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25th May 1915

Once again I'm going to put up on this page the guts of the briefing note I wrote for the team prior to all the episodes being written. So some of these plotlines weren't followed up or were followed up in a different way.


Before that, though, I wondered if you'd be interested in the way the dates are chosen for a series of TOMMIES. For this series it was this episode that drove that choice: I particularly wanted to illustrate how the War changed utterly with the coalition government born on 25th May 1915. It became Total War, not Business as Usual. So all the preceding dates in this series were decided off the back of that.


The notes went roughly as follows:




Evadne. I suggest that the mistresses of the movers and shakers of the First World War were a little like Carla Bruni, in that partnering the rich and famous is her job. If you want to turn left on a plane, then be a consort to a pop star or a president. Who it is, exactly, is interchangeable.


Thus Prime Minister Asquith has a (probably platonic) affair with Venetia Stanley then moves onto her sister, while Venetia moved on to Lord Beaverbrook and several others.


The only bar to entry to this lifestyle is money, and no stain on how you came by it. Emilie Grigsby did just fine in London society (she was American) claiming that her wealth was from an inheritance. In fact her mother had run a brothel and her money came from being a rich client’s mistress. Rumbled in the States, she came here.


Affairs with General “Jolly” Jack Cowans and the man behind the Shell Crisis, Lt Gen Charles Repington, came thick and fast. It seems once you were in the loop, everyone else’s background wasn’t too clean either so exposure wasn’t likely. This was especially true of a sort of sub-set of poshos, not landed gentry, who met at soirees run by George Gordon Moore, at whose parties Evadne, running on some previous lover’s money, would meet Robert, trawling for contacts of all types. He’d recognise her as the younger sister of his best friend at the Polytechnic, Mickey Bliss. She’s eight years their junior.


To reinforce the idea of a loop, Moore was the conduit for adulterous messages between Winifred Bennett and Sir John French - prime mover in the Shell Crisis, as reported by Charles Repington. More about that in a moment.


In the preceding months Robert will have made a point of making the Government’s life a bit easier, and importantly for us, serve the Flame. One way he can have helped is in ensuring the right sort of information gets to the committee writing the Bryce Report on Belgian Atrocities committed by the Germans. It was published just thirteen days prior to this episode, on May 12 1915. His sources might be Belgian business contacts who knew to do Robert a favour.


This is very much a Flame-serving job for the nation as a whole, and it also goes to help Robert feel good about himself. The Bryce report was the WMD dossier of its day, undoubtedly true in parts, but favouring nun-raping wherever possible. It is a very big story for us.


Similarly, Robert would have been party to the striking of the fraudulent medals purporting to show German joy at the sinking of the Lusitania. More on this below.


The Shell Crisis is in some respects straightforward. Battles were being planned on the Western Front (and as we have seen, in Russia) on the basis that once all the available stock of shells was used up, that was the end of the battle. In a way, this has been true ever since man put aside a pile of rocks to pelt his neighbour.


I am simplifying here, but in January 1915 everyone from Generals to the public was beginning to realise that this was now going to be a long war. Factories weren’t making shells for two reasons. One was that Kitchener had recruited all the likely herberts who might work in them in his call to arms in August 1914. The second was that there was little will to change factories over from making, say, saucepans to shells. This was because the word has been that the war would be over by Christmas, and that phrase had a genuine date-certain meaning at that time. Furthermore, it was believed that such a war could be fought without undue alteration to the national life and economy. This idea was summarised in the expression ‘business as usual’, originally used to calm the business fraternity but embraced throughout to give a nice cosy glow rather than let the public glimpse Armageddon.


This comes to a head in March 1915 with the battle of Neuve Chapelle. After a winter break, Sir John French’s attack foundered when it might be argued he’d had time to prepare. He wasn’t going to be blamed for his failure, oh no, so he chose to blame a shortage of shells to prepare and prosecute his battle. This neatly diverted anyone from asking whether his tactics had been sound in the first place.


French needed support to make this accusation stick. He found it in journalists and political stirrers, but most importantly, his need for shells was an indirect attack on Lord Kitchener, the man running the War Office and ultimately responsible for the manufacture and supply of shells. And any attack on Kitchener was useful to that complex Welsh politician, David Lloyd-George. This is where Robert comes in. It was obvious that D L-G had woken up before everyone else and realised that the war could not be won on a saucepans or shells basis, it needed to be total war. And financiers such as Robert know that war, if you are on the inside, is hugely advantageous to business.


The ebb and flow of the Shell Crisis and the leaks and sources that made it possible, and how that precipitates a Coalition Government and the formation of Lloyd-George’s Ministry of Munitions, is well known. Robert’s contribution would be perhaps a little smoke and mirrors: hosting a meeting here, ensuring two people met there.


His reward - a place in the new Ministry of Munitions.


I want to briefly go back to the ‘nice cosy glow rather than let the public glimpse Armageddon’ point I made above, because it is an important part of our Flame theme. Just a glance at the Times and Daily Express and Daily Mirror newspapers from 25 and 26 May 1915 will show a paradox assimilated over time by the British public.


There are catastrophic casualty lists (I still find them shocking even at this distance) alongside articles about minute gains which nonetheless promise that the Germans are being soundly beaten, on often overtly moral as well as military lines. The pages can leave you with an absurd conclusion - “we’re being slaughtered, but they’re rotters. So that’s alright, then.”


The Flame requires War to become the norm - this is more evident in 1916, but we can see its beginnings here. And this is an unintended consequence of Business as Usual. Remember, as far as the public were concerned in 1915, a professional army and its territorial and special reserves were over in France fighting the good fight with the best possible Generals, equipment, Cockney pluck and so on. (The big battalions of volunteers - the mass of husbands and sons and pals, were still in training – although some had made it to the front). So Business as Usual fostered an air that everything on some fundamental level was actually all right, because of the consequences of making the huge leap from the accepted flow to think otherwise. If you did that, you would have to overturn that myth and plunge into Total War, which very few people ever want to do because it would represent a level of sacrifice and reordering of ordinary lives that only comes from coercion rather than the largely voluntary strictures people had placed themselves under - no meat on two days of the week for example. And it was also a strong and accepted tradition for the UK that the Army went off and fought wars: “a calamity confined to the continent” - particularly so the people at home didn’t have to worry. Try coming home and telling people about the conditions of combat under those circumstances, when everyone is clinging onto the idea the war is about to end. Isn’t it?


I am labouring this point because this is 1915 - not 1918, when the wholesale slaughter has touched nearly every household in the land. In 1915 you could still be on the sidelines - until arguably 25th May 1915 and the commencement of Lloyd-George’s Total War.


We do this in 2015, of course. Soldiers killed in Afghanistan are lucky to make it to item four on the news, because they are ‘professionals’ who even quite sensible people will tell you are ‘trained to do their job’, rather than wonder at the daily tactics that put them in this position. As Brecht wrote, what keeps Mankind alive ‘is his brilliance at keeping his humanity repressed’. Thus in 2010-2011, somewhere in the world a child died every four seconds from a preventable disease, but we all carried on.


The Flame is a tool that can be consciously used by nations to influence the emotional rather than the rational thinking of other nations. The Lusitania, with comparatively few American souls aboard, acquired Flame-status while duller machinations carried on to involve the US on the Allies side in WW1. That the Government ensured that the ship was in the maximum danger is without much doubt. The source for the overarching sinking story is LUSITANIA by Colin Simpson, a short book probably worth tackling in its entirety. I just want to suggest an arena in which Robert’s line of business might have got him in touch with the movers and shakers.


1915 begins with a definite fear in British Government circles that the Americans will stop supplying arms to the Allies. This is because the British sea blockade of Germany is inhibiting the neutral US’s ability to trade with Europe.


Luckily, on the 4th February 1915, the Germans announce unrestricted U-boat warfare, which drives the US back into the Allied camp. On 6th February a Colonel House (representing President Wilson) arrives in the UK to negotiate a European peace. Robert, with interests in shipping (more below) has the same problem as the British Government: how to keep in with Yanks and not go along with peace plan?


Luckily again, on 16th February the Germans reject an American declaration of Freedom of the Seas, so on 11th March, the Brits announce they will grab all cargoes going to Germany, whoever is the carrier.


It cannot be a coincidence that May 7th 1915 was the US deadline for a retaliatory arms embargo and also the day the Lusitania was sunk with so many US passengers aboard. Robert, as we shall see, has the conduits for passing particularly shipping information to unofficial contacts with Germany.


At this point I confess to having my understanding of a huge part of the history of WW1 reordered by a new book. This is PLANNING ARMAGEDDON by Nicholas Lambert, a sexy 504-page read of economic theory. But as he turns around a whole plot line - and a very promising one for the TOMMIES and a perfect fit for Robert’s character - please indulge me.  


We’ve touched on Trading With The Enemy as a theme before in this document and in preceding ones. It looks promising because look - there’s financiers being so venal they’ll even screw over their own country for a spot of business.


But I have been far too simplistic about that. Luckily, the new view is equally simple, if completely different. Imagine it is say August 3rd 1914. Britain is at the end of a long century of sea-dominance by the Royal Navy. Its merchant fleet is also far and away the largest in the world, and in the last 30 years there’s been a seismic change in the dominance of London as the clearing house for all sorts of maritime trade, investment and finance. So Britain dominates the seas both physically and - this is crucial - financially.


Now it is the 4th August 1914. War is declared, and someone is passing the Trading with the Enemy Act in Parliament. Can you see how there is an unstoppable juggernaut upon which - and this is no exaggeration - the entire economy of the world is dependant?


Bearing with that idea for a moment, and taking ‘Business as Usual’, ‘It’ll All be Over By Christmas’, and the Flame’s ‘All Huns are Murdering Bastards so we need to do everything to stop them’ as a package, and you can see that an expectation that, should Peace be declared nominally on 26th December, too many horses are running. Just five months after declaring war, you are supposed to be back in business with the despicable Hun.


So the idea that business kept trading with the enemy is not surprising, indeed it is nearly impossible to see how they could not.


My understanding of this moved forward greatly with the example of City financiers funding British shipping companies who shipped from Brazil to let’s say, Chile, where the cargo was owned by a German company. That’s almost completely a British money and financial infrastructure example, notwithstanding the use of British ships. There are examples closer to home that while being more direct, can also shine light on Trading with the Enemy. My favourite is the Treasury’s comment on 20th August 1914 about pig iron sold to Germany: “We may hope that the war will be long over before the iron can be subjected to the various processes to convert it into armaments”.


This example also points to the implied Government support coupled with external condemnation that confronted British business. This seems a very interesting grey debate for Robert & Co rather than naughty Robert trades with the Enemy. Suffice to say there were also examples that are harder to swallow - fabric from a zeppelin shot down over London was found to be made in Lancashire. But the more you can think of such trading as being in non-physical terms, the better.


Just briefly, the actual thrust of PLANNING ARMAGEDDON is to show that the people who understood things maritime, the Admiralty, had an almost exclusively economic plan for waging the war, using the City’s financial mechanisms to destroy the German economy whilst avoiding ruining its own. Why it didn’t come off is the thesis of the book.


The documents that stand up the Binocular trading, especially the extraordinary idea that you’d use captured binoculars as a sort of sales catalogue, are available in the National Archives. What no longer exists, pulled from the National Archives after this story came to light in an academic book years ago, is when the trade stopped, or to be scrupulously fair to the people who stole the document, when it started. But they wouldn’t have pulled it if it hadn’t confirmed the basic larger document which they could hardly pinch as it was a draft for the Official History of the Ministry of Munitions. Hiding in plain sight, as per normal.  Do remember this is our own government in the 21st Century who does not trust us to know these things.


Robert has also been indulging the Flame when he’s been using it to demonise both sides of industrial disputes. He’s using it as a tool towards resolution (without, of course, addressing any underlying problem, which is the Flame’s way of things).


March 1915. We can put Robert at the centre of union and management negotiations. The overarching idea - perhaps pioneered by him - would be that the Government would subordinate industrial relations of certain industries and the commercial interests of firms to those of wartime exigencies. In other words, don’t you worry about what we are doing to you, just look what we are doing to your traditional opposition.


So in return for increased production and an abrogation of the right to strike, the unions accepted a deal guaranteeing them a return post-war to working practices and a control of profits.


But there was a cross-sell to management. If the unions were doing this to help their brothers and sons in the trenches, management was leant on by the President of the Board of Trade, Walter Runciman, to increase output, and deal fairly over wage levels and control profits.


This was codified in The Munitions of War Act of June 1915, the obvious first move of D L-G’s new Ministry of Munitions.


Robert’s increasing wealth means he can afford the best accountants. Generous allowances are made for depreciation, increased output and capital expenditure. Robert merely sinks profits into buying up defunct businesses or plant rather than giving the taxman any of the money.


When Robert manages the Second War Loan issued in June 1915 at 4.5% he establishes a useful precedent. All the investors, corporations and banking houses who held the previous War Loan Stock at 3.5% are permitted to transfer into the new loan at the increased rate of interest.


These conversions at the higher rate of interest meant a gift of at least £4,000,000 a year in extra interest to the money-lenders.


But this is not where Robert makes his own personal killing. Hedges Bank issues circulars to thousands of their customers inviting them to apply for the new War Loan and to borrow credit from the bank at 3%. The customer needs to put up no money nor security for his War Loan. Hedges Bank is to supply the credit, and charge the customer 3% interest for so doing. But if you do the maths, it can be seen that the investor, offered 4.5% interest on the War Loan, even allowing for Income Tax etc, is clearly 1% in pocket on the deal.


Robert, however, is 3% up.


Just a few more bits of ammunition for an upset Robert in a row with Lidderdale in his club.


The Flame requires demonization, and in a neat twist, demonising the Demon Drink was a ploy used by both Robert and D L-G.


January 1915: Robert’s position in London shipping is threatened when there is a desire to shift docking to the west coast ports. Robert infiltrates the commission with chosen men who report that these ports are beset by laziness and excessive drinking: shortage of labour is of course the real problem. (Normally shortage of labour is a tool he uses against Kitchener, but not always). His bribed dock managers say high wages encourage absenteeism and casual labour, ignoring the fact they’d always had the latter.


Famously D L-G told the Shipbuilding Employers Federation that Britain was "fighting Germans, Austrians and Drink, and as far as I can see the greatest of these foes is Drink." Latterly he admitted that he’d gone for the Flame insofar as he knew he’d be tapping into the great sanctimonious, self-denying and BENEFITS STREET-style judgmental spirit of Britain. He confessed shortly after - to Robert? - that the shortage of shells and ships was attributable mainly to Government mismanagement: “The idea that slackness and drink, which some people talk so much about, are the chief causes of delays, is mostly fudge.”


And as for the idea that Robert might fund an overhearing device, the Fullerphone was largely funded by its inventor Algernon Fuller who was simultaneously senior enough in the Signal Service, you might think, to be able to call on an Army research fund of some sort. Or perhaps he was aware that patent protection (a very Robert thing) might give him future royalty payments as well as present telephone security."