Making and selling

The Naval Menace Cartoon / © Peace Pledge Union Archives

From circa 1900, a global network of private companies and multi-national trusts traded in weapons and patents and sold weapons to pretty much anyone who would buy them. Many armaments firms merged and the market became dominated by a few large companies. In Britain, the major firms were Vickers, Armstrong, Coventry Ordnance Works, John Brown, Hadfield’s Ltd, Cammell-Laird and William Beardmore. Brothers in Arms co-operated within an armaments ring to extract better prices from the War Office and Admiralty. The armaments race from 1910 (earlier for the navy) ramped up profits and dividends for shareholders, including some prominent politicians. British shareholders profited from British deaths during the war.

In the first global conflict since the Industrial revolution, mechanised weapons led to devastating casualties. Attempts were made to ban Chemical Warfare as early as 1899, but gas killed 25,000 on the Western front alone. Munition workers at home, mainly women, risked TNT poisoning in factories like Quedgeley Ammunition.

In 1918, the majority of workers were cast aside, despite efforts in Queensferry, North Wales and London to ensure alternative work was provided. Predictably, women were the first to join the dole queue. In the years following the Armistice, the government ran down the state sector and bailed out the private sector. BAE systems – the UK’s largest arms firm today – absorbed Vickers-Armstrong and other inter-war companies. Another feature of the post-war period was Birmingham Small Arms Company Peddling Surplus Guns throughout the world’s conflict zones.

  • 'A battery shelled' by Wyndham Lewis. Three officers stand to the left of the composition beside a pile of ammunition boxes. Each looks in a different direction. There are marionette-like figures moving over broken ground, amongst the huts and shattered trees. Streams of stylised smoke erupt from incoming shells and spreads across the sky.

    Vickers and Krupp

    A Debacle Over Royalty Payments

    Shells bought by the British government included a hefty royalty payment to Germany's chief armaments firm. It soon proved embarrassing.

  • German troops with captured British Lewis guns in the Battle of the Somme

    Peddling Surplus Guns

    Birmingham Small Arms Company

    Guns made by Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSAC) cut across ideological lines.

  • Greek and Ottoman fleets clash in the Naval Battle of Lemnos, January 1913

    Ottoman Navy Scandal

    British Weapons Decimate British Troops in Dardenelles

    Following the Young Turk revolution of 1908, the Ottoman Empire determined to replenish its crumbling navy with the aid of gold coins, jewels and necklaces donated by citizens.

  • The explosion of a mine at the Mining School at Aubigny, 12th May 1916

    Ig-Nobel Dynamite Trust

    Dividends from Death

    ‘England is a jewel worth the rest of the world. A dynamite company there would have the entire Empire as its market.’ These are the words of the man who ended up giving his name to the Peace Prize.

  • Female munitions workers are pushed along on a trolley loaded with cases of explosive material by their colleagues out to the railway siding of their factory during the First World War

    Queensferry explosives factory

    A wasteful white elephant?

    The massive, government owned production facilities created during the war to make arms, presented an opportunity to create jobs and housing once the war was over.

  • Gassed by John Singer-Sargent, 1919

    Poison Gas

    Chemical Warfare Begins

    The Great War was the first conflict in which chemical weapons were used on a large scale. 124,208 tons of gas was used in attempts to break the stalemate of trench warfare. Gas claimed half a million casualties (25,000 of these fatal) on the Western front and an unknown number i...

  • The gun factory at Woolwich Arsenal, painted by George Clausen in 1918, officially commissioned artist.

    The Peace Arsenal?

    The Post-War Campaign for Peace Time Jobs at the Woolwich Arsenal.

    Huge numbers worked at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich during the war; 63,940 were employed just before the Armistice, of which 24,360 or 38 percent were women. Unsurprisingly, after the war the workers at the Arsenal wanted to save their jobs, and a “Peace Arsenal” campaign ca...

  • The cruiser 'Yoshino' at the Elswick shipyard in 1892.

    Brothers in Arms?

    Mergers and Competition in the Arms Market before the First World War

    In 1921, a League of Nations Commission on the private manufacture of arms concluded that before the First World War arms firms fermented war scares in order to sell more arms. In addition, arms firms organised international armament rings to keep prices high by playing countries...

  • 'For King and Country': the interior of a munitions factory with female workers making shells, 1918

    Shells, Shells And More Shells!

    The National Filling Factory No.5 Quedgeley

    Following the shell crisis of June 1915 local Munitions Committees were organised throughout the country in a drive to increase weapons output. The filling factory at Quedgeley was part of this network.