The more I explore the story of how the Army was equipped, the more I am drawn to a single narrative covering both World Wars.
It most certainly was not intended. The war machine of the controlled establishments, created by Lloyd George in order to produce the arms to enable our men to fight, was dismantled by 1921. Men had been de-mobbed and my father, Bill Williams, was one of them. Many returned to their old jobs, and the women, who had been doing those jobs so well, had to return to their kitchens. During the war women had also played football in place of the men, both to great effect and to huge crowds – as many as 50,000. In 1921 the FA banned the women’s game.
Life had returned to its peacetime normal. Missing, of course, were the 700,000 British men who had died. Many more of their wounded brothers needed nursing care and yet more carried their disabilities through life; there were no Invictus Games.
In terms of equipment, the battle fields had been largely cleared of ammunition and arms. The last of the tanks had rolled into Woolwich to rust. The cavalry believed that they were back in business. The numbers in uniform dwindled. The army’s job was to go back to policing the Empire, the occupied territories and dependencies.
Bill Williams had returned to his old office job only to find that those who had not been to war had been promoted above him. He told them ‘what they could do with their job’ and returned to what had recently been renamed the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and which would become his life. It wasn’t long before he was posted to Gibraltar as Ordnance officer to both the Army and the Navy, under Tom Leahy (well known to readers of Ordnance). There is then a photograph of the last Ordnance depot in Wiesbaden in Germany in 1928 when Bill was the last RAOC officer to leave.
By the time the 1930’s came, thought was being given to Army mechanisation. Catterick, the large army camp on the Great North Road where Bill had then been posted, was gaining a reputation for its work with vehicles. As I record in War on Wheels, November 1934 was the date when Bill was sent to visit the derelict shell filling factory at Chilwell with a view to setting up the Army Centre for Mechanisation, but on a shoe string budget. From then on it was fight after fight to secure enough funding and then full speed ahead to drag the British Army into the mid 20th century. The pressure wouldn’t stop for another ten years.
It wasn’t only my father; there were a great many who worked with him and many others who had survived the First only to serve in the Second World War. There were others who had gone back to civilian life but remained in the Reserves and who came back to serve in 1939. There were those a little older who would see their sons and daughters leave for war as they had done in 1914. Antony Horowitz’s character, Christopher Foyle, in the much loved TV series, Foyle’s War, is an example. It was men born in the last two decades of the 19th century.
I see them all as part of a Blighted Generation and my current project is to research their story.