Thursday, 4 August 2016
Conservation of Materials
Part VIII of the series ‘England in Arms’
By W. Lacey Amy
From The Canadian Magazine, December 1917.
It required the war to convince the most patriotic of us that Great Britain was year by year becoming less self-contained, that by processes subtle or open her rivals in the world’s commerce, especially Germany, were gradually ousting her not alone from the foreign markets but from her own. And in the revelation that came with war one more economic theory received a staggering blow that manufacture of specific commodities should be left to the countries in a position to produce them most economically. The theory was unassailable were peace a permanent blessing. But war has a habit of uprooting theory with relentless hand. There still remain in England those who resist the apparent corollary, that unprofitable national production must be protected, but the teachings of war are rendering their ideals at least momentarily unobtrusive. The grim straits through which Great Britain has passed since August, 1914, have impressed her with the national helplessness that accompanies the relinquishment to foreign countries of national necessities. And as manufacturers are not the class who willingly produce at a loss in competition with their foreign rivals, there exists only the solution of Government protection in some form.
Great Britain never realized how the very essentials of life were drifting into the hands of the Germans, until the sudden closing of the German market forced her to review her own industry. The facts forced home to her might well have discouraged another less resourceful country. Not alone were the needs of everyday life unfulfillable, but some of the very weapons of war had so subtly trickled from British control that only British brain was able to cope with the situation without more than a temporary setback. Perhaps had the war been delayed ten years British brain might not have been so ready to re-grapple with a production she had lost only for a few years.
It is the popular impression that German dyes represent the climax of British dependence, but the dyes themselves are the least material of the deficiencies of British production. Not yet has the dominance of Germany in this commercial commodity been overcome, but adaptable substitutes are readily available, and dyes are in their nature immaterial to national victory or even national life. Where the German monopoly of dyestuffs looms most awkwardly is in the fact that Great Britain did not grasp their real significance as an indirect factor in international relations; for Germany’s monopoly was the result of her preparations for war, not of her superior inventive powers, the basis for dyes being the by-product of the manufacture of munitions. German dyes were subsidized in order to utilize the coal-tar resulting from certain munition-making processes, and every dye-works was instantly convertible in time of war to war services. Dyes, therefore, have been the least of Great Britain’s troubles in the war.
In a thousand household needs Britain’s dependence became revealed almost with the declaration of war, and some of these were of sufficient importance to demand official attention at the same time as the more intimate ones of munition production. Since their manufacture has been permitted to creep into German hands more as an economic measure than through any inability to fulfil the local needs, they presented no striking problem. But in a score of the prime requirements of war the effect was different. Certain processes of steel manufacture suitable for munitions were not practised in England. Electric supplies for Great Britain came almost entirely from our enemies. In the outskirts of London to-day lies idle an incomplete electric railway, because construction was in the hands of German engineers using German fittings and principles. The little magnetoes that are essential to the aeroplane and the automobile were so completely of German manufacture that even to-day they are produced in England by only two or three firms and their efficiency and cost is still not such as to supplant the German article should open competition recommence immediately. Germany was selling Great Britain all her finer grades of glass, such as those used for lenses and laboratory purposes. Great Britain had even permitted Germany to enter her distant possessions for the practical monopolization of the minerals used in the working of steel processes. For her finer machinery required in the production of munitions Great Britain is to-day at the mercy of America, since the English working engineer has not yet arrived at that nicety of adjustment, that perfection of specification which is absolutely necessary for serviceable and reliable instruments of war. I admit it with reluctance but with certainty of my ground. Indeed, English manufacturers are candid in their statements that they must still look to America for the mechanical delicacy and nicety which have made British munition production one of the marvels of the war. This they may well leave where it is for the present, so long as Britain’s energies are completely utilized for more immediate requirements. Its unsatisfactory feature is that this very mechanical perfection will be as essential to much of the coming industrial struggle of peace as it is now to the war output.
Toys, dolls, metal and leather novelties, gas mantles, brushes, certain popular earthenware, office requisites, musical instruments—these are a few of her daily wants for which Great Britain had been wont to send her travellers to the great German markets, such as were represented at the Leipsic Fair.
There were other disadvantages under which Britain laboured on account of her insular position. For her timber she was dependent largely on Norway, Sweden and Russia, and to a less degree on America. The skins for her leather came for the great part from abroad. Her paper was the product of foreign pulp. Her metals arrived by boat. In the bulkier raw materials England may be said to have been self-supporting only in coal.
Her problems would have been simple, even in the face of these deficiencies, had it not been for the submarine warfare adopted by the enemy. British control of the seas and of the shipping covering them would have assured her of sufficient supplies for her every want. The demands for war transportation would have embarrassed her shipping capacity to such a small extent that the simplest expedients of conservation would have sufficed. But with the sinkings and delays of unrestricted warfare conservation became a question equally vital with the protection of the merchant shipping and the upkeep of the army. How she went about it is peculiar to a nation, proud, bound by tradition, reluctant to admit even inconvenience—and certain to overcome in the final emergency.
With the requisitioning of tonnage for war purposes—the transportation of soldiers, wounded, and supplies; patrolling the coasts, mine-sweeping, auxiliary cruiser duties—the necessity for some control of importations became evident. Certain luxuries were gradually eliminated from the freight lists, the bulkier unessentials first. A part of the tonnage was requisitioned for stated importations at Government rates. But the inadequacy of these measures became apparent long before the sinkings were numerous enough to be an immediate menace, and the injustice of singling out a few ships and depriving them of the high rates obtainable by free ships clamoured for redress. In addition, it gradually impressed itself on the nation that any satisfactory solution of the submarine menace entailed a more perfect organization for the elimination of delay in loading and unloading, as well as the speeding up of construction. For these purposes experienced officials were appointed. Construction was not only standardized, but workmen were utilized where they were of greatest service, irrespective of firms and employers. The difficulty of delays in loading was met to some extent by mobile dockers’ battalions, and by a more strict supervision of transportation and labour.
But shipping cannot be said to have been brought within the scope of a thorough control until the middle of 1917, when the Government took over ninety-seven per cent. of the entire British registry at Government rates. By this means it was not only assured of reasonable freight charges, but the entire capacity of the boats was directed with a sole eye to the real requirements of the situation. The move took the place of the scores of former regulations. It became no longer a case of publishing prohibited importations but of satisfying the Government that purchases abroad were in the interests of the country at large. Every British liner was taken over, and the profits derived from private freight went to the nation. The result was a pooling of interests by the large transportation companies. Long voyages gave place to short substitutes, and the facilities of the nearest ports were always available to save time. Shipowners arranged to purchase their ships’ stores and provisions abroad in order to save home stocks—an obvious act of wisdom that was so little recognized even during the early months of 1917 that Spanish and Dutch and Norwegian vessels were continuing their custom of drawing their supplies from English ports. At the very moment when not a pound of potatoes was finding its way to the majority of tables in Great Britain these foreign ships were taking away with them thousands of tons.
Land transportation, while not in the same emergent class as shipping, entered the scheme of conservation on account of the shortage of men, and because trucks and engines had been requisitioned for the use of the army in France. This was effected by reducing passenger service to the minimum, and by organizing delivery so that the shortest route and distance was compulsory. For instance, coal was brought to London only from the nearest mines and by the shortest line, the railways being brought under Government control to a disinterested co-operation. One striking failure to complete the simplification of transportation was in the neglect of the canals that cut England in every direction. Whether this was owing to their railway ownership or to Governmental thoughtlessness is not clear, but such bulky freight as coal might have been poured into London by this means of transportation without disturbing the material so much in demand for quicker delivery.
The immediate need for metals and explosive ingredients for war purposes, as well as for other commodities hitherto imported, drove England to measures never before contemplated. The Explosives Department of the Ministry of Munitions was organized to assume the duty of acquiring the necessary raw material of explosives. Glycerine was early placed on the controlled lists, and in February, 1917, was further restricted to preparations of the British Pharmacopoeia and to uses approved by the Ministry. It was practically eliminated from dispensing. In March, the shortage being serious, a special branch of the Explosives Department was formed to take over control of all fats, oils, oil-seeds, and their products, including oilcake, soap, and margarine. For the same purpose the waste of camp canteens and messes has been carefully collected for more than a year. Since one of the by-products in the manufacture of illuminating gas is a necessity for explosives, the people were urged to use gas where possible for heat, light and power. The huge demand for petrol led to the Government resuming the long-interrupted efforts to find oil in Great Britain, and in order to prevent exploitation the Crown assumed the exclusive right to bore. Should petroleum be discovered in quantity—and there have been signs that point to success—the submarine menace will be nearer to solution than it has ever been. The same prospecting is being undertaken for metals, although it is certain that only small supplies of inferior quality will be found, lead and zinc comprising the bulk of British possibilities. Copper was requisitioned in December, 1916, and its use for manufacturing purposes forbidden.
The control of petrol has been one of the big failures of attempted conservation. For the first twenty months of the war this control rested in the hands of various inter-departmental committees whose main anxiety—as is the case in a hundred instances of divided control in England—was their authority and dignity. They competed against each other in the market and in shipping facilities and bought in the application of their authority even in war spheres. The Petrol Committee which succeeded them had not a petrol expert in its composition, and at its best was impeded by a jealous Board of Trade. In disgust it resigned, after a period of inadequate control and incompetent efforts. Its successor has proved more efficient. A different scheme has evolved. The principal petroleum companies have arranged a pool for distribution and importation, under the control of a Pool Board Petroleum Supplies. Restrictions were early put on petrol licences, and these have been extended at various times with the declared aim of cutting out private consumption. Business firms are allowed a certain amount for delivery purposes. Taxi-cabs, of which there were 8,287 in London alone before the war, were reduced to an allowance of thirty gallons a month, the most conspicuous result of which was to encourage the drivers to break the laws governing their service to the public. And motor-buses, which provide the popular means of transportation in London, were seriously curtailed. But the working of the restrictions was glaringly lax and unfair. Petrol was wasted in the army sometimes used even for washing the trucks. Taxis, which usually carry but one passenger, were granted petrol which if supplied to the interrupted bus service would have carried many times the number of passengers. Until recently there were no restrictions whatever on the motor luxuries of officers, every one of whom of any rank has his own car and chauffeur for running about England. Day and night and Sundays this indulgence was unlimited until the middle of 1917, and since then its control has been evident only in the replies of Government officers before the House of Commons. While private licences were supposed to be cut off in May, 1917, there is not a minute of the day when any important street in London does not prove that civilians still ride at their pleasure; and on Sundays the roads from London are still busy. In spite of the repeated official denials that petrol is granted for private use there is the frankest display of such waste. Even the social notes in the newspapers speak of wedding trips and visits to seaside resorts by motor, and the procuring of supplies demands but slight ingenuity. The greatest obstacle to such a perversion of a much-needed commodity is a price of $1.17 a gallon established in August, only twelve cents of which is Government tax. It is a detail of the recognized principle of regulation in England to reserve the privileges for the rich.
The shortage of petrol has led to the use of substitutes, but the further prohibition of liquid substitutes has confined the inventiveness of motor enthusiasts to the utilization of gas.
Conservation of coal has been taken up officially, not because of a national shortage, but to save labour and transportation. In 1915 the price was fixed to prevent exploitation. In the spring of 1917 there was in London a severe shortage that bore heavily on the poor, who purchase in small quantities; and in the summer of that year steps were taken to prevent a repetition. A Coal Controller was appointed to arrange delivery from the nearest mines and to equalize distribution. The Board of Trade issued advice to the people to purchase their winter supplies early, but when the orders poured in it was found there was not the coal to fill them. It was another instance of neglected preliminary organization before urging the public to action. The several instances of this which have occurred have done much to discourage public co-operation in attempted conservation. The next step was to ration the coal according to the number of grates. A house with not more than four grates was allowed two hundredweight a week, and the allotment was detailed up to two tons and a half for a house of more than fifteen rooms. Every consumer using more than two hundredweight a week had to register. The Controller’s plan was to work up to a five weeks’ stock in the coal yards, reducing the allowance as this quantity was reduced. The difficulties of such a system of rationing are obvious, since the extent of occupation of a house, rather than its number of grates, determines its consumption. There is, too, no assurance that the rationed quantity will be available.
One of the early materials to be controlled was paper. Newspapers were cut down to definite quantities, based on their consumption during the year before the war, and this amount was further reduced in 1916. Importation was in the hands of the Government. The result was a dwindling of size and a consequent increase in price owing to the curtailment of advertising space. The Times rose by halfpenny stages to twopence, and many of the halfpenny papers advanced to a penny. In March, 1917, posters over a certain size were forbidden, and tradesmen might not send out catalogues or price lists except on request. The newspaper contents bill, a feature of street announcement in England, was prohibited. By the last measure alone it is estimated that 500 tons a week are saved. In July, 1917, the War Office arranged that, since the casualty lists could no longer be published in the smaller papers, they should be issued weekly to the bookstores for sale. A few days later tradesmen were limited in their circulars and catalogues to a third the weight of paper used in the same period of the year before. And the whiteness of paper has been sacrificed in order to save bleaching powder.
In the matter of wearing apparel control was delayed as long as possible. Leather had first to be taken in hand. The huge call for army boots was eating into the available supplies with disturbing rapidity, and in March, 1917, the Government took over all sole and upper leathers suitable for army use, following a less complete requisition of the previous December. Civilian footwear immediately advanced. In June the Government made arrangements for the sale of old army boots at fixed centres, with the stipulation that they should not be patched but taken to pieces for repairing other shoes. The object was to prevent the scrapping of serviceable army boots. But shoe repairs continued to rise so seriously—soling advanced more than three hundred per cent. from the period before the war—that in September the Government was forced once more to intervene and release for civilian use at fixed prices quantities of leather suitable for repairs.
An Advisory Committee on Wool Purchase was set up, representing the various Government departments concerned and civilian interests. It fixed prices and prescribed uses. Wool was not largely imported, but it was deemed advisable to continue exports as well as to supply home needs. Standard cloth is now produced for officers’ uniforms, and civilian wear will probably be similarly controlled. The manufacture of cotton has had to be curtailed, although it is one of England’s leading manufactures. Blankets are in Government control for army use and only such quantities released for civilian use as are considered necessary.
All stocks of sawn timber in the United Kingdom were taken over by the Government in February, 1917, and in July the Local Government Board urged local authorities to forgo the use of wood-paving for the period of the war. In January anastigmatic lenses of defined focal lengths were requisitioned. In February the supplies of jute in the country were commandeered. In June citizens were requested by the Board of Trade not to waste glass receptacles of any kind. Metal spur, chains, buttons and badges of rank on officers’ uniforms were abolished, leather spur straps and buttons, and worsted badges of rank taking their place. Stone quarries were taken over in July.
General prevention of waste and of misdirection of effort was applied in a score of ways. Building and private motor-making were stopped. A new Bill was introduced for the prevention of corruption in Government contracts. A department was set up for the utilization of idle machinery. In 1916 an Order-in-Council empowered the Admiralty and Army Council to regulate or prohibit transactions in any article required in connection with the war. No horse suitable for cultivation of land might be sold by the land occupier without licence. To save fuel illuminated advertisements and lights outside shops and theatres were prohibited in May. 1917. In extension of this principle two of the large London stores closed on Saturdays.
Of course, with all this evident shortage there was profiteering. The case of matches affords a good example. These sold before the war as low as three cents a dozen boxes. Today they are as high as thirty-two cents, although the manufacturers insist that not more than sixteen cents should be asked the consumer. In addition to their high price there are times when they cannot be obtained at all, and the stores release to each customer only a small box or two. The Government, knowing there were sufficient stocks somewhere, has taken steps to control distribution. A pool of manufacturers has been formed, and orders will be taken only through a Match Control Office in London, which will be under the Tobacco Control Board.
In these measures of conservation it was necessary at times to ignore the claims even of allied countries. France, being close at hand and Great Britain’s source for much that might be called luxuries, has suffered most keenly. Fruit, wine, and silk were the largest of these importations. At various times all these products of our friends across the Channel have been either restricted or prohibited. Protest has been made, and at times mild reprisals applied, but common sense has prevailed. In some cases the protesting country yielded, in others the restrictions were modified. A general agreement between the two countries was announced in September. By it England takes from France goods of French origin, except such as wood, motor-cars, machinery, gold, spirits, and ornamental goods; and France has thrown her doors open to everything but cotton and woollen piece goods, soap, and oils. The fact that England has the European Allies almost completely at her mercy on account of her control of shipping is proof of the wisdom and justice of her treatment of them.
The straits into which the war has thrown Great Britain in the matter of material supplies are not without their blessing. The people of the small island which has dominated the world for so many centuries are learning how luxurious and enervating was their style of life among certain classes, how much they can eliminate without serious inconvenience—even with advantage—and how near they were to losing valuable markets. The necessities of war have developed an inventiveness that was tending to doze and have taught the wisdom of greater dependence on their own productions than upon those of other countries who appraise more truly the value of industrial eminence in the world’s markets. England after the war will swing swiftly into the England she can be, a resourceful country that need give precedence to no rival in commercial as well as in intellectual attainments.
The next article of this series is entitled “The Enemy in England”.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.