Arming all sides: telling the other story of the First World War

A new project remembers how people opposed the arms trade during World War One and challenges the arms companies that haven't changed since.

A Battery Shelled Wyndham Lewis

'A battery shelled' by Wyndham Lewis. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 2747)

World War One should never have been fought. It was a war that claimed millions of lives across Europe. It devastated families and shattered communities, but it also lined the pockets of arms companies and their shareholders.

Arming All Sides is a new project supported by Campaign Against Arms Trade, On the Record and a team of volunteers that scoured archives across the length and breadth of the UK.

The project tells the story of how a global network of arms companies fuelled war by selling a new generation of advanced weapons to anyone who would pay for them. World War One was the first global conflict since the industrial revolution, and the new generation of mechanised weapons led to devastating casualties. Attempts had been made to ban Chemical Warfare as early as 1899, but the arms trade persevered, and gas killed 25,000 on the Western front alone.

Despite the drive from government there were a number of people who resisted the impending war. The project tells the story of the brave women who crossed mine-­strewn seas to attend the first International Women's Peace Congress in 1915, and the thousands of Glasgow dock­workers who put down their tools to stop the production of weapons.

The research has been used to compile a number of detailed case studies to highlight the conduct of the arms trade before, during and after the war. The research is focused around four main themes: the making and selling of arms, opposition to the arms trade, the government’s relationship with the trade and cultural perceptions and representations of the arms trade.

Vickers and Krupp: A Debacle Over Royalty Payments

One case study that highlights the moral bankruptcy of the arms trade and underlines why 'national security' was often used a smokescreen for the war profiteering is the Krupp shell patents debacle.

Krupp was the leading German arms company of the day. It often traded weapons with Vickers – which was the second biggest UK weapon producer at the time. Vickers cut deals allowing them to use Krupp fuzes and fuze-­related machinery.

At the outbreak of war, all payments to Germany were suspended under the Trading with the Enemy Act. Vickers were supposed to deposit royalty payments with the ‘Custodian of Enemy Properties.’ The plot thickened when Vickers stopped paying royalties into that account for Krupp, while still including the royalties in the shell prices charged to the government.

Between 1914 and 1918 Vickers sold millions of fuzes to the UK government. By a tentative estimate, Vickers were paid £11 million by the UK government (over £200 million in today's money). It is clear from just this one example that Vickers and their shareholders made handsome profits from supplying the Government’s war effort with ammunition.

Wartime correspondence shows that Vickers passed royalty payments on to the Government in their invoices, rather than paying them from their own profits. Contracts signed by the government included 1 shilling 2d of royalties on each fuze.

The contracts between Vickers and Krupp were officially suspended in 1916 when the Trading with the Enemy Act was revised. After the contract with Krupp was suspended, the government tried repeatedly to negotiate lower shell prices with Vickers.

By the end of the war, the Ministry of Munitions and the war office had already paid £300,329 royalties (calculated as a percentage of fuze prices). The government had to recover overpaid royalties by deducting money from the Treasury’s final post­war settlement of £1,250,000 to Vickers. None of this prevented Vickers director Basil Zaharoff receiving a knighthood in 1919.

Unfortunately this kind of behaviour is all too typical of an industry that routinely profits from war and conflict. Sometimes the decisions made by UK arms companies and the government even saw UK weapons being turned on Allied forces. For example, Turkish forces used ammunition sold by the UK in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, during which French, British and Australian troops suffered 285,600 casualties.

The arms trade today

After the First World War many believed the arms trade to be a primary cause of war. The unprecedented scale of death and destruction wrought by modern weaponry led a majority of people to support disarmament and international conciliation. The scale of opposition was seen with events, such as the Peace Ballot, in which over 10 million people register their opposition to the arms trade.

Arms companies haven't changed since then. They exist to sell weapons, irrespective of of national boundaries, and selling to all sides in a conflict has not abated since the First World War. The conflict in Libya is a case in point. It saw arms from one company, MBDA, being used by Gaddafi's forces, the Libyan rebels and the UK and French military.

To challenge the arms trade and its militaristic mindset we need to counter the myth that arms companies act in the national interest. Exposing their behaviour a century ago will help us to respond to those trying to teach the wrong lessons from the First World War: remembering how people opposed the arms trade then can inspire us to challenge it now.

Source: Campaign Against Arms Trade

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade
You can follow Campaign Against Arms Trade at @wwwcaatorguk
And visit The Arming All Sides project website here

Why WW1 veteran said dandelions instead of red poppies should be used to remember WW1 dead