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

Monday, November 22, 2021

The Allies' Great Advantage: Global Maritime Trade

An Atlantic Convoy Underway for Europe

Historian Keith Neilson of the Royal Military College of Canada  suggests the Entente, plus the United States, had a decisive edge in the industrial style of war that quickly emerged in 1914

The First World War marks a watershed in political, social and military terms. In a political sense, it brought an end to the long nineteenth century and caused the collapse of four empires, ushered in Bolshevism and set the stage for both fascism and Nazism. It also upset the existing social order, bringing about a revolution in the relations between ruled and rulers. All of this occurred due to what has been termed the first ‘total war’, a conflict that involved all aspects of society at an unprecedented level  Such remarks are commonplace (and to some extent debatable). However, what is undeniable is that the First World War was fought on an industrial scale, and that munitions of war were consumed at an unprecedented and formerly impossible rate. At  the simplest level, this was possible because of the industrial revolution. However, such a statement, while true, is to simplify and homogenize what occurred. A deeper-level analysis demonstrates that it was not the industrial revolution as such, but the surrounding changes that accompanied it, that made possible the actual conflict as it was fought and the consumption of articles of war at the level that occurred. Further, such an analysis shows that the two sides – the Entente and the Central Powers – fought the munitions war in different fashions, styles dictated by their geography and their pre-war economic and financial circumstances. A comparative study of both coalitions would entail much more than can be attempted in a limited space. However, the broad outlines of how the Entente provided itself with munitions during period from 1914 to 1918 suggests that its activities with regard to supply during the conflict had a particular, maritime, style, quite different from that of its Continental opponents. . .

In the nineteenth century, the economic dominance granted to Europe (and its transatlantic derivatives in North America) by its technological and  manufacturing advances, gave it a global economic hegemony that is only now beginning to wane. Accompanying this advantage was the development of a new style of trade, most prominent in the north Atlantic region. The new  trading system linked the new manufacturing techniques of the industrial revolution with the revolutions in transportation and communications – primarily the railroad and steam powered iron ships with regard to the former and the telegraph (both locally and transoceanic) with respect to the latter – to produce an integrated global trading system. This first globalization centered upon Britain. As the center of the international banking world and possessing the bulk of the world’s ocean-going mercantile marine, Britain was the hub of the new order. International commerce flowed through Britain: British banks provided capital for overseas investment to an extent well beyond that of any other country. .  . When the war began, the globalized economy began to come apart. This was most noticeable on the Continent, where pre-1914 trading patterns were shattered by the advance of armies. Globally, the British implemented a course of economic warfare designed to crash the German economy (and, incidentally, with it the entire global trading system).  As a result of this, although the plans for economic warfare soon turned into the blockade, a lesser, if still effective, manifestation of economic pressure,

Germany and the Central Powers were largely excluded from the global trading system, except by indirect means involving neutrals. While even this limited access was important, the Central Powers were thrown back on an earlier, semi-autarkic economic system for the duration of the war.  Not so, the Entente. While the global trading system was deformed by the war, the Entente retained its access to the wider world. 

An American Worker Trimming Shells for the Entente

What does all this suggest? The obvious conclusion is that the Entente, as a maritime coalition, pursued a style of warfare sharply different from that of the Central Powers. Able to gain access to global resources, the Entente powers had a distinct advantage in providing munitions for its forces. The focus of this was Britain, and it seems fair to conclude that there is a distinct British way in munitions just as much as it has been argued that there is a distinct British way in warfare.  While the British also pursued an increase in their domestic production by means similar to the Continental states through the setting up of the Ministry of Munitions, their preferred approach reflected their pre-war economic commitment to free trade and globalization.

Such an approach had many advantages in the war. The ability to tap global resources acted as a multiplier effect on the economics of Britain and her Allies. In fact, those looking to discover why the Entente won the First World War might begin profitably by looking at the advantages that the economic style of a maritime power provided. While the famous geographer and geopolitician, Halford Mackinder, had argued before the war that the Power that controlled the Asian heartland was destined to control the world, he might better have been advised to contend that the Power which had maritime access to the world’s resources might dominate the globe.

Source: "The Maritime Way in Munitions: The Entente and Supply in the First World War,"   Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, Issues 3 & 4, 2012

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