1918

A presentation from the SYTT event - Remembering and Forgetting: Exploring local commemorations of WW1 (26th April, 2015) by Dr. Merv Lewis, Sheffield Hallam University


Well I’m one of I suppose, what is referred to as an academic historian who doesn’t perhaps get out into the community enough so this is a welcome change for me. I thought long and hard about how to present this because I want to talk about Sheffield as a great munitions centre and a great producer of the weapons of war between 1914 and 1918 but I thought okay I know about Sheffield but I want to place Sheffield in a wider context, if you like in the big picture and that big picture of course is the Great War of 1914 to 1918, a war fought between the great powers of Europe and then later of course the United States of America.

It’s only to me in that context that we can perhaps understand Sheffield’s contribution to the Great War, so I want to talk about first of all the big picture and that is the war and what type of war it is that Britain was engaged in, in those four long and bloody years. So we think of the war in our memory of course as a Great War of attrition, a great wearing out war and of course we think of it in terms of a stalemate and the horrors of trench warfare, which of course lasted really until early 1918. The war also of course was a war of mass armies.

Britain was a citizen army unlike Germany, unlike other nations, those soldiers who fought at the great battle of the Somme in 1916 were there because they wanted to be there, it was a citizen army. It was not until as example, January 1916 that Britain introduced conscription,  associated of course the citizen army with this lot – Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War who replaced the great new volunteer armies that transformed Britain from essentially an imperial and maritime power into a great continental power by the time of the Somme on the 1st of July 1916.

Just to remind you, a quick reminder particularly after yesterday’s commemorations yes – I’ll move onto that. It was also of course in our popular memory a war of great carnage, this is the BEF advancing on the 1st July 1916 on the Somme and this was the outcome unfortunately for the Sheffield Pals, the war diaries are now available by the National Archive online. They were mowed down in a curtain of shell fire, German machine guns, wracking death from both sides, the lines were thinner but they went on anyway. This is our image of the Great War, a war of slaughter, a war of carnage. It was also quickly an imperial war, it was fought between British and empire troops against the German empire and of course – I sometimes forget this myself, it was also a coalition war, a war fought with British and the French, in fact it was not until 1917 and the second half of 1917 that British troops and the Western Front surpassed those of the French and we sometimes perhaps forget that.

It was also in my mind and in my research, it was an industrial war. The battlefields of the Somme and for the French Verdun in 1916, those were great industrial battlefields. For example the preliminary bombardment before the battle of the Somme took place between the 24th and 30th of June. British artillery unleashed a ferocious preliminary bombardment firing into the German lines about 1.6 million shells repelled from one thousand five hundred and thirty eight guns, a huge industrial bombardment, casualties of course were horrendous, British causalities between the first of July and the nineteenth of November 1916 totalled four hundred and thirty two thousand. French causalities two hundred and four thousand and approximately five hundred and eighty thousand German causalities. This was the horrendous outcome of industrial warfare.

Industrial warfare well it’s associated with this man, David Lloyd George who held all the high offices during the war, first Chancellor of the Exchequer then in May of 1915 he became Britain’s first Minister of Munitions he then became Secretary of State for War in July 1916 and then of course Britain’s wartime Prime Minister in December 1916. For Lloyd George he began to understand that this was a war of industry of what he called an engineer’s war, everything he argued depends upon rapid efficient production of fighting material in vast quantities and we are therefore face to face with a necessity of a dual army. One in the fields of France and Flanders and one in the workshops of British industry, including of course the steel city and the great arsenal of Sheffield.

This was their vision of the war, an industrial war. Lloyd George was the architect of the creation of the Ministry of Munitions in May 1915. It was a great governmental department which was there to organise and coordinate the industrial war effort, to recruit labour, to allocate machinery, to allocate steel, coal and other raw materials. By May 1915 the British state had taken over the control and the management of the war economy, his ideas were not simply to raise output to meet the demands of the Western Front but he insisted that his ministry was to produce a surplus, more than enough and that it could control armaments production and to focus its output on the production of big calibre guns and huge munitions production.

It expanded its production system by creating what are called area schemes – that is devolving production down to local manufacture; I will talk about that in Sheffield later. Sheffield had what’s called an Ammunitions Board which organised local production. It also concentrated production on the development of newly constructed national shell factories and I’ll talk about the two of those in Sheffield a little later as well as national filling factories which were highly dangerous places to work by the way, filling shells with high explosives and gunpowder.

The state subjugated both labour and indeed business to the power and authority of the state, the Munitions of War Act of June 1915 outlawed strikes, outlawed restrictive practices in works and subjugated labour to the control of the state as well as allowing business to control property and business with service which were now to produce for the Great War effort. Sheffield, this is how I locate Sheffield, Sheffield is part of our understanding of the war as an industrial war, Sheffield in 1914 was a great centre of steel production. Sheffield actually was not a bulk producer, a mass producer of steel, Sheffield was a specialist producer, particularly of alloy steels and specialist steels which were not produced in bulk but produced in batches, that’s what gave Sheffield its reputation – the quality of what it produced, but Sheffield was also the home of some of Britain’s largest armaments manufacturers, notably the origins of Vickers Ltd.

Its origins were in this city although of course by 1914 it was no longer really a Sheffield firm, it was a naval producer of ships in its Barrow shipyards, also there was the Maxim Machine Gun, it had a munitions works in Erith in London. It was not really by 1914 a specifically Sheffield firm but it added in its River Don Works the capacity for shell production and gun production which it was a vital player of during the First World War. Other firms included John Brown and Company, its Atlas works. John Brown was also a naval ship builder, with ship building capacity on the Clyde. It also manufactured guns in Coventry at the Coventry Ordnance Works. Cammell-Laird and Company, Sheffield. The naval ship yards at Birkenhead near Liverpool and the gun manufacture also at Coventry, at Coventry Ordnance works.

Two more specific Sheffield firms were Thomas Firth and Hadfield’s Ltd who both produced shell and munitions production, both before and during the Great War. The records of these companies were obtained in the Sheffield Archives as well as material located in the National Archives in London which I spent five years ploughing through to my cost. These were some of the great munitions producers. Actually in Britain there was only a small ring of large armaments manufacturers, most of them had their origins or their location in Sheffield and with one big exception that is and that was the great armaments producers of Armstrong Whitworth and Company which were located in Newcastle and the north east.

Vickers and Armstrong Whitworth were the two great armaments producers of the Second World War. The industrial army at home, this was Sheffield, remember Lloyd Georges message, Britain required not one army but a dual army in the workshops of British industry. These are women working at the Sheffield works of Cammell-Laird and Company around 1916. These are the great gun forging plant of Vickers Ltd, The River Don works, I think it’s around 1917, fitting bridge mechanisms to large naval and heavy calibre guns, the very guns of course that are created for destruction on the Somme and other battles of the Great War.

Labour was a key issue during the Great War, the great dilemma of a military planet and the administrator’s awe was one thing, labour supply, as the new arms grew from 1914 they siphoned off labour from the industrial economy. Particularly and crucially for Sheffield they siphoned off the skilled artisans, the very men who had knowledge and the skill to develop the munitions of war. The policy of the government was to introduce what is called dilution, that is the war was a war of industry and dilution was a strategy designed to overcome the great problem of the war and that was the drain of skilled men labour from industry to make the expanding armies on the Western Front. It was not about getting rid of skilled labour, it was a means of preserving a very precious resource and that was the skilled labour required in British industry.

It was not simply the replacement of the male workers by women, their aim was to conserve the stock of skilled labour by concentrating the work of skilled men on activities only they could do and others could not do, and move them from those tasks that others less skilled, both male and female could, with a little training actually do – it was a means of demarcating between and skilled and unskilled workers, these again are your women at war and obviously this is a very posed picture I may add.

Sixty percent of the labour force in munitions shell production by the end of the war were women, they largely worked on what are called automatic laves and therefore they produced or they conducted an operation in a repetitive way, mass producing components for shop. In the morning a skilled male worker would set up the machinery then the woman would come and reproduce. If the machines needed re-gauging or changing the skilled worker would come in. For every one skilled worker that could be found you could employ twenty unskilled or semi-skilled women or unskilled men or even youths to the workforce. It was a mean of preserving the skilled labour.

Sheffield, was not only the home of the great manufacturers like Vickers, Firths etcetera, it also during the war, met the objectives of the Ministry of Munitions to invest and construct huge national factories. This is the National Projectile Factory at Templeborough, managed on behalf of the government by Thomas Firth and Company. It was a thirty metre site, it cost around eight hundred and four thousand pound to construct which seems perhaps not a lot these days but if you convert that into today’s money it would have cost today around sixty four million pounds to construct. It employed around five thousand six hundred – seven hundred workers, about five thousand of them were women by the end of the Great War.

Between 1916-1918 they’d manufactured around two point six million shells. It also required an enormous investment in connecting railways, electrical and water supply as well as the accommodation of workers themselves. It was a vast industrial enterprise funded by the tax payer, funded by the government with the aim of industrial warfare. Hadfield’s also had the National Projectile Factory at Tinsley occupying a ten acre site costing around nine hundred thousand pounds to build and they produced both shells and heavy guns. It employed and I’ve not quite worked out the figures, it employed around seven thousand workers by 1918 though I haven’t got the proportion of male and female, I suspect the proportion of female workers was particularly high but I haven’t got the actual numbers.

Sheffield was also not simply about the large specialist manufacturers, around three quarters of all Sheffield firms, all Sheffield business by 1916 were engaged in some form of war work, around three quarters and part of this was due to the work of the Sheffield Committee of the Munitions of War which founded in May 1915 to meet the requirements of the Ministry of Munitions to spread contacts, to spread production across the wider engineering economy. It consisted the committee itself of some of Sheffield’s most prominent business men, Colonel Howard Hughes was a director of Jessops & Sons, a large Sheffield steel manufacturer, AJ. Hobson, Thomas Turner& Company, one of the city’s largest cutlery manufacturers, WH Ellis was the Lord Mayor and Master Cutler, Flather was an engineer, Arthur Balfour, famous Sheffield steel manufacturer, William Osborn, Samuel Osborn & Company the list goes on. These are some of the most prestigious figures of the British steel industry, they included William Ripper who was the Professor of Mechanical, Electrical and Civil engineering at the University of Sheffield, and it’s a long list and these are just some of the firms that were given contracts by the Sheffield Munitions Committee. They ranged from producers of silver plate and cutlery to manufacturers of lawn movers, the Sheffield Simplex motor company etcetera.

This was one of the great innovations of the Ministry of Munitions to spread contracts, not to specialist producers, these were firms who had no knowledge really of how to produce munitions. Some of these can’t produce shells or guns, they had to learn and develop knowledge to produce commodities which they had no skill or no emphasis on before 1914. This was one of the great innovations of the Ministry of Munitions, to spread these contracts across a wider number of engineering firms, around three quarters of all Sheffield firms by 1916 were engaged in some form of war work and you can see some of it here. By mid-1916 this committee had delivered around nine thousand grenades, two hundred and fifty thousand brass cartridge discs and eighteen pound of shells, two hundred and seventy thousand Stokes trench howitzer bombs, thirty thousand eight hundred and eighty primers, gaines etcetera. They were components of the shell. It also produced around two hundred and eighteen thousand shrapnel proof steel helmets. The engineering economy in Sheffield, the production bids expanded rapidly under the auspices of the Munitions Committee.

New weapons were also important to Sheffield, notably the tank with companies like Edgar Allan & Company, Cammell-Laird and Vickers produced armour plate for tank production but new weapons for what is called mechanical warfare which became vitally important in 1917 and particularly in what we called the victory battles of the summer of 1918, but let’s turn back to the big picture. The audit of war, Sheffield and its region at the beginning of the war its five large armaments firms were making no more than one thousand shells per week or about fifty two thousand shell per annum, but at the end of 1917 the Sheffield region was making approximately six million shells per annum.

For every one shell produced in 1914 the area was producing around one hundred and fifteen by 1917. It was indeed a great arsenal of the war, a huge increase in munitions production, over the duration of the war in terms of industrial warfare the British expended – fired around a hundred and sixty seven point six million shells and I did count that [laughs] I went through every figure don’t you worry. They weighed around four point one million tonnes. By the time of the Battle of Amiens in early August 1918 the British unleashed a fire power twice as intensive as that at the Battle of the Somme and this was now combined of course with infantry, tanks and aircraft as Lloyd George the Minister of Munitions recognised as early as November 1915, this was a war of material, above everything else and the steel city of Sheffield made a vital contribution to the Great War and to industrial warfare.

The lessons of the Great War was that the British achieved victory only by exploiting the manufacturing resources of the British nation, without this Sir Douglas Hague’s strategy of attrition involving the British people in a long and bloody conflict would not have been tended. Industrial production was vital to a war of attrition over four long and bloody years. The conundrum facing Britain’s most dominant political figure who I started with, David Lloyd George was that although he was instrumental in supplying the British Army with the materials of industrial war at the same time he was horrified by the carnage that industrial warfare inflicted on those fighting on the Western Front. Lloyd George was always looking for an alternative to the carnage of the Western Front but as the Generals asserted Britain could only achieve victory by defeating the German army in the killing fields of France and Flanders and that required an industrial war on a scale never seen in history before.

Transcript ends

This page was added on 21 May 2015.

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