MERCHANTS OF DEATH

CHAPTER II
MERCHANTS IN SWADDLING CLOTHES



These in their dark Nativity the Deep
Shall yield us, pregnant with infernal flame,
Which into hollow Engines long and round
Thick-rammed, at th’ other bore with touch of fire
Dilated and infuriate shall send forth
From far with thundering noise among our
Such implements of mischief as shall dash
To pieces, and o’erwhelm whatever stands
Adverse. . .
           Yet haply of thy Race
In future days, if Malice should abound,
Some one intent on mischief, or inspired
With dev’lish machination might devise
Like instrument to plague the Sons of men
For sin, on war and mutual slaughter bent.
—MILTON, Paradise Lost, Book VI.

Would that I had not given myself so much trouble for the love of science.
—ROGER BACON.


IT all began in the “ Middle Ages ” with the importation of gunpowder into Europe.  Kings had just learned how to employ crossbows against rebellious nobles.  With small companies of accurate bowmen they were able to chase the armoured knights off the field of battle and into the shelter of baronial castles.  But arrows were feeble missiles to batter in thick walls.  So, funny little pipelike objects appeared.  They made a terrifying noise and their own artillerymen were afraid of them, for they often back-fired.  About the only mark they could hit was the broadside of a medieval château.  But against these hitherto impregnable battlements they were effective.  They brought a new era—an era of kings imposing obedience on robber barons and merchants plying a profitable trade in primitive cannon.

It was inevitable that the manufacturers of armour and swords should enter this business.  Just as, a few years ago, livery-stable proprietors set up as garage keepers and coachmen suddenly became chauffeurs, so did the armourers of the Middle Ages adjust their tools to the making of guns and mortars.  All through the Black Forest, down in Bohemia at Prague, up the Rhine at Solingen which is now the centre of cutlery manufacture, forges that had previously turned out doublets, corselets, helmets and jousting lances now produced guns.  In Italy, at Brescia, Turin, Florence, Pistoia, and Milan, new arms were born from the fertile minds and agile fingers of expert craftsmen.  In Spain, in Toledo and Seville, Moorish artisans shaped their famous swords—for not until the twentieth century was the sword relegated to parades and museums—and tried their skill at new weapons.  But the most active centre of gun-making was in Belgium.

The country thereabouts had all the elements of nature necessary for this industry.  There was plenty of iron and coal, and the rivers and roads offered excellent transportation facilities.  On both sides Germany and France wasted their resources in long and costly wars, while Liége, comparatively tranquil, waxed prosperous.  The Liégeois were endowed with high inventive and commercial talents and they were admirably fitted to exploit their strategic position.  Black Forest forgemen might make guns for their own rulers, but Liége sold to all the western world.

But as decades went by, the sale of arms to other countries from Liége developed so fast that Charles the Bold of Burgundy issued an edict forbidding the Liégeois to manufacture arms.  The burghers defied Charles and he proceeded to enforce the measure by besieging the city.  His banners and bombarding cannon were successful ;  Liége was captured and burned, and those of its inhabitants who did not escape were slaughtered.  But the arms industry has a tenacious quality undreamed of in the plans of dukes, and hardly was Charles in his grave than the plucky Liégeois were back again at their forges.

In 1576 they were responsible for a most singular transaction.  In that year the Duke of Alva brought his Spanish legions to the Low Countries.  He slaughtered Protestants, and Catholics too, if they displayed a tendency to act like patriotic Netherlanders.  But his arms were not all made in the furnaces of Toledo or Seville.  The arms makers of Liége sold him some of the guns, cannon and ammunition with which he fought their compatriots.  This is the first recorded instance of the international—the anti-national—traffic in arms.1

Other lords besides Charles the Bold sought to curb these unscrupulous merchants.  The Germans, having a vague feudal claim to the Low Countries, reminded the guilds of Liége that they were part of the duchy of Westphalia and for this reason could not legally sell arms and ammunition to the enemies of the Germans.  But, like the true prototypes of Vickers and Schneider that they were, they ignored this edict.  Later, when all this territory was conquered by France, they were forced to obey similar orders from French republicans and from Napoleon I.  But despite this, their industry flourished.  By the middle of the eighteenth century, Liége was producing about 100,000 pieces a year and was well known as one of the arms centres of Europe.


From the very first the arms industry had to struggle against more potent adversaries than chance rulers like Charles the Bold or the German dukes.  Generals did not die in bed in olden times ;  they wielded their swords gallantly in the melee of battle and took their chance amid the massed ranks of pikemen and cavalry.  The ruling military caste of early modern times scorned these cowardly devices for killing at a distance, and guns, save for besieging purposes, were held in low esteem.  Indeed, the European upper classes were very similar to the Japanese Samurai in their resistance to change.  When Dutch traders came to Japan in the sixteenth century they found plenty of gunpowder but strong objections to using it in combat.  According to the doctrines of the Bushido (Way of the Warrior) it was dishonourable to meet one’s enemy except with cold steel face to face.  The European Bushido held the arms industry back for centuries.

Only in the chase was the new method of killing considered proper.  So fond did the nobles become of their first crude fowling pieces that they forbade any person not of noble birth to hunt with them.  The arms makers of Liége and other cities found much profit in this early sporting goods industry—and more than profit, for as they brought in innovations and proved their worth in the field or covert, the nobles perceived the value of new inventions, and, however grudgingly, accepted them in their ordnance departments.

There were other obstacles to rapid evolution.  Science was crude and slow in those heavy-footed centuries, and so it took hundreds of years to better the new instruments of war.  It is indeed a far cry from the crude Liége “ bombardes ” to the finished product of Vickers and Schneider ;  and from the unwieldy arquebuse to the slim Winchester.  In the case of artillery the first cannon were of ridiculously small calibre ;  the little pieces consisted of bands of iron held together by strips of leather.  Naturally large charges of gunpowder were dangerous.  Likewise small arms were really large arms, for musketeers had to rest their cumbrous arquebuses on forked rods to aim them and an assistant had to stand by with a fuse.

The problem of igniting the powder charge presented the chief difficulty to small arms inventors and merchants.  From the time when Columbus discovered America up to the Napoleonic wars, progress in perfecting the lock, the trigger and the firing breech was extremely slow.  Decades rolled by before the arquebuse with its portable fuse evolved into the crude match-lock in which the fuse was attached to the breech.  Then a century more to develop the wheel-lock, a spring contrivance, not much better, but requiring the use of a trigger.  In the seventeenth century some unknown worker hit upon the use of flint struck by steel, and so the flint-lock musket, the weapon of the soldiers of Marlborough, Frederick the Great and Washington, was invented.  These flint-locks missed fire often, and when it rained the slugs of powder and ball, loosely packed in paper and rammed down the muzzle, were generally useless.  And the barrels, unrifled and short in length, were incapable of accurate aim ;  only in masses of infantry were they at all effective.  Early modern times were indeed the infancy of the arms industry.


In a purely commercial sense, the arms makers were awakened by the French Revolution.  The execution of Louis XVI brought all Europe together in league for the extinction of the French peril.  England swept the seas of French commerce ;  Germany was both ally and host to the embittered French émigrés ;  the Emperor of Austria, mourning his lost relative Marie Antoinette, mobilised his legions at various points—on the Rhine, in Italy, and most important of all in Flanders.  Thus the arms merchants of Liége were prevented from plying their usual trade.  The British blockade kept American arms shipments from arriving in French ports, and it looked as if the revolutionary government of France would have to depend on their own poorly organised arsenals.  However, there was one possible channel for importations.

Would the arms makers of Germany and Austria stifle their patriotism and sell to the French enemy, and if so, would the neutral Swiss cantons let the stuff go through ?  That was the problem, and the desperate Committee of Public Safety sent Citizen Tel and Citizen Chose to Geneva, to Basle, to Zurich and even to Germany and Austria, to sound out the armourers.  Soon reports like the following came in to the Committee from their agents :  “ The landgrave of Hesse, avid for money, is ready to serve whoever will pay him the best.”  Cupidity triumphed, and it was the old story of the Liégeois and the Duke of Alva.

As for the neutral cantons, they were handled satisfactorily.  The sellers packed their goods in the most innocent and disarming of crates so that they looked like anything but shipments of arms, and the carriers had orders to take them by certain sure and devious routes.  One shipment from Germany totalled 40,000 muskets, and soon caravans of copper, that necessary metal in making shells, came all the way from Austria itself.  The Swiss government assured the Emperor that they were permitting no such breach of neutrality, but the two streams flowed on—the agents equipped with fat letters of credit into Central Europe, and, in the other direction, the masked wagon-loads of arms.  It was a curious parade, but as will be seen in a later and more important war, it was not to be the only one of such a nature to pass through Switzerland.

It was most effective, and while the reorganisation of domestic firearms industry was perhaps a larger factor in the supply of the French armies, yet this foreign aid from German and Austrian sources made success more certain.  Valmy, Wattignies and the victories in Flanders sent the armies of the Coalition back to their bases and saved the French revolutionary government.  French arsenals were now competent to equip the armies, and the French generals turned from the defensive tactics of Danton and the Committee of Public Safety to carrying the war into the enemy’s camp under the Directory and Napoleon.  But even the latter did not scorn aid from foreign makers of lethal weapons.2


In 1797 Robert Fulton was in Paris.  He had not yet drawn the plans for his famous steamboat, but he had invented another watercraft to exploit which he formed a company.  It was the first submarine, and when the Fulton Nautilus Company submitted proposals to the French government, there was much excitement in French naval circles.  Old line admirals, like chivalrous knights in armour, considered the invention cowardly and unworthy of French martial honour.  However, members of the Directory and scientists employed by Napoleon, who soon after seized the power from the Directory, were inclined to favour it.

Limited funds were advanced to Fulton and trials took place.  The Nautilus was a crude apparatus, submerging by admitting water to the hold and rising by pumping it out, but the tests were quite successful.  At one time a contract was drawn up, which curiously enough had a most patriotic clause inserted at the request of the inventor, providing that the Nautilus should not be used against the United States unless the latter used it first against France.  But in the end French naval conservatism and red tape triumphed.  Fulton’s proposals were rejected and he went to France’s adversary, England, to market his product.  He found the English admirals just as conservative and contemptuous of his craft, and after discouraging negotiations he abandoned the enterprise and set sail for New York.3


Fulton’s ship was hardly out of sight of Land’s End when another inventor knocked on the door of English conservatism.  Up in Scotland a Scots minister named Alexander Forsyth liked fowling but found his flint-lock gun a most unsatisfactory affair.  On his shooting expeditions across the moors he was enraged when the powder and ball often failed to explode just after he had taken aim at a fat grouse.  He had a turn for tinkering with mechanical contrivances, and he began to experiment with methods of ignition.  The result was a form of the percussion cap, inserted in a pan on the breech of the gun.  It was crude, but it was at least successful in withstanding the damp mists of the Scottish highlands.

Forsyth saw commercial possibilities in it and went to London to get a patent.  There he met Lord Moira, head of the government ordnance works.  Moira was enthusiastic about the invention, encouraged Forsyth to perfect it, and gave him a room in the Tower of London as a workshop.  Preaching in a neighbouring chapel on Sundays and bent over his bench in the Tower during the week, the clergyman worked out some excellent improvements on the cap.  But, alas, Moira resigned, and his successor, Lord Chatham, a believer in the status quo in arms, saw nothing but idle foolishness in Forsyth’s work.  He dismissed him and ordered him to take his “ rubbish ” out of the Tower.

Poor Forsyth, a victim of military obscurantism, retired with his caps and apparatus.  But not before Napoleon offered him £20,000 for the invention.  As in the case of Fulton, patriotism meant something to the minister.  Rather than give old Bony, “ the mad dog of Europe,” a chance to win battles by it, he refused and retired to his kirk.  Twenty years later the percussion cap was accepted by the British government, and a pension was granted Forsyth.  But it came too late ;  the first instalment arrived the morning of his death.4

Thus in the case of this Scottish clergyman the various obstacles which faced arms merchants and inventors at the close of the eighteenth century were all present.  They had to demonstrate the effectiveness of their products in such inglorious ways as hunting before they could attract the notice of ordnance ministers.  Then they had to overcome the rigid conservatism of the military, just as resistant to change on the score of tradition and honour in arms as a Japanese Shogun.  And lastly, patriotism often restrained them from the full exploitation of their merchandise.

But by this time the industrial revolution was in full swing, capitalism was invoking new standards.  Fulton and Forsyth, after all, were inventors rather than arms merchants.  Would the large companies which were now growing powerful still adhere to the old code of national honour ?  Was patriotism strong enough to resist a new code of business ?




1 Revue Economique Internationale, 3 (3) Sept. 1929, pp. 471-492. Albion :  Introduction to Military History, pp. 5-44.

2 Camille Richard, Le Comité de Salut Public et les Fabrications de Guerre sous la Terreur ;  Charles Poisson, Les Fournisseurs aux Armées sous la Revolution Française :  le Directoire des Achats (1792-1793).

3 H.W. Dickinson :  Robert Fulton, pp. 65-206.

4 Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 7, p. 471.