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The Shell Crisis of 1915 was a shortage of artillery shells on the front lines of World War I, which largely contributed to weakening public appreciation of the government of the United Kingdom because it was widely perceived that the production of artillery shells for use by the British Army was inadequate. Along the resignation of Admiral Fisher after the failed naval attack on the Dardanelles, the Shell Crisis was a significant factor in the fall of the Liberal Government, in favour of a coalition, and in the rise to power of the new Minister of Munitions, David Lloyd George, who would replace Asquith as Prime Minister in the political crisis of December 1916.

"The Times" attacks Kitchener

Lack of shells had been a serious problem since autumn 1914, and the British Commander-in-Chief Field Marshal Sir John French gave an interview to The Times (27 March) calling for more ammunition. Lord Northcliffe, the owner of The Times and the Daily Mail, blamed Kitchener (Secretary of State for War) for the recent death in action of his nephew.[1] On the basis of an assurance from Kitchener, Asquith stated in a speech at Newcastle (20 April) that the army had sufficient ammunition.[2]

After the failure of the Battle of Aubers Ridge (9 May 1915) The Times war correspondent, Colonel Charles à Court Repington sent a telegram to his newspaper blaming lack of High Explosive shell. French had, despite Repington’s denial of his prior knowledge at the time, supplied him with information, and sent trusted officers (Brinsley Fitzgerald and Freddy Guest) to London to show the same documents to Lloyd George and senior Conservatives Bonar Law and Balfour.[3]

The Times headline (14 May 1915) was: “Need for shells: British attacks checked: Limited supply the cause: A Lesson From France”.[4] It commented "We had not sufficient high explosives to lower the enemy's parapets to the ground … The want of an unlimited supply of high explosives was a fatal bar to our success". This clearly pointed the finger of blame at the government.[5]

Coalition Government

The visit of the Opposition Leaders to Asquith (17 May) was caused more by Fisher’s resignation (15 May) than by the Shells Scandal. As a result of the meeting Asquith wrote to his ministers demanding their resignations.[6]

Asquith formed a new coalition government and appointed Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions.

Although Liberal politicians held office in subsequent coalitions, no purely Liberal government ever again held office in the UK after May 1915.

"Daily Mail" attacks Kitchener

A more sensationalised version of the story was printed in the popular "Daily Mail," blaming the Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener, under the headline (21 May) "The Shells Scandal: Lord Kitchener’s Tragic Blunder”. Lloyd George had to warn Northcliffe that the campaign was counterproductive and creating sympathy for Kitchener.[7]

Kitchener wanted to let the Shells Scandal drop. Van Donop, Master-General of the Ordnance, demanded an Inquiry to clear his name, but Kitchener persuaded him to withdraw the request as it would have led to French’s dismissal.[8]

Although Lord Kitchener remained in office as Secretary of State for War, responsible for training and equipping the volunteer New Armies, he had lost control over munitions production and was increasingly sidelined from control of military strategy. Sir John French was also tarnished by his blatant meddling in politics, a factor which contributed to his enforced resignation in December 1915.

New Ministry of Munitions

The Munitions of War Act 1915 prevented the resignation of munitions workers without their employer's consent. It was a recognition that the whole economy would have to be geared for war if the Allies were to prevail on the Western Front. Supplies and factories in British Commonwealth countries, particularly Canada, were reorganised under the Imperial Munitions Board, in order to supply adequate shells and other materiels for the remainder of the war. The Health of Munitions Workers Committee, one of the first investigations into occupational safety and health, was set up in 1916 to improve productivity in factories. [9]

A huge munitions factory, HM Factory, Gretna was built on the English-Scottish border to produce Cordite.

An idle part of a factory in Silvertown was pressed into service to manufacture TNT; this exploded in January 1917, killing 73 and injuring 400 in what is known as the Silvertown explosion.

See also

External links


  1. Holmes 2004, p289-90
  2. Holmes 2004, p287
  3. Holmes 2004, p287
  4. Holmes 2004, pp287-9
  5. Shell Scandal, at firstworld
  6. Holmes 2004, p288
  7. Holmes 2004, pp288-9
  8. Holmes 2004, p291
  9. The Social history of occupational health Paul Weindling, Society for the Social History of Medicine
  • Adams, R.J.A., (1978). Arms and the Wizard: Lloyd George and the Ministry of Munitions 1915 -1916. London: Cassell. ISBN 0-304-29916-2.
  • Carnegie, David (1925). The History of Munitions Supply in Canada 1914-1918. London: Longmans Green and Co.
  • Holmes, Richard (2004). The Little Field Marshal: A Life of Sir John French. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 0-297-84614-0. 
  • Lloyd George, David, (1933). War memoirs of David Lloyd George. London: Ivor Nicholson & Watson.

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