Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Sir Alfred Herbert at the Ministry of Munitions 1915-1918

Alfred Herbert was 48 at the outbreak of the 1st World War, and spent from 1915 onwards working at the Ministry of Munitions, helping to direct the country's machine tool industry. He became the Controller of Machine Tools and in 1918 was made a KBE in recognition of his service.

Lloyd George, Minister of Munitions 1915-16

Ministry of Munitions

This monograph was written by Sir Alfred after the war.

This is no attempt to write a history of the Machine Tool Department, much less of the Ministry of Munitions. Before I left the Ministry I had, with the assistance of PV Vernon, and other members of my staff, written an account of the Machine Tool Department. The Controllers of most of the other departments did likewise. All this material was edited by Layton and I imagine that it reposes somewhere or other on the dusty shelves of the War Office. I was foolish enough not to obtain a copy at the time and all attempts that I have subsequently made to see these records have ended in failure. Lord Addison has written with great thoroughness a history of the work of the Ministry, which contains masses of interesting information. I hope that some of those who are now controlling our destinies have read his book.

I confine myself to giving a few notes of my own connection with the Machine Tool Department and to recalling some of the many jobs which, with neither precedent nor experience we had to tackle.

In the early days of the war I had attended several meetings of a committee which had been set up at the War Office to to consider ways and means of speeding up. Among other members, I recall Allan Smith (afterwards Sir Allan) then Secretary of the Engineering Employers' Federation, a clever Scots lawyer and a man of exceptional qualities, and Lord Elphinstone, who did much excellent war work and who was always courteous and charming to everyone. I believe that George Macaulay Booth was also a member of this committee. He was the 'man of push and go' who Lloyd George had selected. A Governor of the Bank of England, a director of Booth Line and a man of affairs, I am grateful to him for smoothing my path many times during my subsequent work at the Ministry, and for much help and encouragement.

Early in the spring of 1915 I was fishing in the Leach near Lechlade, when a telegraph boy on a bicycle brought me a message. I was on the opposite side of the river so cast my fly across and the message was hooked on and hauled over. It was a message from Sir Percy Girouard inviting me to come to the War Office to help him with the machine tool problem, which by that time had become acute. I drove back to Asthall Manor near Burford, then our home, and consulted my wife, (Florence) as to whether I should undertake the job, which I knew would be full of difficulties and which would mean me living in London. Without hesitation she said: 'If you think you can help even in the slightest degree, it is your plain duty to accept, and I will go too and look after you'. So I wired to Girouard accepting his invitation and asking when he wished me to start. He replied: "On Tuesday morning." It was then Friday or Saturday , so there was little time for preparation but on Tuesday I arrived at the War Office and found Girouard very busy. "Hello, Herbert," he said "you are machine tools. You will know what to do. Colonel Browning here will find you a room. Good morning." Those were all the instructions I ever had. Browning was one of Giroaud's satellites, a friendly and cheerful personality, and he found me a room in Cecil Chambers in the Strand, and that was the beginning of the 'Machine Tool Department'. Later on a most excellent typist arrived, a Miss Le Vierge, who knew something of the War Office routine, of which I was profoundly ignorant. the room contained a table, and few chairs and nothing else. i asked my typist for blotting paper, ink and pens. "Oh", she said "you must fill up a requisition form and send it to the Stationery Department and in due time the things will arrive." This was my first introduction to 'forms'. I gave her five shillings and to buy what was necessary at the nearest shop. Then I began to get busy.

I had for some years been President of the Machine Tool Trades Association - and office which I held for some twenty years or more - this was probably the reason why I was chosen to look after machine tools. The secretary of the Association was at that time Herbert Williams, now Sir Herbert Williams MP (Member for Croydon) and not unknown to fame. I rang him up and asked him to come at once to help me, subsequently obtaining the consent of the Association, which practically went into cold storage save for very occasional meetings during the war.

At this time, Mr Asquith was Prime Minister and Lloyd George was Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Ministry of Munitions had not yet been formed and none of us knew exactly where we stood. I realised at once that if I was to do any good I must at least have some authority. After consulting various officials, I drew up a brief memorandum asking for an Order to be isssued empowering me to take certain elementary steps. The most important was that i should be authorised to give the Machine Tools Trade intructions to divide all orders in hand into three classes: (A) Those for Government Departments and the Services; (B) Those for the Colonies and Dominions; (C) Those for peace-time work, whether for ourselves or for export, and to instruct them to give preference to all orders coming under Class (A), second preference to Class (B) and to divert all work in Class (C), so far as suitable, to the requirements of our own war services. It was one thing to draw up the memorandum, but quite another to get it made the subject of an Order.

First of all i went to the Board of Trade and found Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith, the President [actually the Permanent Secretary], by no means encouraging. Be it remembered that we had started the war with the most foolish of all slogans "Business as Usual", and he hesitated greatly to do anything which might be construed as 'interfering' with trade. I returned to my office slighly discouraged but by no means satisfied. Shortly after I had an invitation over the telephone to have lunch with Mr (now Sir William) Beveridge at the Reform Club. This gentlemen was then, i think, attached to the Board of Trade. I was rather flattered. During an excellent lunch, Humbert Wolfe, the poet and writer, joined us. He was also connected with some Government department. The mission of both these gentlemen appeared to be to impress on me that I had made a very questionable suggestion and that things were not done like that in Government circles. Even if the Board of Trade consented, I had still the Admiralty and above all the Treasury to reckon with, so after lunch I suggested that we should visit these two high authorities.

Our first call was on the Director of Naval Contracts, Sir Frederick Black. He received us with his usual cordiality and after Beveridge had explained what I wanted to do and expressed a good deal of doubt about its advisability, Sir Frederick Black said, "Well, I think that Herbert knows his job pretty well, and the Admiralty will not raise the slightest objection." I then suggested that we should see the Treasury Solicitor. He was a bit more sticky with all the caution of a legal mind. He felt that my proposal was of such a grave character that it would need consideration. Then i saw the Secretary of the War Office, Sir Reginald Brade, who was more encouraging. He gave me to understand that in any event a certain amount of time must elapse before an Order could be issued. I felt perfectly certain that it would go through, because obviously nothing useful could be done without it. So Williams and I made a draft of the Order, which was submitted to the Authorities. We also had envelopes addressed to all the Machine Tool makers so that immediately the Order was issued, it could be despatched without delay. After about a fortnight it was duly approved and sent off.

In the meantime a lot of other things had to be thought about; the most important of which appeared to me to be to make some attempt to prevent the prices of machine tools being increased, so I called a meeting of the Trade, explained the situation, apologised for myself and my office, but asked them, as I had no legal power, at the moment to do anything else, to agree that the prices should not be increased beyond those ruling at that day and to this they very cheerfully and helpfully agreed.

All this preliminary work was done from the War Office. Now came the great agitation about shells, the burning of the 'Daily Mail' in public and the decision that the Ministry of Munitions should be set up to co-ordinate the demands of the Services and to make a far-reaching attempt to speed up war production of every kind. Mr McKenna became Chancellor of the Exchequer in succession to Mr Lloyd George, who was the first minister of Munitions.

It was now necessary to find Headquarters for the new Ministry. It fell to my lot to being negotiations with Lord Selbourne, Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, which finally resulted in the new building, then nearing completion for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. Girouard, who was still carrying on, displayed extreme energy in hurrying on the completion of the building, and we finally took possession of it while plasterers and painters swarmed all over it. My new office possessed such dreadful acoustic qualities that it was quite impossible to carry on an intelligible conversation. I told my wife one day of this difficulty and was surprised one day to see workpeople busily putting up heavy curtains at the windows. I subsequently discovered that she had ordered these, knowing that if I had to wait for the usual routine procedure months would elapse before anything was done. The curtains solved the problem and all was peace - at least in the acoustic sense.

After the Ministry of Munitions was formed, it was decided to appoint a Machine Tool Advisory Committee, whose members I selected. As far as I can remember, they consisted of:-

William Lang of Johnstone
D. Ford Smith of Smith & Coventry, Manchester
John W Asquith of halifax
WF Clark - a Director of Archdales of Birmingham
JD Stevens - Small Tools
EM Griffiths - Representing Importers
Lewis H Ransome of Newark
Edward Iliffe* (afterwards Sir Edward and later Lord Iliffe)
who had come to help me, became a member of this Committee and its Chairman, and I can never be sufficiently grateful for the invaluable work he did in that capacity.

Changes and additions were made from time to time. Charles Churchill succeeding Griffiths, Sir Richard Cooper and Mr John Wormwald joined as representatives of the Contracts Department and the Finance Department respectively, with LG Wykes as our most capable secretary.I asked this committee, among other things, to undertake full responsibility for the regulation of machine tool prices. By this time powers had been given to me to issue Orders and the voluntary agreement, in which the trade had entered not to advance prices became an authoritative instruction, with the provision that if owing to advancing costs of labour and material additions to process became necessary, applications must be made to the Advisory Committee and good cause shown for any increase. By this I was relieved of the very invidious task of fixing prices for my competitors. This method of price control, was admittedly far less drastic than that to which the industry is now subjected by the 'controls' of the various ministries. But, on the whole, it worked quickly and well. Certain members of the trade were rebellious and broke the regulations, but they were few in number and quite effectively dealt with by John Varley, a keen an energetic solicitor, who was a member of my staff. He afterwards came to Coventry as secretary of the Coventry Branch of the Engineering Employers' Federation, an office which he still holds and fills with great ability.

Price control is a thorny subject. My Committee at least had the advantage of being composed mainly of thoroughly practical men, who knew within very close limits what a machine was fairly worth, and while they did their job with conscientious fairness they did not lose sight of the fact that if the best efforts are to be got from either workmen or employers, there must be some proportionate measure of reward. We did not feel that it was any part of our job to embark on investigation of manufacturers' books and accounts, unless we had reason to suspect crooked dealing. Our concern was that prices should be kept at fair and reasonable levels., that profiteering should be as far as possible prevented, and we were content that the various firms we controlled should make such profits as their efficiency enabled them to earn, leaving taxation to do its worst. I shall have something more to say on the subject of 'Costing and Profits' in a later chapter.

My job kept me busy early and late and but for my wife's constant care and encouragement, would have beaten me. Government control of industry was quite a new adventure without tradition or precedent. It was a game without rules, which had to be made as one went on. I made many errors both of omission and commission but both those who controlled me and those who were the victims of my control were extraordinarily patient. They knew, I think, that like the man at the piano I was trying to do my best and they refrained from shooting me.

I must now express my very sincere admiration for Mr Lloyd George. Although he, like the rest of us at the Ministry, was exploring new ground, he was endowed with such qualities of energy, determination and courage that we recognised him as a born leader and gave him loyal and willing service. While his legal training and political experience had stimulated the natural acuteness of his mind, he never allowed himself to be hampered by tradition, but boldly hewed his way through all obstacles with his eyes fixed resolutely on his one goal of victory. He never allowed himself, or us, to have the slightest doubt of our ultimate success, even in the bleakest periods of the war. He could be stern when needed be and did not hesitate to rebuke us when we deserved it, but he bore no malice and never 'nagged'. He might be angry on Monday but by Tuesday morning his wrath had evaporated and he never brought up against us our past sins and errors.

Here are two examples: Many machine tools had to be brought in from America. The American ports and the railways leading to them had become terribly congested with war supplies for us of all kinds and shipments of machines had been held up in favour of other munitions. I had to send out to new York a very able traffic man who, by a combination of cajolery and hard swearing, had succeeded at least to some extent in clearing the bottlenecks and restoring the flow of machines. He cabled me that the Cymric was leaving with some 1700 cases of machinery - probably the biggest cargo of machine tools that had ever crossed the Atlantic - but she was sunk in mid-ocean. The day after the disaster, Lloyd george sent for me. Here is my recollection of the conversation:

He: "Have you head of the loss of the 'Cymric'?"
I: "Yes sir, and with the greatest regret."
He: "Did you know she was sailing?"
I: "Yes, sir. I was informed by cable."
He: "Was her cargo of any special importance?"
I: "It was of the utmost importance. The machines she carried were practically equivalent to the whole equipment of one of the National Projectile Factories."
He: " Did you make any offer to secure special Admiralty protection for her?"
I: "I knew that the Admiralty was informed of all sailings and was giving protection as a matter of routine. I did not specially call their attention to the 'Cymric'.
He: "Don't you think that if you had made a special effort with the Admiralty, you could have persuaded them to send a destroyer escort?"
I: "I believe if I had realised the necessity I could have done so."
He: " Don't you wish you had?"
I: By God sir, I do and am profoundly sorry that I did not."

That was the end of it and Lloyd George never said another word on the subject. In all my life I had never had such a well-deserved rebuke, nor one which made as great an impression on me.

Here was another instance, in which for once I think I was in the right, although the action I took went far beyond my legitimate sphere of action. When the idea o f special taxation on excess profits began to take shape, the Munitions Levy was introduced and a Department under Owen Smith was set up to administer it, and his and administration was admirable. But there was an essential injustice in the Act. The Levy was applied only to those firms or companies, who were "controlled" by the various Departments of the Ministry. It fell to my lot to bring under control (and therefore under the operation of the Levy) those firms who were working for my department. All of these were engaged on vital war work, but there were thousands o f firms who were not so engaged and who were using materials and labour for purposes that did not help the war effort, but at the same time they mere making enormous profits as a result o f the war. They were raking into their coffers piles of money derived from inflated earnings of munition workers. They were making pianos, fur coats, cosmetics and other luxuries in immense quantities. The obvious unfairness o f the situation appalled me and I felt that something must be done about it.

Greatly daring, therefore, I wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr McKenna, existing pointing out the manifest injustice o f the existing scheme. I told him that the trade I was controlling had no objection to the Levy per se, but they did object, and very strongly to being singled out for its application when they were doing nothing but vital war work while other traders who were contributing nothing to the national effort but were actually hindering it, were allowed to escape with all their excess profits intact. I told him that all excess profits during wartime were due war conditions and that all such profits ought to be taxed alike. I also suggested that the Inland Revenue was the proper taxing authority and I questioned the wisdom of setting another department to administer any form of taxation. From Mr McKenna I received an appreciative acknowledgement.

Shortly afterwards I was summoned to Lloyd George’s room in Whitehall Gardens. I found him pacing up and down, evidently greatly perturbed. No one else was present except Ivor Phillips, who looked on and listened but perhaps wisely, said nothing. The Minister was indeed very wrath with me. He was holding a copy of my note to Mr McKenna in one hand and slapping it vigorously with the other he said: “Mr Herbert, you will live to regret having put your name to such a pernicious document”. I said that I was quite aware that I had exceeded the scope of my duty but I believed none the less that I was right in principle. He walked up and down for some time longer and after further questioning me, finally gave me leave to go.

[Part of a monograph on the Ministry of Munitions, a 14-page piece typed out - probably by Miss Tidds - and corrected in Sir Alfred's hand]

[* Edward Iliffe
(Later Lord Iliffe) was a family friend who lived near the Herberts outside Coventry. His family owned newspapers including the Coventry Evening Telegraph. He was also the chairman of the Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital Board when in 1911 they honoured Alfred Herbert for serving twice as chairman in the preceeding years.]
[A full twelve volume record of the Ministry of Munitions was published subsequently and is available here]

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