British Government Falls Because of Munitions Shortages and Military Setbacks Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Following defeats in France at the beginning of World War I, British field marshal John French claimed that his troops faced major setbacks during battle because his government failed to provide an adequate supply of artillery shells. The scandal led to the fall of the Liberal government, to the appointment of a minister of munitions and the building of a large munitions factory, and to a rethinking of how wartime strategy must account for public sentiment.

Summary of Event

World War I quickly exploded into a struggle for which no one had planned. The generals fighting on the western front in France in 1915 were forced to deal with situations they had not trained for, including new battlefield technology. These issues led to a series of British defeats early in the war. The public wanted answers, and it looked to the commanding general of British forces on the western front, Field Marshal John French, for an explanation. His answer, a shortage of shells that kept him from being able to launch a successful offensive, would lead to the fall of the Liberal British government in May of 1915 and to the formation of a wartime coalition government. [kw]Military Setbacks, British Government Falls Because of Munitions Shortages and (May, 1915) Shell crisis of 1915 World War I[World War 01];Shell crisis French, John Kitchener, Lord Asquith, H. H. Shell crisis of 1915 World War I[World War 01];Shell crisis French, John Kitchener, Lord Asquith, H. H. [g]Europe;May, 1915: British Government Falls Because of Munitions Shortages and Military Setbacks[00200] [g]England;May, 1915: British Government Falls Because of Munitions Shortages and Military Setbacks[00200] [g]France;May, 1915: British Government Falls Because of Munitions Shortages and Military Setbacks[00200] [c]Military;May, 1915: British Government Falls Because of Munitions Shortages and Military Setbacks[00200] [c]Government;May, 1915: British Government Falls Because of Munitions Shortages and Military Setbacks[00200] [c]Colonialism and imperialism;May, 1915: British Government Falls Because of Munitions Shortages and Military Setbacks[00200]

John French.

(Library of Congress)

World War I was a new kind of war, in which the defense had the advantage. Trench warfare, with systems of trenches that stretched hundreds of miles, defended by barbed wire and machine guns and huge amounts of artillery, made taking the offensive extremely difficult and costly. This kind of war took a horrible toll on the troops. The government had to find a way to win the war as well as appease the home front. In Great Britain the balance between the people supporting the government and the people calling for the government’s replacement was nearly level—one small event could tip that balance and cause the downfall of the current administration.

British losses early in the war led Field Marshal French and other British officers to rethink their battle strategy. They decided that the best way for them to fight this new kind of war was to precede troop attacks with a huge artillery barrage. This would clear out obstacles and stun the defending troops, giving the British a better chance of winning the battle. However, to accomplish this, the British army on the western front would need artillery shells, which were reportedly in short supply in 1915. The western front, though, was not the only area of conflict.

Strategists in Britain were pushing to prioritize other campaigns, especially the Dardanelles campaign in Turkey, which led to depleted resources; in some cases, war materiel was taken from one area to support another. French was told to transfer a large amount of mortar and artillery shells to the Dardanelles, an order that upset him because he knew that replacing the lost shells would take time. Without the extra shells his chances to go on the offensive were limited. Also, French wanted to secure his spot as commander on the western front, and to do so he had to have a major victory.

French believed that his command was tenuous because of the reverses suffered by the British in France, but even though shell supplies were short, there were other reasons for failure on the western front. The shell shortage was an easy scapegoat for French. By leaking a story to the media about a shortage, French believed he could spread the blame for the heavy battle losses and include his “enemies” in London, persons in government who he believed were against him. French especially had been at odds with Lord Kitchener, the head of the British War Office, and had hoped that by leaking the story to the press, Kitchener would be forced from government and that his own position as commanding general would be made more secure. However, he did not count on the support Kitchener had in government circles, affecting the success of his plan to shift the blame for British losses.

Impact

The news story outlining French’s accusations, published in Times of London The Times of London on May 14, 1915, contradicted an earlier report by the British government that the army had plenty of ammunition for the fight in France. Other newspapers would pick up on the story, and it soon developed into a major scandal beyond the confines of the government and military. The government was portrayed as unable to adequately lead the war effort. To make matters worse, Fisher resigned as first sea lord over a disagreement on strategy dealing with the Dardanelles campaign. The British government was at the center of a scandal, especially the two men most identified with running the war: Asquith and Kitchener.

Asquith was forced to form a new coalition government by bringing in members of opposition parties into his cabinet. He remained prime minister and Kitchener stayed on at the War Office because of his popularity. However, Reginald McKenna replaced Winston Churchill in the Admiralty Office and David Lloyd George Lloyd George, David was appointed minister of munitions. In addition, the British built a huge munitions factory at the border with Scotland that employed thousands of civilians, bringing the war effort to the home front.

The story of inadequate troop munitions was a critical one for the British government. Any indication that it was not doing all it could to support the troops could lead to the government’s downfall. This was the first war in which the people who were called upon to support that war had such a great influence on policy. The shell scandal, in effect, forced the British government to be responsive to public perception of how the war was being handled. One disgruntled general helped to create a new wartime dynamic, not only changing how World War I was fought but also how future wars must take into account public sentiment on all fronts. Shell crisis of 1915 World War I[World War 01];Shell crisis French, John Kitchener, Lord Asquith, H. H.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bond, Brian, ed. The First World War and British Military History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Details the shell scandal and the interrelations among the various players. Discusses events that led to the scandal and how they were resolved.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gilbert, Martin. The First World War: A Complete History. New York: H. Holt, 2004. Helps to place the problems of troop supply in greater perspective while discussing both the political and military aspects of problems faced by the British during this time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keegan, John. The First World War. New York: A. Knopf, 2000. Outlines issues faced by British generals and discusses supplying offensive operations. A good general history of all British operations based on lessons learned during the 1915 scandal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Turner, John. Britain and the First World War. London: Unwin Hyman, 1988. Gives details on General French, his time as the commander in France, and the shell scandal.

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