London Times article sparks “Shells Crisis”

On this day in 1916, a lead article in the Times of London proclaims that an insufficiency of munitions is leading to defeat for Britain on the battlefields of World War I. The article sparked a genuine crisis on the home front, forcing the Liberal government to give way to a coalition and prompting the creation of a Ministry of Munitions.

During the British army’s attacks at Aubers Ridge in the Artois region of France—led by Sir Douglas Haig as part of an ambitious dual offensive launched by the British and French on the Western Front on May 9, 1916—their artillery had been largely ineffective, with many of the shells fired proving defective and many others too light to cause serious damage. When the attacks failed to break the German lines, Sir John French, the British commander in chief, attempted to shift blame from the army to the government. French claimed that the army lacked sufficient supplies of high-explosive shells to use in its 18-pound field gun, and that this lack had led directly to the failure of Haig’s attacks at Aubers Ridge.

NEED FOR SHELLS, the Times headline blared on May 14, picking up on French’s claims. BRITISH ATTACKS CHECKED — LIMITED SUPPLIES THE CAUSE. The article quoted French and stated that The attacks [at Aubers Ridge] were well planned and valiantly conducted. The infantry did splendidly, but the conditions were too hard. The want of an unlimited supply of high explosives was a fatal bar to our success. Though French’s claims contradicted earlier statements made by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, in a speech to munitions workers in Newcastle, they nonetheless set off a full-blown crisis and Asquith’s Liberal government, already under fire for its unsuccessful naval policy in the Dardanelles—in protest of which First Sea Lord John Arbuthnot Jackie Fisher, the man who had rebuilt the British navy in the years before the war and introduced the famous Dreadnought battleship, resigned on May 15—was forced to accept the formation of a coalition cabinet.

To address the shells question, a British Ministry of Munitions was formed, headed by David Lloyd George, a rising member of the Liberal Party who would, seven months later, replace the unpopular Asquith as prime minister. Over the course of 1915, the Ministry of Munitions would answer the army’s concerns with an increased emphasis on advanced weapons technology and the production of more powerful artillery, increasing British output of medium-caliber guns by 380 percent and that of heavy artillery by 1,200 percent.


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