Posts tagged ‘WWI’

Aug 15, 2020

VJ Day: who arms the enemy? War as an opportunity

15 August is VJ Day (Victory over Japan Day) – marking the day in 1945 when Japan surrendered.

Japan, as you will know, was one of the Axis powers, and enemy of the UK and its allies during World War II. Defeat for Japan came hard on the heels of the US dropping atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki causing around 200,000 civilian deaths. The more conventional weapons Japan was stockpiling from 1931 could offer no response to this new and devastating type of warfare.

In the build-up to World War II Japan’s rapid arms, naval and biological chemical expansion could not have taken place without input from abroad because Japan itself lacked many of the basic natural resources required to develop its own chemical manufacturing processes and the highly skilled engineering expertise needed to develop its arms, maritime and aviation production. Expertise in those fields lay in the west.

Witnessing Japan pouring vast fortunes into arming itself so soon after the end of the Great War – the war politicians promised would end all wars – alarmed many western powers. But it was not all bad news. It was very good news for private arms manufacturers, chemical producers and shipbuilders, in the UK. Their agents were quick to sign off deals ahead of their rivals. Deals at any price. Bribes as down-payments would oil the works – grease the palms.

Arms dealers have earned their notoriety as unscrupulous and voracious through their ruthlessness in sealing deals. If it’s called corruption then so be it. The British guns manufacturer Vickers – Armstrong was represented for thirty years by the most famous, infamous, of these agents, Basil Zaharoff, aka the Merchant of Death, Vickers Controller of Overseas Sales. Zaharoff cultivated and associated people who could do him favours, such as the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George.

This Merchant of Death suffered no guilt over supplying both sides in a conflict with arms. He was up to his corrupt neck in the Siemens Scandal of January 1914 which involved a number of arms dealers, including Vickers and the German arms company Siemens AG with the Imperial Japanese Navy. Vickers offered the Japanese navy a better deal than available from the German company to expand their naval programme of battleships.

It was just one more tremendous deal for Britain and British workers arranged by Zaharoff in his campaign to arm the world with the best weaponry available complete with a made in Britain stamp on them (metaphorically speaking – sometimes.) For his services to British industry even when it included arming ‘the enemy’ Zaharoff was awarded the British Order of the Bath and the Order of the British Empire.

The way western companies diced and dealt arms contracts across the globe has been a masterclass in ruthless cartel-building. Yes, there were voices speaking out against such despicable shady trade deals in Britain, the US and Germany but the interests of the profiteers whose contacts in governments did them no harm at all meant opposition was simply ignored.

Zaharoff might have been the most audacious of them all but he was not alone in his ruthless quest for making a private fortune out of death.

On February 25, 1937 Buckingham Palace released an announcement –

The KING has been pleased, by Letters Patent under the Great Seal of the Realm, bearing date the 24th instant, to confer the dignity of a Baron of the United kingdom upon Sir Harry Duncan McGowan, K.B.E., and the heirs male of his body lawfully begotten, by the name, style and title of BARON McGOWAN, of Ardeer, in the County of Ayr.

McGowan was an arms dealer. Henry or Harry McGowan was a Scot, educated at Hutchesons’ Grammar School in Glasgow he joined the Nobel Explosives company in Scotland before becoming chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) which was created out of Nobel Industries in 1926.

McGowan was ambitious and as free from guilt over his activities as Zaharoff. I wrote about McGowan in a blog a couple of weeks ago. Here is an extract.

Death Pays a Dividend (would make a good thriller title) is a book about government cronies and arms dealers making a mint out of wars. It was published in 1944 and written by Fenner Brockway and Frederic Mullally. Brockway was a prominent voice in socialist politics through the twentieth century – a member of the ILP (Independent Labour Party) and vehemently anti-war and the fraud that always accompanies wars. Mullally was a journalist and novelist.

In essence the book can be summed up as – politicians lie. World War I was going to be the war to end all wars – one helluva big lie. At the end of the war a new era of permanent peace was promised. Absolute lie. Politicians promised troops would come home (the lucky ones) to find homes for heroes; not the slums they were forced to live in before being marched off to the trenches. Of course, that was also largely a lie. No sooner was the armistice signed that the promised and pledges were quietly shelved (exactly comparable to all those empty promises made to Scots if they rejected independence in the 2014 referendum- a pack of lies.)

Wind back a century and when it was asked if the horrific level of deaths among those drafted in to fight the imperialist Great War were sacrificed in vain – the answer came back from government and their arms dealer cronies “No, we won the war.” “No, we won the war” and onto the next one. Pass the port and cigars.

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They did not have to wait long for the next world war – a mere twenty years. In between were lots of lucrative wars. War is good for business. Much too good for business ever to stop them. At my last count there were around 60 major manufacturers linked to weaponry and arms in the UK and that does not include parts manufacturers. That’s about half the number of a few years ago and worldwide the numbers are immense. What is not great news for the majority of the world’s citizens is very much what the doctor ordered for Directors and Boards of all of these businesses which are defended by trade unions on grounds of the jobs they create. If that’s the sole argument for being involved in producing weapons that kill mainly civilians across the world then it’s corrupt and union leaders as well as the management of such businesses should be thoroughly ashamed. Not that they ever will be.

Brockway and Mullally feature a certain Harry McGowan to the extent I became intrigued and wanted to find out more about Lord McGowan. He sounded a charmer. Not. I wikied him. He was a British industrialist (one name for it) and Knight of the British Empire. Don’t know where he was born, suspect Scotland for his name is half Scottish and he went to school and university in Scotland. The man who went on to become Chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) was proud to sell his company’s weapons to anyone and everyone; ally or foe. His focus was purely financial. Interesting isn’t it that such a man who some would and did accuse of being anti-patriotic for supplying the very arms that killed British and allied soldiers received a knighthood. How immoral is that?

A Royal Commission on the Private Manufacture of and Trading in Arms of 1935 quotes McGowan, then Chairman of ICI –

“I have no objection to selling to both sides. I am not a purist in these things.”

Rapacious, unscrupulous, despicable. Such is the morality, immorality, of people who typically pack the red benches in the House of Lords. Business types who judge success solely on extent of wealth. During WW2 British companies were selling arms manufactured by British workers to Japan to be used against British and allied troops, a detail which inspired this question –

“The British Government has recently re-opened the Burma Road so that war material can reach the Chinese armies. What is the use of doing this if British industry is producing war material for the Japanese army?”

I don’t have the response but I suppose there’s a nice symmetry to such practice. And presumably the trade unions didn’t raise objections to British and Allied men and women becoming victims of British arms on the usual grounds that you can’t turn your nose up at jobs. It’s how they justify Trident being retained in Scotland.

“Between 1931 and 1936 the value of Vickers (arms manufacturer) stock rose by £19,704,000.”

**

The 1930s might have been the hungry thirties for large swathes of people in Britain but this was also a period of an explosion in the weaponization of the world with McGowan and his fellow-cartel war-mongers cashing in on the drive towards the next world war. Germany’s chemical industry employed with such devastating effect in extermination camps in WWII was enhanced through help provided by ICI.

The Royal Commission mentioned above to enquire into the activities of private arms and chemical businesses providing materials and expertise to anyone and everyone with the means to pay them was set up despite the government that resisted it, ignored it and buried its results. People like McGowan are virtually untouchable, so tightly are they enmeshed in the British establishment. Not only the British establishment, it should be said.

As chairman of ICI McGowan set out to have the company monopolise chemical manufacture in Britain and to rationalise chemical manufacture across the world. He was instrumental in Britain becoming a major player in the international arms market and international arms production. The cartel of ICI, Germany’s IG Farben and Du Pont in the United States was a powerful alliance of restrictive interests and insatiable greed.

“We now have arrangements for practically all the remainder of the World America and Mexico have been fixed up, South America is common territory, and mutually satisfactory arrangements have been made for China and Japan.”

As we’ve seen above, Japan was in the early years of the 20th century aggressively pursuing a policy of rapid weapons expansion including biological warfare used in its war with China in the 1930s. Japan could not have manufactured its chemical weapons were it not for the cartel of British, German and American companies cooperating to provide the raw materials necessary. To wheedle its way into the lucrative Asian market ICI reduced its prices for its chemicals, a move well-received by Japanese biochemical industries as it meant it could obtain essential raw materials for very little cash.

Shipbuilding expertise in Britain was also sought by the likes of Japan for its battleships. While arms manufacturers often describe their output in terms of defence we know that the uses their products are put to play no part in determining a contract. They are merchants of death. Their motivation is profit. That their products result in terror, injury and death is an irrelevance to them.

The chemical firm that manufactured mustard gas – that denied it had while continuing to produce it – has no conscience. The chemical firm prepared to supply materials for the production of biological warfare to anyone willing to pay – has no conscience.

ICI’s chairman, McGowan, admitted supplying chemicals to both Japan and China at war with each other. ICI and Vickers were condemned for supplying both sides in the war between Paraguay and Bolivia. Wars for merchants s are money-making opportunities. And they provide jobs for British workers. Even though those same workers might find themselves on the wrong end of their own weapons in a war. Nothing personal, y’understand.

For his sterling services to British industry and exports (not forgetting exports to Japan) Henry McGowan, Harry, was ennobled by the British state to become 1st Baron McGowan.

That’s how the UK system works. At the end of the day there’s the House of Lords where retired merchants of death can retreat into – to live at public expense and continue to influence British ‘democracy.’

The Rise of the Chemical Industries in Japan by Harald von Waldheim, Far Eastern Survey Vol 5. No 19 Sept 9 1936. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3022774

British Armaments and European Industrialization, 1890-1914, Clive Trebilcock,  https://www.jstor.org/stable/2594252

British Rearmament and the “Merchants of Death”: 1935-36 Royal Commission on the Manufacture of and Trade in Armaments, David G. Anderson, https://www.jstor.org/stable/260954

Aug 6, 2020

Year of the Plague 2020: a far from average year. Self-isolation diary week 20

I’m writing this account of week 20 on Wednesday, the first day of week 21 hours after news that Aberdeen will go back into lockdown because of growing cases of Covid-19. Thank you, whoever you are. 

Easing lockdown, an inevitable part of moving on, before a vaccine becomes available was always going to be risky. Just how risky was/is dependent on people being sensible and considerate. Those are two qualities not usually associated with boozing.

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It’s not a blame game, our government insists. Oh really? Why not? The majority of folk are not playing Russian roulette with the lives of people they know and don’t know. But some just wanna have fun. So, I know who I blame for this present state of affairs and it isn’t the mask-wearing keeping social-distance thoughtful folk it’s the me, me, me I’m entitled to play around like there’s no risk type of heid banger.

We were in Aberdeen yesterday meeting up with our son who lives very close to the Hawthorn Bar the origin, apparently, of this spike in cases. Across the other side of town our daughter has just returned to work from furlough. Her employer has spent time and money organising things to make it as safe as possible for everyone. Then Covid walks in the door, apparently linked to the bar outbreak, and everything and everyone are thrown into confusion, some into a 14-day quarantine and others hoping they aren’t carrying Covid back into their homes, endangering family members.

This is a reminder that danger lurks and we should be vigilant and responsible in protecting ourselves and others. Of course, not everyone agrees. Twitter is full of crazies and weirdos ranting on about dictators and folk choking on their masks. Okay, many are spammers from goodness knows where but many, far too many, are the mad, bad and sad who spread nonsense because of the thrill it provides them with and satisfies their craving for attention.

Back in week 20 I eventually made contact with an old friend – very old friend – we were fifteen when we met so it wasn’t yesterday. I was concerned because he’s usually active on social media then wasn’t. Eventually we spoke to one another and it transpired he had been ill and in hospital. It is not a good time to be ill, especially when you’re no longer fifteen, so wishing a man who was a hugely talented writer in his time, well.

The pair of lovely yellowhammers still entertain us on our regular walk. Can’t say we’ve missed the raucous call of our pheasants lately but their disappearance is troubling since there are folk who prefer their pheasants served on a plate. We’ve had a number of bird casualties in recent week with them flying against windows. Some survive but others quickly expire. We have things dangling inside several windows in an attempt to deter them but with so many birds in the garden I suppose it’s inevitable that some will fall victim to seeing reflections in glass windows as part of the great outdoors. To try to limit our aves deaths my husband purchased an owl. Not an actual owl but a larger than life version with a head that moves with the wind, allegedly, and eyes that gleam in the dark, allegedly. It perches on a table on the balcony in front of a very large window and so far since it’s been on the job we haven’t picked up any dead birds from there.

Blackcurrants are still coming and, yikes, so are the gooseberries. We have different ones – why do we grow so many? Seemed a good idea years ago. Yellow-green ones, really big yellowy-green ones and red ones. They are all best eaten straight off the bush along with handfuls of plump blackcurrants and deliciously sweet raspberries. On the subject of raspberries I’ve noticed how heavy this year’s crops of wild rasps along the verges are and as usual few seem to attract birds. Could it be they don’t relish chewing through all that flesh to get to the tiny seeds? We, on the other hand, love the flesh but aren’t too fond of raspberry seeds.

Our cat’s been fine this week aside from his dodgy eye. I’ve been applying those expensive eye drops for weeks but suspecting they weren’t doing him much good and wondering it they were actually exacerbating the problem I stopped them for a week. The eye then looked a little better until it didn’t once more and so back to the drops. He wanders around doing an impression of Nelson. Without the telescope.

The blue salvias still haven’t fully opened. Is there a lazier plant in the whole of the world? Beginning to think it’s down to the variety. The blue that’s showing is vibrant only there’s not much of it. Will keep you informed.

Watched the film Knives Out. Boring. Daniel Craig is miscast as an American. On the other hand started watching season 2 of Ozark. It’s just okay and not a patch on Bordertown but I have to say that the excellent Peter Mullan’s American drawl is way better than Daniel Craig’s insipid-nothing-like-any-American-I’ve-ever-heard accent. W-a-a-y better.

Some of you will remember we passed hundreds of our books to charity shops before  lockdown so I’m struggling for reading because so much of what’s left is fairly heavyweight or I’ve read them. This week I picked up one of the slimmest volumes I could find, as good a ways of selecting a book as any. Death Pays a Dividend (would make a good thriller title) is a book about government cronies and arms dealers making a mint out of wars. It was published in 1944 and written by Fenner Brockway and Frederic Mullally. Brockway was a prominent voice in socialist politics through the twentieth century – a member of the ILP (Independent Labour Party) and vehemently anti-war and the fraud that always accompanies wars. Mullally was a journalist and novelist.

In essence the book can be summed up as – politicians lie. World War I was going to be the war to end all wars – one helluva big lie. At the end of the war a new era of permanent peace was promised. Absolute lie. Politicians promised troops would come home (the lucky ones) to find homes for heroes; not the slums they were forced to live in before being marched off to the trenches. Of course, that was also largely a lie.  No sooner was the armistice signed that the promised and pledges were quietly shelved (exactly comparable to all those empty promises made to Scots if they rejected independence in the 2014 referendum- a pack of lies.)

Wind back a century and when it was asked if the horrific level of deaths among those drafted in to fight the imperialist Great War were sacrificed in vain – the answer came back from government and their arms dealer cronies “No, we won the war.” “No, we won the war” and onto the next one.  Pass the port and cigars.

They did not have to wait long for the next world war – a mere twenty years. In between were lots of lucrative wars. War is good for business. Much too good for business ever to stop them. At my last count there were around 60 major manufacturers linked to weaponry and arms in the UK and that does not include parts manufacturers. That’s about half the number of a few years ago and worldwide the numbers are immense. What is not great news for the majority of the world’s citizens is very much what the doctor ordered for Directors and Boards of all of these businesses which are defended by trade unions on grounds of the jobs they create. If that’s the sole argument for being involved in producing weapons that kill mainly civilians across the world then it’s corrupt and union leaders as well as the management of such businesses should be thoroughly ashamed. Not that they ever will be.

10458657_709293359142529_3707266876402278575_n

Brockway and Mullally feature a certain Harry McGowan to the extent I became intrigued and wanted to find out more about Lord McGowan. He sounded a charmer. Not. I wikied him. He was a British industrialist (one name for it) and Knight of the British Empire. Don’t know where he was born, suspect Scotland for his name is half Scottish and he went to school and university in Scotland. The man who went on to become Chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) was proud to sell his company’s weapons to anyone and everyone; ally or foe. His focus was purely financial. Interesting isn’t it that such a man who some would and did accuse of being anti-patriotic for supplying the very arms that killed British and allied soldiers received a knighthood. How immoral is that?

A Royal Commission on the Private Manufacture of and Trading in Arms of 1935 quotes McGowan, then Chairman of ICI  –

“I have no objection to selling to both sides. I am not a purist in these things.”

Rapacious, unscrupulous, despicable. Such is the morality, immorality, of people who typically pack the red benches in the House of Lords. Business types who judge success solely on extent of wealth. During WW2 British companies were selling arms manufactured by British workers to Japan to be used against British and allied troops, a detail which inspired this question –

 “The British Government has recently re-opened the Burma Road so that war material can reach the Chinese armies. What is the use of doing this if British industry is producing war material for the Japanese army?”

I don’t have the response but I suppose there’s a nice symmetry to such practice. And presumably the trade unions didn’t raise objections to British and Allied men and women becoming victims of British arms on the usual grounds that you can’t turn your nose up at jobs. It’s how they justify Trident being retained in Scotland.

 “Between 1931 and 1936 the value of Vickers (arms manufacturer) stock rose by £19,704,000.”

Lord McGowan was instrumental in establishing the German chemical industry after WWI through company amalgamations including ICI. There’s a fair amount of detail on the wheeling and dealing in the book.

Finally, back to Scotland where we are used to being denigrated and treated with not a little contempt within the union. The authors explain that in 1939 a question was asked in the House of Commons about anti-aircraft provision in Scotland (on the verge of WW2) and the reply ran along the lines of – it’s all hunky dory. When pushed for detail it transpired there were two anti-aircraft units for the whole of Scotland… that Glasgow was eventually issued with one barrage balloon (lent by London) but when London MPs demanded they get their balloon back it was admitted the Glasgow balloon was a dud.

A scandal. Yes, “there is a tremendous amount of fraud and swindling… the government is either impotent or quiescent…”  Sounds all too familiar.

Stay safe 

Aug 10, 2017

Scottish World War Poetry #5 From the Line

       

          From the Line

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Have you seen men come from the Line,

Tottering, doddering, as if bad wine

Had drugged their very souls;

Their garments rent with holes

And caked with mud

And streaked with blood

Of others, or their own;

Haggard, weary-limbed and chilled to the bone,

Trudging aimless, hopeless, on

With listless eyes and faces drawn

Taut with woe?

 

Have you seen them aimless go

Bowed down with muddy pack

And muddy rifle slung on back,

And soaking overcoat,

Staring on with eyes that note

Nothing but the mire

Quenched of every fire?

 

Have you seen men when they come

From shell-holes filled with scum

Of mud and blood and flesh,

Where there’s nothing fresh

Like grass, or trees, or flowers,

And the numbing year-like hours

Lag on – drag on,

And the hopeless dawn

Brings naught but death, and rain – 

The rain a fiend of pain

That scourges without end,

And Death, a smiling friend?

 

Have you seen men when they come from hell?

If not, – ah, well

Speak not with easy eloquence

That seems like sense

Of ‘War and its Necessity’!

And do not rant, I pray,

On ‘War’s Magnificent Nobility’!

 

If you’ve seen men come from the Line

You’ll know it’s Peace that is divine !

If you’ve not seen the things I’ve sung – 

Let silence bind your tongue,

But, make all wars to cease,

And work, and work for Everlasting Peace !

Roderick Watson Kerr

Nov 11, 2014

A Highland soldier’s letters to his cousin from the trenches in 1916 & 1917

A young man from the Black Isle  serving with the Seaforth Highlanders wrote to his young cousin Bella back home in Ross and Cromarty. The letters are fragile and very faded now as they were written in pencil on flimsy paper almost 100 years ago. At the bottom of the first letter is a signature of Gemmell whose job it was to censor outgoing mail to make sure no information that might have been regarded as useful to the enemy leaked out. Roddie Bisset’s letters are all about friends and family. We can just imagine how much he longed to be back home with them, farming on the beautiful Black Isle instead of being stuck in the nightmare existence of the trenches. Trenches letter 1916 Highland soldier    December 13th 1916 Dear Cousin I received your most welcome letter and Parcel. I don’t know how to thank you for the parcel. We have fair good weather out here as yet. I believe you had a bad time of it at home. Tell John I will look after the turnip seed bag alright. He will get it if I will be ever able to see him. I had a letter from Whitebog they tell me that Frank is called up. If so, they will miss him very much. This is my address now 40422 Pte Bisset.R A Company 3 Platoon 7th Seaforth Highlanders B.E.F. France We all heard out here that Dan was to get married at the term. Have nothing to tell you as the news are scarce. Hoping this finds you all well, As I could not be in better health. Wishing you all a Merry Christmas. I Remain Your Loving Cousin Roddie   John Gemmell trenches letter 2 1916 Highland soldier  

***

trenches letter 3 1917 - Highland soldier

18th March 1917 My Dear Cousin Just a note in answer to your letter and Parcel. Well I thank you very much as I was in the trenches at the time, we have very good weather just now, hoping you have the same and getting on with your work as the winter was so bad. I had a letter from Jhonnie, he says the same. How is Dan getting on. tell him that I told you, if he is wise to stop where he is. you will be all thinking long for the wedding and if it will be a big turnout, for he will not get Annie McIntyre Lambton, for they are a fellow here writing her steady. How is Dan -?-? Donald. I never seen his goodself since a while but I see Plenty of Rosemarkie & Fortrose boys. Willie Cameron Rosemarkie is home for his commision. He was seeing them at home. I believe they have a great – trenches letter 4 1917 Highland soldier This is where the letter ends. I don’t have the next page. I don’t know if Roddie made it back home to Scotland.

Discovered after blogging that Roddie was killed 3 weeks after writing to Bella. He was 26 years old and was never again to walk the beach at Rosemarkie, gaze out at the Souters at the Cromarty Firth or return the turnip seed bag to Bella’s husband John. Young Roddie lies buried in POINT du JOUR Military Cemetery (Athies) Pas de Calais, France. Whitebog was where some of the family rented a farm.

Sep 4, 2014

Slander, Fraud and a Secret Room: William M’Kinnon & Co in the Great War

Guest blog by Textor

It began in 1916 as a telegram, became a whispering campaign, filled column inches in the local press and finished in 1920 in the Court of Session in Edinburgh. This was the scandal of William M’Kinnon & Co. manufacturing faulty shells for use on the Western Front.

Soldiers in WWI (McKinnon's arms)

Founded in 1798 William M’Kinnon & Co’s pedigree was a long and proud one of supplying foundry and engineering products locally but by mid 19th century the company had spread its industrial wings becoming part of the web of commerce which was the British Empire. Sugar, tea, coffee, rice and cacao all needed processing before being sold to customers across the globe.  This was the market that M’Kinnon entered and so they continued into the last years of the 20th century.[1]   Dryers, heaters, graders, sieves, elevators and steam engines were manufactured in the Spring Garden works. In 1914 just weeks before the outbreak of war the firm was awarded a Gold Medal for the excellence of its tropical agricultural equipment. 

Imperialist war demanded cannon fodder and cannons. Men left M’Kinnon’s to fight in Europe and in a mirror action, in 1915, the company decided it too would get involved, in munitions manufacturing. Patriotism would have played its part but an added incentive was a guaranteed market and the prospect that a new factory might be fitted-out at Government expense. Premises were purchased adjacent to the existing works at Spring Garden and David Graeme Robertson came back from the Malay States to run the factory. Robertson was part of the imperial commercial web which had benefitted M’Kinnon so well. Having served his time with them he travelled east, in about 1906, establishing his own engineering in Kuala Lumpur and was also involved in a tin mining scheme whose shareholders were mainly from Aberdeen. In 1913 this particular enterprise hit a rocky patch with David Graeme making accusations of “wicked and unscrupulous action” by one of the scheme’s members; this drew a libel action against him but the case was lost and Robertson left with his pocket and reputation intact. Possibly this court experience played a role in subsequent events.

Whatever his reasons for returning to Aberdeen the fact is that he was in overall charge of the factory when it first received an order for 4.5 inch shells and later 6 inch shells: by mid 1916 over 50,000 of the smaller ordnance had been dispatched to the battlefields along with 30,000 of the larger calibre. In this work “Girl operators” who “did not make a perfect job, but they did very good work” were on the machines, overseen by time-served male engineers given the task of ensuring output was maintained.   One of the gaffers was a Mr Hunter, a man who’d spent 20 years with the firm; he became a key figure in the ensuing shells scandal.  

At the end of 1916 Hunter approached manager Robertson and asked for a rise in wages on grounds of having improved workshop productivity. He was refused and the conversation must have been heated for the outcome was Hunter’s sacking. Unsurprisingly he appears to have left in high dudgeon and when later he met with a Robert Whitelaw, a surgical instrument maker and special constable, he let rip with venom, criticizing the manager in particular. He told Whitelaw that M’Kinnon’s was guilty of fraud, that the war effort was being undermined with their dud shell casings being shipped to the troops at the Front. And this deceit, he declared, was being carried out in a “secret room” in the attic not with “girl operators” but only “skilled” men. Whitelaw had lost a son in the war and the news hit him hard. Appalled at the thought of troops being left vulnerable he immediately drafted a telegram to the Ministry of Munitions informing them that there was a rumour of malpractice at Spring Garden.

mckinnon cocoa bean

This brought a swift response: two inspectors followed by Colonel Stansfield from the Ministry arrived at the works. The premises were searched and in a meeting behind closed doors it was decided the Government should assume control of the factory. The first Aberdonians knew of this was removal of M’Kinnon’s signboard and its replacement by the prosaic “National Shell Factory”.

And there the matter rested until the end of the war. From 1917 to 1918 the nationalised factory operated under the direction of Professor Horne of Robert Gordon’s Technical School but rumours continued to circulate. It was only with the cessation of hostilities that matters came to a head and full public disclosure, as we might now say, was made.

Robert Whitelaw was accused of slander. The company, D G Robertson and Lachlan M’Kinnon sued, seeking damages of £6000 to be apportioned equally between the three pursuers. Whether Robertson’s victory in Kuala Lumpur inspired confidence of a win in this case is unclear what is certain is that he led the trio and sought to vindicate his own reputation as a patriot and an engineer.  

Between July 1919 and May 1920 the public were treated to a case which exposed the running of the shell factory and the Government’s priorities during the war.

The court action began before a jury at the Court of Session in March 1920 with Lord Blackburn presiding. The pursuers initially focussed on Whitelaw’s allegation that the company had conspired to make a Government stamp with the intention of fooling local inspectors. However, Lord Blackburn ruled, before the jury sat, that this was a secondary issue and that the central case was the question of the quality of the shells manufactured and the actions of the company between 1915 and 1916.  

McKinnon of Aberdeen

Evidence was presented by the pursuers, the defendant, an ex-Lord Provost of Aberdeen, Government inspectors and a range of employees from M’Kinnon’s. During proceedings it emerged a secret meeting was held in the Palace Hotel on 14th February 1917, led by Director of Munitions in Scotland, Frederick Lobnitz, with Lord Provost Taggart present. In essence this meeting presented D G Robertson with a fait accompli. Robertson was informed that the evidence collected during the snap inspection in January 1917 meant the factory was to be taken out of the hands of M’Kinnon, that the claims made by Whitelaw “were proved to the hilt” and “that was a crime”. It was declared by the Director of Munitions that the criminal action had been carried out under the orders of Robertson. Lord Provost Taggart, a prominent figure in Aberdeen’s granite industry, agreed with Lobnitz. When Robertson protested and asked for a hearing of his side of the issue he was summarily refused and Lobnitz hit back with, “If this had been done in France you would have been stuck up against a wall and shot”. Even the pursuers’ council admitted that if Whitelaw’s allegations were true his clients would have been traitors, their actions treasonable and would have deserved to be shot.

McKinnon49factory

But David Graeme was not shot. Instead he was removed from the factory, which according to him meant M’Kinnon would lose 95% of its business. From the evidence given at the trial it became clear that the Government objective was to ensure the smooth production of deadly ordinance while at the same time suppressing any disclosures which might undermine morale on the Home Front; and prevent troops on the Front Lines learning that their lives were being placed at risk through “friendly” action of a once reputable engineering firm. Shooting one of the city’s leading businessmen was not really an option so state officials being what they are decided that a gentleman’s agreement of sorts should be adopted: if the company signed the factory over to the state it in turn would not shoot Robertson and further it would keep the whole affair hidden from the public. Frederick Lobnitz said they should “give up their contract, when the whole matter would remain private, and no stigma of blame would attach to the firm”. Sir James Taggart was happy to go along with this as it maintained the reputation of the city.

As the slander case progressed David Robertson’s and Lachlan M’Kinnon’s confidence must have waned. Government inspectors spoke of discovering a snibbed “secret room” in which men worked on some 150 to 200 shells, all in various states of disrepair. They testified to having to force entry to the room, literally a foot in the door. The Ministry’s Colonel Stansfield described the practice as a “deliberate attempt to cheat the Government gauges” (used by inspectors on the factory floor).

Robertson’s memory failed him; he told Lord Blackburn that he could not recall Stansfield accusing the company of fraud. Some of M’Kinnon’s employees claimed the snib on the door was there to keep management out so men could have a quiet smoke, something banned during dayshift. An alternative explanation offered was the room was a place men could dodge the gaffer. However the room contained a quantity of shells, new base plates waiting to be riveted, copper bands for attaching, the means of expanding the diameter of cases and so on; none of which was made known to the official inspectors, neither room nor operations. It was not until January 1917 that the secret room was revealed.     

Beyond the walls of the Palace Hotel where David Graeme was offered a deal, or rather an ultimatum, matters looked bleak for Robert Whitelaw. Not unusually for a whistleblower he found himself under threat. The gravity of the charge against M’Kinnon’s ensured the state took decisive action but this did not mean plaudits for Whitelaw; and certainly not any honour which his detractors hinted was the motivation for his action.[2] The problem the state had with him was that he would not shut up. He persisted in speaking to fellow special constables and others about the matter. A Government official contacted Chief Constable Anderson and told him that Whitelaw was making too much of a public fuss, that he should be told to keep his mouth closed. So the special constable found himself before his boss, being warned that there was “an immense amount of talk in Aberdeen” and it had to stop. DORA was the Chief Constable’s answer, no not a close female friend but Defence of The Realm Act, a draconian piece of legislation which was passed in 1914 and gave the Government wide-ranging powers of censorship and control over civilian activities. Whitelaw was warned that his gossip was “Prejudicial to the troops”. Given the prospect of a prison sentence the surgical instrument maker decided to adopt a lower profile and having lost confidence in his boss he resigned as a special constable.

In the end there was general vindication of Whitelaw’s claims. In his summing up Lord Blackburn said that irrespective of David Robertson’s engineering experience and his familiarity with boiler technology he lacked precise knowledge of munitions and explosives which meant that his views on manufacturing techniques were secondary to those of the appointed Government inspectors. Blackburn agreed with Stansfield and also cast doubt on the notion that the attic room was open to any who chose to visit. The jury retired to consider the case and after three hours deliberation returned its verdict. Of the four components of the action, including a counter action by Whitelaw, three were found in the defendant’s favour. The jury agreed that M’Kinnon had on occasion manufactured faulty shells and that these had been sent to a secret room to be rectified, without official permission and with the intention of having the modified shells passed as suitable for shipment to the Front. The only issue which was found in favour of the three pursuers was Robert Whitelaw’s claim that the company had forged a government stamp; this was a false claim (for the engineering minded this was confusion over a knurling tool although being a surgical instrument maker Whitelaw should have known the difference).

How important this single victory by M’Kinnon & Co. was can be judged from the fact that no damages were awarded for this slander. And, equally indicative, when Lord Blackburn came to apportion costs he ruled that the pursuers would pay their own expenses and 3/5 of the defendant’s.

mckinnon machine

In summing up Blackburn made clear that in his opinion the use of the secret room, repairing of faulty ordinance, and presumably the sidestepping of official inspectors, was an act of foolishness on the part of Robertson.   The manager had allowed his judgement as to what was and was not acceptable to override the regulations and the judgement of Government officials.   All had been done with the best of intentions. In mitigation Blackburn observed that no evidence had been brought forward which implicated any repaired shells in the deaths of British troops.   He concluded “Mr Robertson was not actuated by any personal motives in doing what he did, and that he honestly believed that the shells passed after treatment were in all respects as good shells as those which had not been treated”, and observed that the base motives attributed to Robertson and the company through public gossip were unjustified. Accordingly, he concluded that Robertson could leave the court knowing that this misrepresentation of his character had been dispelled.

And so with the end of the war this small skirmish in Aberdeen was settled. The National Shell Factory at Spring Garden ceased production on the 28th November 1918 with most of the workers being demobilised (presumably mostly girl operators) and on the 26th December machinery, tools and other equipment were auctioned off. As for William M’Kinnon & Co. the business turned again to its traditional market and in 1921 it won an award for the excellence of its machinery.   D. G. Robertson died in Montreal in 1926 and Robert Whitelaw died in 1932. Neither death notice in Aberdeen Press and Journal mentioned the scandal.

 

[1] Founder William M’Kinnon died in 1873 aged 96.   The name can still be found marketing plantation machinery but the business no longer has the local presence it once had.

[2] Throughout the war years Robert Whitelaw was prominent in fund raising concerts for British troops which probably gives a better sense of his motivations.

See photographs on Flickr – you may have to copy and paste the link to get the images up

https://www.flickr.com/photos/87708465@N04/sets/72157646826781278/

 

Oct 20, 2012

The Highland Cyclist Battalion

At the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914 regimental and territorial cycle corps were officially designated infantry battalions. The first Highland Cyclist Battalion, a territorial force, was embodied in Kirkcaldy. The name was something of a misnomer for Kirkcaldy is hardly Highland territory.

All cycle units had initially been deployed by the British military to defend the UK coastline.

According to some sources the Highland Cyclist Battalion grew out of the 8th Cyclist Battalion of Territorials of the Perthshire Highland volunteers, renamed as the Highland in 1909 and embodied in 1914 as the 1st/1st battalion. At the end of war it was sent to Ireland and disembodied in 1919.

There were three Highland Cyclist Battalions deployed during the First World War.

The 2nd line battalion Highland Cycle Battalion was formed in November of 1914, also in Kirkcaldy, also ended its days in Ireland. This corps became the 1st Provisional Cyclist Company, in July 1915.

A 3rd line battalion was a home-based training unit which operated between 1915 and 1916. The majority of men from it were posted into the 1st and 2nd Highland Cycle Battalions.

The Highland was one of the several cyclist corps within the British Army. Why cycles?

The bicycle was regarded as providing great flexibility of movement, enabling soldiers to have great freedom of movement for themselves and their equipment, independent of others, and as such the cycle was a good alternative to the horse.

Indeed the cyclist infantry emerged from the cavalry; both mounted units. Cycles were most effective on roads with decent surfaces but remember that bicycles then were a far cry from today’s multi-geared lightweight machines and these government supply cycles were very heavy to handle and impractical over rough ground leading to many of them being abandoned as their riders struggled to keep us with their infantry comrades. Being dependent only on muscle power and the air in their tyres, bicycles were cheaper to run than fuel dependent transport but just as liable to fail so each battalion had its own bicycle mechanics, cycle artificers, to maintain them.

All European armies operated bicycle units. Commonly cyclists would be used as scouts and for communications but by the outbreak of war in 1914 cycle infantry corps were deployed to combat duties. Their silent movement and their flexibility along with their cheap running costs made them popular with all Europe’s light infantries including the Italian Bersaglien and the German Jäger. Poland’s armed forces included around 200 cyclists per company and the Japanese army had 50,000 biking soldiers. In winter, Finnish serving cyclists swapped wheels for skis to keep them on the move.

Men of the Highland Cycle Battalion appear to have been distributed among various regiments as and when required. In addition to their scouting and messenger duties they served within the hard-pressed ambulance service moving casualties away from the front lines to field medical stations for attention.

At the end of the war cycle battalions were disbanded but that was not the end of the military cycle divisions.

In the 1939-45 war cyclists had their place. The Americans dropped bikes over enemy lines, the so-called bomber bikes, for use by their men operating within enemy territory.

A prevailing images of the Vietnamese War is peasant soldiers pushing supply-laden bikes along the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Finland’s army operates cycle units and up until 2001 Switzerland retained a bicycle regiment.

Despite their reputation as brutes, the military cycle was resurrected when an updated version of the Swedish military bicycle, the m/42, went back into production in 1997.

A wonderful resource on the history of bicycles http://bsamuseum.wordpress.com/page-5/

Scottish mounted divisions in WWI http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_Horse

A good source on cycling within the British army is The Cyclist Division .