Last month’s meeting of the Western Front Association welcomed John Mason Sneddon to give his talk War is the Father of all Things.
The focus was the September 1914 commencement of trench warfare and the need for new weapons to fight such a war.
Given the scale of the Great War, it was also necessary to organise manufacturing capacity to meet the demand.
At the beginning of the war, most weapons and ammunition production was still carried out at ordnance factories but these did not have the capacity to meet the increased demand.
There were existing sections of the War Office responsible for the supply of weapons, etc, to infantry and artillery but grenades and mortars needed to be improved, produced in greater quantities and those like flamethrowers needed inventing. A new section was established to do this.
A recently retired engineer officer, Colonel Jackson, was put in charge. His brief was concerned with fortifications so matters relating to trench warfare, similar to siege warfare, fell to him.
The section eventually became the Trench Warfare Department.
Jackson had relevant expertise and a refreshing approach to his responsibilities. He was not tied down by existing bureaucracy so was able to assemble a staff with experience in manufacturing and business, well able to go out into industry, find solutions to problems and ways of getting things made in sufficient volume. If the 1915 volumes were large compared to 1914, they were huge by 1916 onwards.
By the end of 1914, 35 per cent of skilled labour in manufacturing had joined the army.
Because of this, Jackson was not allowed to utilise premises, materials or people already engaged in war work.
His section solved the problem by dealing with small companies who collectively could meet demand. His supply officers were responsible for manufacture, quality assurance and delivery. His section became the most efficient in the War Office.
It developed and produced grenades, leading eventually to Mills bombs and even a catapult to fire grenades into German trenches. The development of mortars led to the Stokes mortar.
A very important find was an explosive called Ammonal, used in civilian industry, cheap to make and which could be used in landmines, naval mines and artillery shells.
Without it, Britain would have had difficulty in producing the high numbers of shells required.
The British had developed flamethrowers by October 1914, some nine months before Germany, but at first they were not used ‘because it was not the sort of weapon a gentleman should use.’
Eventually, the Trench Warfare Section was transferred to the Ministry of Munitions. Jackson himself became a general.
The WFA’s next formal meeting will be on Monday, July 28, with Peter Hart’s talk L’Armee de Terre Francaise, 1914.
WFA meetings take place at 7.15pm (for 7.30pm) at Alnmouth and District Ex-Servicemen’s Club, Northumberland Street, Alnmouth.
A warm welcome awaits visitors and WFA members new to the branch. The suggested minimum donation is £2, to include a light finger supper.