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Weapons of World War One:
The The Production of Arms


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We all know that wars cannot be fought without weapons, and that many types of weapons are illustrated on postcards, but little interest seems to have been given to their production at least in relation to other forms of propaganda. This seems a bit odd because the public at the time was well aware of the importance of the arms industry, and many more than usual found employment within. A number of cards were published directly by arms manufacturers. There was nothing new in war profiteering, but by this time a much closer relationship was being forged to form an industrial military complex. Private industry was no longer just producing arms, they had the ear of politicians, and pressed the need for large armies and navies and sometimes even war. Postcards that tackle this subject do so in a variety of ways ranging from ordinary advertising to political propaganda.

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In the German Empire, 1888 became known as the Year of the Three Kaisers. Emperor Wilhelm I died in March after a long reign, and was succeeded by his son, Frederick William who became Frederick III when he took the throne. He was already severely ill, and died that June leaving the throne to his son, Wilhelm II. In 1913, just prior to the Great War, the 15th anniversary of Kaiser Wilhelm’s reign and his achievements were celebrated on postcards. He had overseen unprecedented industrial growth putting the Empire on the cusp of surpassing Great Britain as the world&rsquo.s leading industrial power. Trade relations were strong with all its neighbors promising a bright future. Historians often place economics behind the cause of wars; but despite the potential riches to be made by profiteers, most at the time knew that a coming war would devastate everyones economy. This gave many a false sense of security by allowing them to forget that the path to war often follows the course of irrationality.

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As industrialism continued to grow, so did the grievances of industrial workers. Many had flocked to the socialist movement, and by 1914 they had grown into a major political force. A Europe-wide strike was being prepare for the fall of that year to force important labor reforms. Members were overwhelmingly antiwar believing the upcoming struggle to be fought was between workers and capitalists. When War finally came, most labor leaders stood firm against it but the rank and file overwhelmingly reverted back to their nationalistic habits and ethnic hatreds. With great public support for war in all nations it became inevitable, which in turn ended socialism as an international movement.

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Some postcards were made to honor the arms industry. They seem to carry the same message as other armament cards that say we are prepared to meet the challenges of war, but do so more abstractly without the need to show factory interiors or stockpiles of arms. These cards are also meant to remind armament workers and the public how essential this industry is to the nation and its troops that count on them. At first this seems like an obvious straight forward propaganda message but it was also directed against workers who might be inclined to cause labor unrest without singling them out.

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To the public at large, industry means little more than jobs even if some national pride is taken in it. Its real importance in supporting any war effort must then be stressed during wartime to change peoples attitudes, for only by doing so will the public support a reallocation of human and material resources to keep it going and even expand production. By 1917 all of Germany was mobilized into a war machine, which required willing public acquiescence. This was helped by postcards like the one above that portrayed the arms industry in bold mythical terms. It is the warrior that always protects the German people, and to do so this soldier of God must be equipped for battle.

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Some cards were more straightforward and made direct references to the workers who filled the arms industries. This was more than making workers feel good about their jobs. As the War dragged on and casualties desperately needed to be replaced, fewer exemptions for essential work were issued. It was important that the public be made to understand that those left at home working in industry were not shirkers but were really needed to keep the War going.

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The Socialist movement was once very active in all nations, and there had been much labor unrest in prewar years. Just because they largely joined the pro-war bandwagon in 1914, this did not stop their labor activism. Labor granted many concessions out of patriotism to see the War through, but as grievances mounted under the stress of a seemingly endless War, a number of large strikes occurred in industrial cities. Governments were always fearful that the calling of strikes could have a detrimental effect on the war effort and publishers were not allowed to express civil unrest on their postcards. Instead we get pleas for workers to persevere, and they are shown as a bulwark against the enemy. As governments became more involved in production, there was real fear that labor unrest might be used as a political weapon to effect more than wages. The February Revolution in Russia that toppled the Czar in 1917 began as a labor strike.

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A name almost synonymous with modern war is that of Krupp. The family was a pioneer in steel production, setting up their first foundry in Essen in 1811. By 1847 they cast their first steel cannon. It would play a crucial role in the Prussian victory over France in 1871. Krupp expanded their capabilities by purchasing the Germania shipbuilding yards in Kiel in 1902, which would become important in the manufacturing of U-boats. They were the star attraction for almost any early view-card depicting Essen from a variety of publishers.

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By World War One Fried. Krupp Grusonwerk AG was the largest arms manufacturer in Germany, producing a number of military related products from barbed wire to armor plating, but they mostly concentrated on creating heavy artillery. For many years the firm published postcards illustrating their massive factories, which were so extensive that it was difficult to capture the essence of them in a single composition. These cards were printed over a wide period and come in many different formats. It is not always possible to tell which card was printed during World War One.

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Not only were many exterior view-cards produced of the Krupp factories, there are just as many interior views if not more. Most of these comprise of expansive spaces that are almost too big to comprehend within the scale of a postcard. Sometimes these cards depict more particular parts of production and recognizable components of weapons can be seen.

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Many of the postcards showing the Krupp works were made in large sets so that the vast expanse of their enterprise could be properly rendered. These include images of the factory buildings, the pouring of molten steel, the testing of guns, and stockpiles of ammunition. Some of these sets published by Krupp were illustrated by well known postcard artists such as Paul Kley.

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What is not shown on German cards is how much of this production was performed by large numbers of forced laborers. By the autumn of 1915 Belgian civilians began being conscripted for labor in the industrial Ruhr. This situation grew worse in 1916 after Ludendorff took control over the German economy and deportations increased to fill the arms factories at the insistence of Krupp. While some in Germany denounced these practices, Belgians just became an expendable resource that the leading industrialists needed to keep the War going. After the War Gustav Krupp was labeled a war criminal but he was never put on trial.

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To many in France the name Krupp was synonymous with Prussian aggression. The destruction of so many towns and villages, kept in the public’s eye by countless postcards, was viewed as the product of Krupp guns. Even though the Paris Gun that brought terror to the streets of the French capital could not be seen, it was understood by all to be the work of Krupp. When French postcard publishers fantasized about the final victory, they not only saw Berlin in ruins but the Krupp factories as well.

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Other nations such as Italy might have had nothing for praise for their own arms manufacturers, but they produced postcards that were very critical of the enemies military industrial complex. These firms were often portrayed as the enemies of peace and mankind. While Krupp wasn’t always directly named, they and their Austrian counterpart, Skoda were the obvious targets.

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It wasn’t just the manufacturing of arms that was always criticized on postcards, the manner in which weapons were traded and war profiteering were also put up for scrutiny. The most obvious example was the vast amount of arms and ammunition supplied to the Allies by the so called neutral United States. While the British blockade of Germany was real enough, it was used by President Wilson as an screen to hide his favoritism. The Allies were totally unprepared to wage a modern war, and their shell production could not meet the demands of their generals. Germany could see that the War would have ground to a halt much sooner without American support and complained bitterly. The pro-German American newspaper, The Fatherland produced many postcards that dealt with this theme.

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Since Krupp was so famous for their cannon, these weapons are sometimes singled out on postcards. The most common show their big guns being made ready for testing. Typically all guns were fired before delivery to make sure they could withstand the explosive charge that propelled the shell without bursting. Krupp sold large guns to many other nations, and they in turn made note of these weapons on their own postcards that were produced before the Great War, but these types of cards are more difficult to find. While it is ironic that Krupp guns in many nations arsenals faced off against one another when war came, especially in naval engagements, this was an inconvenient truth that was rarely tackled on postcards.

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One of Krupp’s most famous weapons was the 420mm howitzer that could hurl a 1763 pound projectile well over seven miles. Despite its 47 ton weight it was considered a mobile gun. They were built under great secrecy, and completely surprised the Allies when first deployed to reduce the forts on the Belgian border in August 1914. They received the nickname, Dicke Bertha by the Germans, but the Allies began calling all large German guns Big Bertha soon after.

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Some have claimed that the name Big Bertha was given to these big guns in reference to the hefty Bertha Krupp von Bohlen, the Krupp family's matriarch, but this may be nothing more than a good story. On the other hand there seems to be many postcards that make direct reference to Bertha Krupp. This was also true on postcards from Allied publishers, though they portrayed Bertha if a far less flattering light.

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No matter where the term Big Bertha originated, it had entered popular culture during World War One. It was often employed in humorous ways to denote something that was more bellicose than dangerous, but that you still had to watch out for. Finding such casual examples on comic postcards is a sure sign that the reference was broadly understood.

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The weapons made by Krupp brought such horrors to the battlefield that it was a well known name to many soldiers in many armies. The Family name and their location in Essen became synonymous with death on the battlefield. While Allied cards either played to the horror or belittled the effect these weapons had, German cards referenced the same material to express their power and prowess.

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Wars consume a great deal of resources as armed forces do not only need arms, they need to replace equipment and ammunition lost and expended through battle and wear. Ordinary people were asked to be patriotic and conserve in many ways. This message can be found in many propaganda campaigns. Sometimes the message went beyond conserving to asking for donations of needed material. Metals were always one substance there was never enough of as it was the blood of the arms industry. This was especially true for rare metals whose supply might have been cut off by blockades.

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Shipbuilding was of major importance to all the seafaring belligerents in the Great War. Not only did they continually build warships to gain an edge over an enemy fleet, transports were needed to carry extraordinary amounts of men and supplies. Shipbuilders were often in a race against losses largely due to the U-boat war. The German use of unrestricted warfare on the seas began sinking ships faster than they could be made, which almost brought Great Britain to her knees. It was the eventual adoption of the convoy system that cut losses; and when the ratio was turned around, the U-boat war could achieve victory alone. Shipbuilding was a popular subject for postcards before the War opened, and though they continued to be produced during the conflict it does not seem that there was any increase in their numbers.

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A set of postcards entitled, Britain at War used the illustrations created by British artist Muirhead Bone for the book, The Western Front published by Wellington House in 1917. Bone began working for the War Propaganda Bureau in May 1916 as a war artist and was sent to the Western Front. Though he captured the battlefront at the Somme, he also produced many drawings of dry docks as well as the manufacture of armaments.

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Perhaps the most common display of arms manufacturing on postcards depicts the interior of factories creating artillery shells. These cards served two purposes, they promoted the patriotic role that women played in the War and encouraged other woman to do the same. They also promoted the idea that the nations factories were up to the job of producing enough weapons for the nation’s soldiers. This wasn’t always the case as in Britain’s Shell Crisis of 1915, where the unanticipated rate of artillery fire needed in modern warfare far outstripped production. After new of this was widely disseminated through the papers, a political crisis emerged.

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While many employers were reluctant to hire women for jobs traditionally held by men, shortages of labor eventually forced the issue. As more men were sent to the battlefront these labor shortages grew more severe and real efforts had to be made to find their replacements for essential work. These efforts were mostly aimed at women looking for more independence but those who were already retired were also asked to contribute as best they could. Posters and postcards recruiting for jobs became as prevalent as those encouraging men to enlist.

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While most postcards depicting factory work do so in a realistic manner, some took advantage of the new entrants into the workforce to produce amusing narratives. On the Italian card above, the woman producing artillery shells is so entrance with the idea that she is helping to defeat the enemy that her work is practically a love affair. Even though this card is meant to evoke humor, it holds the propaganda message that workers must see the goals of their nation in their work and stick to it.

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The industrial revolution began in England, and by the 20th century it into the world’s leading industrial empire. This also meant that the age of its infrastructure was beginning to hold it back in favor of newly industrializing nations such as in the German Empire. Even so British publishers like Raphael Tuck celebrated their small factories on postcards such as the one above where armaments for torpedo boats are being forged by hand.

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Not all arms manufacturing was done on a large industrial scale or mass produced. Even in large counties like France, decades of political pandering to small business and its large rural population insured that much of its armaments would remain hand made in small factories and shops. This problem was exasperated when its prime industrial regions were overrun by the German army early in the War. Equipment like their famous 75mm guns could not be manufactured at a pace that exceeded their battlefield losses. Even artillery shells that were used up at enormous rates were never stockpiled in amounts required for a war in prewar years. Since production could not match needs, and they were forced to rely on supplies from the United States. This is one reason why America’s failure to remain completely neutral was a thorn in the side of Germany, and why some there believed the U-boat war could end the conflict.

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Before the outbreak of the Great War, French senator Charles Humbert served as vice-president of the senate army commission where he became an outspoken critic of the inadequate state of preparation for war. His cry, Des canons, des munitions! was largely ignored, seen as just another corrupt attempt to funnel funds into the hands of industrialists. These were turbulent political years and the constant jockeying for personal power created an environment where bureaucrats only concerned themselves with preserving their own careers at the expense of attending to the needs of the army. Despite Humbert’s label as the Apostle of Munitions on the cards above, French stockpiles of artillery shells were used up at rates so enormous that they could not be replaced. Since production could not match needs, and they were forced to rely on supplies from the United States. This is one reason why America’s failure to remain completely neutral was a thorn in the side of Germany, and why some there believed the U-boat war could end the conflict.

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Sometimes the uniqueness of a weapon, or at least the public’s unfamiliarity with it, made it a prime subject for postcards. These types of production cards are even more difficult to find. Part of the reason might just have been security; it was one thing to show artillery shells in production because their design was generally the same in all nations. Unique weapons were made in great secrecy; not only to hide production techniques, but to achieve shock on the battlefield when first deployed.

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It should not be forgotten how many small shops produced goods in the early 20th century. Nearly every product had a multitude of manufacturers in competition with one another, and few items had any standard parts. Black smiths, still numerous due to the preponderance of horses, were often called upon to forge makeshift replacement parts for many mechanical products. Though the furnace on the card pictured above is half burnt out, the importance of this facility is keeping the smithy at work with what is left.

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While some firms only produced a few cards to publicize their role in the War, others launched creative advertising campaigns through postcards. One of the more notable was Continental-Caoutchouc & Gutta-Percha Company of Hanover, Germany. This firm was founded to produce rubber products and they primarily focused on manufacturing impermeable sheets and solid tires for bicycles and automobiles. They are also known to have made the airbags used in Zeppelins. They long used artist signed postcards in fine lithography to extensively promote their products. These cards were infused with military subjects during the War, though they still remain lighthearted.

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Many private firms not normally in the business of creating weapons switched production over to armaments once the Great War began. Most of these were already equipped to manufacture metal products, machines, or engines such as automobile companies. Brands like Fiat that we know today for their cars once were a major manufacturer of machine guns. The influx of money through military contracts allowed many of these firms to greatly expand their industrial capacity, which turned them into giants in the postwar years. These types of companies sometimes published their own postcards to show the active patriotic role they played in the War. In one sense this reassured the public that the nations soldiers were being equipped with the best of weapons, but the good publicity was also calculated to increase the sale of commercial goods through name recognition once the War ended.

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Many companies that did not directly produce arms still managed to contribute heavily to their nations war effort. Benz & Co., noted for producing the first commercially available automobile, was producing diesel engines to power U-boats by World War One. Smokeless engines were essential for submarines to run undetected underwater. Benz published postcards emphasizing their role in creating havoc at sea as a form of good publicity. Images of destruction were often shown on German cards, not as something to revile, but as a tool that brought their empire closer to victory.

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While we understand the importance of industry in supplying both goods and jobs, we have largely zoned their existence out of large cities. Those factories that remain are most often associated with the most blighted impoverished neighborhoods. It is understandable that people would prefer to live away from noise and pollution, but this change in representation also marks a change of vision. In our pursuit of the picturesque we have thrown aside a good deal of the symbolism that once sustained our visual vocabulary. Few today would buy a postcard depicting a dirty factory at the end of a street forgetting that such images were once popular because they represented national strength and progress. This type of symbolism was once even more important during wartime.

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Sometimes it was not the manufacturing of armaments that were placed on postcards but the arms themselves being stockpiled and delivered. When pictured in great quantities they had an impressive quality that could render the same propaganda effect as cards that showed actual production. They assured the public that their armies had everything they needed to carry them to victory. With so many weapons and so much ammunition, how could they ever loose?




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