Huddersfield was at the forefront of providing munitions — and spades — for the men fighting for their lives on the frontline.
The lack of firepower, blamed by Lord John French, Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, for the failures of the spring campaign in 1915 had major repercussions on the home front.
The massive shortfall in weapons, ammunition and explosives was potentially disastrous. They had failed to anticipate the nature and longevity of the war and could hardly demand loyalty and commitment from troops they failed to equip. The challenge was immense.
The army had increased sixfold to one-and-a-half million in just nine months. The use of mops and brooms as improvised rifles in training camp drills was unsatisfactory enough, but to ration ammunition with the enemy in range undermined everything.
The new Minister of Munitions, Lloyd George, sought to harness British industry more closely to the war effort. Production was urgently accelerated. In the 12 months from August 1915 the national output of high explosive shells — the most effective weapon in trench warfare — increased 94-fold, part of a programme that increased annual national shell production from 500,000 in 1914 to 76 million in 1917.
Many steelworks were wholly or partly converted to the manufacture of equipment and armaments and chemical factories were adapted for the production of explosives.
Such urgency, however, came at a price. Health and safety, often derided but paramount in factories packed with explosives, was seriously and recklessly compromised.
In Huddersfield several local factories were modified, including Thomas Broadbent and Sons Ltd (Central Ironworks), W C Holmes and Co Ltd, Calvert and Co Ltd of Folly Hall, and the Lockwood-based David Brown and Sons Ltd along with William Whiteley and Sons Ltd and Richard Carter Ltd.
Richard Carter Ltd needed little modification. A hand tools manufacturer from Holmfirth, they despatched thousands of shovels per week from Kirkburton Railway Station to the frontline. Many of the trenches were dug using Carter’s shovels. Ernest Carter, one of four brothers who ran the company, was married on his last day on British soil. He returned to his unit later that day and was killed at Gallipoli, aged 26.
David Brown’s was founded in 1860 as a pattern manufacturing company. By 1914 the company was manufacturing complete gear units, bearings and shafts, worm drive gears and had helped to pioneer the development of turbine gears. Demand was stimulated by a massive wartime increase in vehicle production and shipbuilding and in 1915 the Admiralty moved into Brown’s Park Works site to oversee the manufacture of heavy gears that drove ships’ propulsion units.
From extensive orders placed by the Canadian Maritime Board and leading companies such as JP Thorneycroft and John Samuel White, David Brown’s equipped a range of ships, from tankers and oilers to destroyers, flotilla leaders and patrol boats.
David Brown’s employees were exempted from military service and directed to work in this essential industry. This did not prevent the more adventurous spirits from signing up and then being frogmarched back to Park Works after they were discovered. As in other industries, long hours and seven-day working weeks became the norm. Joint owners Frank and Percy Brown, who inherited the works from their father, were sticklers for hard work. Frank, in particular, acquired a reputation for dismissing on the spot anyone he thought was slacking, on one occasion mistakenly sacking an employee of an external building contractor!
Another of Huddersfield’s ironworks companies, Thomas Broadbent and Sons Ltd, contributed a variety of products to the war effort. After a brief suspension of operations in August 1914 they resumed work on their standard products such as centrifugals used in the manufacture of explosives and chemicals, cranes and other heavy-lifting plant. Many of Britain’s battleships at the Battle of Jutland, including HMS Lion and the Orion-class vessels HMS Conqueror, HMS Monarch, and HMS Thunderer were equipped with Broadbent’s ammunition hoists.
In 1916 Broadbent’s was awarded a large contract to build the casings for 112lb cast steel aerial bombs. This necessitated an extension. A new steel foundry was built and equipped with the latest electrical furnaces but, owing to a miscalculation, they remained idle during the daytime as there wasn’t enough electrical power in Huddersfield to run them!
They eventually operated through the night, but electricity costs were so expensive that the steel foundry was converted to an extension of the iron foundry immediately after the war.
Sellers and Co, near Chapel Hill, was involved in similar work, making mine casings for the Admiralty.
The most drastic changes were made at Read Holliday and Sons Ltd. Founded in 1830 at Tanfield and moving to Turnbridge in 1839, Read Holliday had established the development of dyestuffs and chemicals as one of Huddersfield’s major industries, complementing the textile trade and exploiting the Yorkshire coalfield for both fuel and the coal tar from which the early dyes were distilled.
Major Lionel Brook Holliday — son of the firm’s founder and a director — was one of few people who understood how to manufacture picric acid. When the munitions crisis hit the British army in the spring of 1915 he was seconded from France where he was a major in the West Riding Regiment to run a picric acid plant at Bradley and in June 1915 the creation of the Huddersfield National Shell Factory was announced.
Production of picric acid began in October 1915 and averaged 100 tons per week by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, British Dyes had added trinitrotoluene (TNT) to its output and bought Read Holliday and Sons Ltd for £422,000. Major Holliday used his share of the proceeds to buy a 60-acre site at Deighton from Sir John Ramsden’s estates, to establish LB Holliday and Co Ltd for the manufacture of dyes and munitions.
A direct rival to British Dyes, he cashed in on the khaki dye market.
British Dyes also acquired a site close to Holliday’s Deighton factory to increase their manufacture of explosives, employing 1,960 construction workers and expanding their sites to 450 acres. Once all their plants were operational they employed 4,000 workers on the production lines. British Dyes became part of ICI when it was founded in 1926 and now as Syngenta still occupies the same site.
Major Holliday was awarded the OBE in 1918. When he died in 1965 he had become Britain’s biggest private racehorse owner.