THE BLOG

How Arms Companies Fuelled and Exacerbated the First World War

10/12/2014 17:26 GMT | Updated 09/02/2015 10:59 GMT

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Munitions workers painting shells at Chilwell, Nottinghamshire c © IWM (Q 30016).

Despite recent establishment efforts to sanitise it, World War One was not a glorious war. It was an immoral global conflict that led to an unparalleled level of death and destruction.

By the end, 16million people had been killed and 20million wounded in a war that had devastated and destroyed whole cities. Civilians and soldiers, often from poor backgrounds, paid the terrible price for a battle that was brought on by the rich and powerful rulers of competing imperialist powers.

Very few benefited from the killing. It did, however, line the pockets of arms companies and their shareholders.

As the Arming All Sides project, supported by Campaign Against Arms Trade and On the Record, makes clear, they were certainly not dispassionate bystanders. In fact, the appalling conduct of these companies was instrumental in both fuelling the drive to war and shaping the conflict.

World War One was the first global conflict since the industrial revolution, and a new generation of mechanised weapons led to devastating casualties. Attempts had been made to ban Chemical Warfare as early as 1899, but the arms trade persevered, and gas killed 25,000 on the Western front alone.

The scale of international tensions created new business opportunities for arms companies. Of course they were only happy to maximise these by purposely exaggerating, and in some cases fabricating, war scares with the aim of exacerbating and profiting from the arms race.

One example of this is Herbert Mulliner, the Director of Coventry Ordnance Works, who in 1908, with the support of journalists at the Daily Mail, worked to persuade the British government that Germany was secretly accelerating its naval programme. The scare worked; stimulating massive naval expenditure in the process and helping to create an atmosphere of mutual suspicion, making war more likely. Even Winston Churchill would later accept that the claims were entirely false.

The arms dealers interests were protected in no small part by the intimate relationship the companies enjoyed with politicians. In 1914 one Labour MP, Philip Snowden, told the House of Commons that with so many MPs being shareholders of arms companies, 'it is not possible to throw a stone at the benches opposite without hitting one.'

Despite their patriotic claims, the arms companies didn't care who they sold their weapons to. As the march to war continued, their drive for profits at all costs even led UK arms companies, Armstrong and Vickers - which later merged to become BAE - to sell weapons to the Ottoman Empire that would soon be turned on British soldiers in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.

The human cost of the war should never be forgotten, and that is why the arms trade needs to be reminded time and time again about the terrible crimes that it directly supported and enabled.

Challenging the arms trade today

After the First World War many rightly believed the arms trade to be a primary cause of war. The unprecedented scale of death and destruction wrought by modern weaponry led a majority of people to support disarmament and international conciliation. The scale of opposition was seen with nationwide events, such as the Peace Ballot, in which over 10 million people registered their opposition to the arms trade.

Unfortunately the fundamentals of the arms trade haven't changed since then. Arms companies still exist to sell weapons, irrespective of of national boundaries, and selling to all sides in a conflict has not abated since the First World War.

The conflict in Libya is a case in point. It saw arms from one company, MBDA, producing weapons that were used by Gaddafi's forces, the Libyan rebels and the UK and French military.

The close relationship has turned into a revolving door between the industry and government, with politicians often working for arms companies when they leave politics. One of the most striking examples of recent years is that of former Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, who awarded a £1.7 billion contract to arms company AgustaWerstland while in office, only to start working for them after he left.

Those that seek to challenge the arms trade and its militaristic mindset need to continue countering the same myths that arms companies are a 'necessary evil' and that they act in the national interest. Focusing on and exposing their profiteering and drawing the parallels with today is essential when responding to those that are trying to teach the wrong lessons from the First World War today.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade.