Britain’s tiny Army took the field in 1914 with a reserve of just one million shells and less than 1,200 modern artillery weapons to shoot them. Demand soon outstripped supply as manufacturers struggled to increase production, with shortfalls resulting in battlefield losses and a political scandal that spurred Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith to form a new government. This story was even worse with machine guns, the primary infantry weapon of the conflict. Whereas the British Army had only 2,000 of them when war was declared, they will receive more than 225,000 by the time the war ends — along with more than ten thousand field guns and heavy guns as well as 217 million rounds of artillery ammunition weighing 54 million tons.
France, which began with a far larger artillery park and a much larger reserve of shells, has still experienced problems of their own — and like the British, some of these troubles have been of their own making. Despite the clear evidence of early trench warfare offensives that heavier guns were needed to fire higher-angle rounds, French Army generals maintained an almost-myopic faith in the power of their 75 millimeter field guns. There are also material considerations: the German Army has occupied the part of France containing two-fifths of the nation’s heavy industry, most of its coal, and much of its steel. The national Gross Domestic Product has already fallen off and will not recover until hostilities finally end.
These problems are not insurmountable, of course, but they are just the beginning of the work that needed to be done. In Britain, David Lloyd George has assumed primary responsibility by moving from Treasury to the new Ministry of Munitions. Albert Thomas has been promoted to the equivalent position in the French government. Whereas Lloyd George is a banker, however, Thomas began the war as a dedicated socialist. “Are we really the same men,” he asked rhetorically in a speech to labor organizers in London last month,
who appeared in former days at the labor congresses as the most stubborn opponents of militarism, who protested against the heavy burden of the great regular armies, and were by no means reconciled to all the trying obligations imposed by universal military service, using both labor and political organisations for criticism and protest? Yes, we are the same men who voluntarily impose upon ourselves all these burdens today.
Meeting again in London, today the two most important men in the entire allied war effort face the most intractable munitions problem of all: their less-industrialized allies Italy and Russia.
From the beginning, Lloyd George saw allied cooperation on munitions as a stepping-stone to increase his own writ in government. Beginning in June, he has held a series of meetings with Thomas to reach agreements that prevent the uneasy cross-channel partnership from breaking down over fights about access to each other’s markets and materials: France needs British coke, while Britain needs French picric acid. “I do not consider the Ministry of Munitions in London or my own office in Paris to be two separate institutions,” Thomas likes to say. “I consider there is one Munitions Ministry for both countries.”
But just as French and British offensives on the Western Front have gone disastrously wrong this year, the Italian Army’s five-month old war with the Austro-Hungarian Empire has faltered on insufficient artillery and shell stocks at times. Russia is even worse-off: lacking the industrial base that any of their allies enjoy, the Tsar has made ever-enlarging and ever-more unrealistic demands on Paris and London to supply artillery and shells that he cannot build. Nor will the models built for the Western Front suffice, as Russia needs tubes to be made of thinner, higher-quality steel so that horses can tow them through the mud of Eastern Europe. The small arms shortage is particularly alarming, for Russian units are occasionally entering battle without weapons, the soldiers being instructed to confiscate them from the dead.
The Russians have also deranged the American markets upon which all the allies depend by making large orders for things they cannot use or even ship across the Atlantic. Indeed, Russian logistics are so terrible that British diplomats unsuccessfully try to convince the Tsar’s government to let them take over Russian shipping to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk. When guns and shells and equipment does arrive in Russian ports, the process of unloading them and transporting them on Russia’s creaking railroads fails to deliver them in a timely fashion.
By the end of today’s meeting, Thomas has proposed a central munitions office — a very exciting idea to Italy and Russia, who would prefer to be equal partners with Britain and France in this matter. A vague resolution to create such an organization is approved by all parties, but will be implemented by none of them, for they are putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Greater strategic cooperation must flow from the national commands down to the munitions work, not the other way around.
Whereas Lloyd George has increased production by opening and staffing larger facilities, Thomas has taken a smaller-scale approach by encouraging thousands of smaller workshops and factories across France to open or convert to making munitions. Both men insist on rigorous standards and focus on churning out a limited, but effective set of weapons in very large numbers. By importing American coal, steel, and machine tools to replace those lost in the occupied territories, French manufacturers are ramping up to produce 200,000 75 millimeter shells a day and 100,000 other types by the end of 1916.
The biggest issue, however, is finding people to do the work. This often means bringing unskilled people into the workplace, a practice known as ‘dilution’ that is deeply unpopular with tradesmen. Just as Lloyd George has found an accommodation with labor unions, Thomas has prevented strikes by ensuring that wages rise. At first taking the unprecedented step of recalling 500,000 men from the battlefront to their old jobs in munitions factories, he must still find new workers in a labor market that is almost devoid of unemployed males. One obvious, but revolutionary solution: encourage the hiring of women.
“Without women, victory will tarry,” Lloyd George observed in Parliament this June. This month, Thomas has begun a series of ten circulars calling on employers to use more unskilled female labor — a change that labor unions have strongly resisted in the past, but which they welcome as a wartime innovation. Issued during the apocalyptic Battle of Verdun next year, the last of these circulars will outright ban the hiring of men for a list of occupations ten pages long.
To aid the transition, Lloyd George and Thomas provide small armies of labor officers (mostly women) to tour the factories and look for ways to ‘rationalize’ the production process by reorganizing, mechanizing, and ‘deskilling’ the assembly line. Where a single skilled man has previously worked a single shell through seven steps, the job is now given to seven different unskilled women, each performing one part of the same sequence. While production is steadily booming, Thomas will need to find even more sources of labor in the months to come. Recruiting will extend to retirees, youth, refugees, and the disabled — even prisoners of war. He will eventually import Algerian and Vietnamese workers, too, further diluting France’s traditionally white, male workforce.