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Wikimedia Commons

The Arms Race Shifts into High Gear

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 59th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

March 6, 1913: The Arms Race Shifts into High Gear

In March 1913, amid the continuing crisis resulting from the First Balkan War, the European arms race shifted into high gear with three practically simultaneous moves by Germany, France, and Russia. 

On March 1, the German government presented a novelle (amendment to an existing law) to the Reichstag that would boost the effective strength of infantry and field artillery units, create new cavalry brigades and regiments, strengthen fortress artillery, and add more communications personnel, in addition to improving training and speeding up wartime mobilization. The artillery procurement included a secret order for several 42-centimeter mortars (pictured) specifically designed to destroy the fortifications around Liège, Belgium, as part of the Schlieffen Plan; nicknamed “Big Berthas” by designers at the Krupp armaments firm, these monstrous guns weighed 43 tons and fired shells weighing up to 1830 pounds.

The additions called for in the March 1913 novelle actually fell short of the three additional army corps originally requested by the German Army—but they still represented a sizeable increase in its peacetime strength from 790,000 in 1913 to 890,000 in 1914 (including officers, one-year volunteers, and auxiliary personnel). Some of the other measures, like new fortifications, wouldn’t be complete until 1915 or 1916. The price tag for all this included a one-time splurge of 895 million gold marks, plus a recurring annual outlay of 184 million marks, making it the biggest military spending bill in German history.


Click to enlarge.

Less than a week later, on March 6, 1913, Premier Aristide Briand presented the French Chamber of Deputies with a momentous request to increase the standard term of service from two years to three. The “Three Year Law,” as it became known, was supported by President Raymond Poincaré, army chief of staff Joseph Joffre, and the other members of the conseil superieur de la guerre, or Supreme War Council. By lengthening the term of service for conscripts by a year, the new law would increase the size of France’s standing army from 690,000 in 1913 to 827,000 in 1914, including officers and auxiliary personnel. For obvious reasons, this idea was unpopular with young Frenchmen liable to conscription (as well as their families) and probably wouldn’t have passed if not for public alarm over the new German military program, unveiled just days before; French officials warned that a strengthened German army might be able to launch a surprise attack without even waiting to mobilize reserves (a “standing start” attack).

While it signaled France’s determination to keep pace with Germany, in retrospect the Three Year Law was just as important for what it failed to do. For political reasons, the new law only applied to the 1913 (“freshmen”) conscript class, not previous classes, which were discharged as planned under the old schedule. This served to delay much of the law’s benefit as far as manpower was concerned, and also increased the proportion of untrained “green” recruits, meaning the army’s preparedness would actually decrease in the short term; the maximum benefits wouldn’t be felt until 1916.

Perhaps more importantly, the French government dragged its feet in procuring heavy artillery, which would prove crucial in trench warfare as the only means of breaking up enemy lines before advancing infantry. Although the war ministry asked the Chamber of Deputies to spend 400 million francs over seven years on howitzers and heavy artillery, the volatile French political environment prevented Parliament from agreeing to the request until June 1914—far too late to do any good in the opening stages of the war. The delay was partly due to complacency, as conventional wisdom held that France’s famous 75-millimeter cannons were the best field artillery in the world, as indeed they were—but these light guns, intended for a war of maneuver, were soon found to be inadequate in the face of a heavily entrenched enemy.

Last but certainly not least, in March 1913 the Russian government—eager to demonstrate solidarity with its French ally—began developing plans for a huge increase in armaments known as the “Great Military Program.” Although the details remained sketchy, on March 19, Tsar Nicholas II’s Council of Ministers agreed to a plan, outlined by Minister of War Vladimir Sukhomlinov, calling for a massive increase in the size of Russia’s standing army, procurement of new artillery, and construction of new strategic railroads to speed mobilization.

All this came on top of ambitious projects already underway. The current military bill, passed in 1912, was set to expand the Russian standing army from 1.2 million men in 1913 to 1.45 million men in 1914; the Great Military Program called for a further addition of half a million men by 1917, bringing Russia’s peacetime strength to nearly two million men. That alone would have been enough to trigger serious alarm in Germany and Austria-Hungary—but the program also promised to accelerate wartime mobilization with new military railroads, paid for in part by French loans. Remarkably, St. Petersburg was confident it could fund the rest of the program without having to resort to borrowing, thanks to Russia’s breathtaking economic growth: from 1910 to 1914, gross national product soared 25 percent to over 20 billion rubles, flooding government coffers with new tax revenues.


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But Russia’s autocratic government proved just as inefficient as the democratic regime of the French Republic: Final plans for the Great Military Program weren’t approved by Nicholas II until November 1913, and the bill wasn’t passed by the Russian Duma until July 1914—again, far too late to have much impact on Russia’s performance in the Great War. Indeed, the Great Military Program managed to induce panic in Berlin and Vienna without actually contributing to Russian military potential, and so ended up being counter-productive.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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