Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, March 12, 2020

What Was the Shell Crisis?

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British Gunners in Flanders


In the last decade of the 19th century, artillery firepower was revolutionized. Steel field guns of larger calibers could range up to seven kilometers. Smokeless powder meant gunners could see to identify their targets. The remaining problem was that of recoil: the discharge of the shell caused the whole gun to move, and it had to be relaid for each round. The solution was for the barrel to move while the gun’s carriage remained stationary. Brakes checked the recoil and springs forced the barrel back to its original position. Crews could now stay close to the gun’s breech, sheltering behind its shield. In 1897, the French army adopted the war’s most effective quick-firing field gun, the 75mm, capable of firing 20 rounds a minute. In the following decade, the other European armies raced to match it. 

They recognized that previous calculations of shell consumption were now outdated, revising their expectations on the basis of the wars fought after 1899. By 1914, most had doubled their stocks, holding between 1,000 and 1,500 rounds per gun, thought to be enough for about six months’ fighting. Larger quantities in peacetime created the danger of obsolescence. Crucial now was the speed at which munitions industries could be converted to wartime production. In 1914, shell shortages emerged more quickly than anticipated for all the combatants—for France within six weeks, during the battle of the Marne, and for other armies, including the British and German, by November. The shortening of the day and the worsening of the weather as winter approached then provided some respite. Shortages, however, became critical as the spring campaigns of 1915 unfolded.

The British Experience

During their first offensive operation of 1915 at Neuve Chapelle, it became evident that the British Army would fast run out of shells for its artillery. The British Army in France had enough guns but, due to slow manufacturing of ammunition, not enough shells to fire. By mid-1915 British guns were restricted to firing only four or five shells a day. This "Great Shell Scandal" led to the collapse of Herbert Henry Asquith's government, forcing him to form a new, coalition government in 1916 which eventually led to his replacement by David Lloyd George.

A Well-Supplied British Howitzer on the Somme, 1916

The key ingredient of all ammunition for both shells and small arms at the time was cordite. Before the war the key ingredient of cordite—acetone—had been purchased from Germany. By 1916 it was discovered that conkers [horse chestnuts] fallen from trees could be boiled down to make acetone. A new Ministry of Munitions, headed by Lloyd George, was set up, and improvements to production and new factories and techniques were put in place. This eventually alleviated the crisis and enabled the manufacturing of up to 50 million shells a year, allowing the large offensives such as the Battle of the Somme to be mounted. 

Sources: Canadian Journal of History (1983, #1), 1914-1918 Online 


  1. The first photo looks more like Middle East/Mesopotamia. Several of the crew members have neck curtains and one appears to be wearing a Wolseley Helmet.

    1. Good point Anonymous. I've replaced the photo.

  2. my grandfather served with the 314th Ammunition Train of the 89th Division; growing up the only thing he mentioned about his service was that "he served where the shells were the thickest ". The 314th actually served for 55 days straight, firing over 200,000 shells, with three different divisions during the Muese-Argonne campaign. They then went on to Germany for occupation duty.

  3. The same thing happened to the US Army in WWII. The "bubble" reached Western Europe in the fall of 1944. The Restricted Supply Rate (RSR) was as low as three or four shells per day.
    According to some accounts, in October the XX US Corps artillery fired more than a million rounds of captured German ammunition through captured German guns.