“ The Government of your country !  I am the Government of your country, I and Lazarus.  Do you suppose that you and half a dozen amateurs like you, sitting in a row in that foolish gabble shop, govern Undershaft and Lazarus ?  No, my friend, you will do what pays us.  You will make war when it suits us and keep peace when it doesn’t. . . . When I want anything to keep my dividends up, you will discover that my want is a national need.  When other people want something to keep my dividends down, you will call out the police and military.  And in return you shall have the support of my newspapers, and the delight of imagining that you are a great statesman.”
—UNDERSHAFT, the armament maker, in Bernard Shaw’s
Major Barbara.

OF course this diagnosis of the armament situation has that readable but exaggerated quality which has become known as characteristically Shavian.  Only a very rash political theorist would undertake to prove that the armament manufacturers alone brought about the World War, nor is it possible to say that these magnates dictate orders to the government.  Nor on the other hand do governments control armament manufacturers.  The matter is not so simple as that.  But that there is an intimate relationship between governments and the arms merchants is indisputable ;  and, to judge by the situation in England, the arms barons have woven a fine web of influence which enables them to condition if not to direct public policy.  England may be the Mother of Parliaments, but it is fairly evident that Vickers Ltd. is the stepmother of Parliament.

Vickers did not spring, armed for the munition conflict, from the brain of Basil Zaharoff.  Its history dates back to the early nineteenth century.  Then it started as merely a general engineering and iron works, and, like most English firms of that day, it was the mentor of engineers of all nations.  In the ’40s Herr Krupp went to England to drink of the technical wisdom of the British.  But a few decades later the term “ Made in Germany ” became synonymous with authority, and the rô1es were reversed.  Young Thomas E. Vickers served his apprenticeship in Essen and returned home so well armed with the precious German methods that he was able to take the lead over his British competitors.

At first, like Krupp, Vickers manufactured such prosaic articles as wheels for railway cars, cast steel blocks and cylinders ;  but during the ’60s he turned to arms making.  He began modestly with the manufacture of gun barrels and armoured steel plates.  Later, as the dividends grew, he branched out to include the production of entire guns.  Designs of a lieutenant of artillery named Dawson brought Vickers large orders for guns, and it was not long before the firm was known as the most important manufacturers of cannon for the British navy.1

With the advent of Zaharoff in the ’90s, the firm took on a more venturesome character.  It acquired the Wolseley Tool and Motor Co., and then the Electric and Ordnance Accessories Co. Beardmore, the Glasgow firm of shipbuilders, combined with them ;  and the consolidated firm obtained a subsidiary in Italy, the Terni company, which later took the name of Vickers-Terni.  Zaharoff shook Vickers out of the humdrum business of dealing solely with the British government.  Cecil Rhodes was directing British policy in South Africa in such a way that it pointed ominously toward war, and Vickers took the first halting steps on the soil of arms internationalism with the sale of rapidfire guns to the hostile Boer Republic.  Maxim’s machine gun, the “ Pom-pom,” now a Vickers property, was placed at the disposal of Oom Paul.

Other corners of the globe offered fertile soil for Vickers and their agent Zaharoff.  Supplying the rickety army and navy of Spain was not unprofitable.  The Sino-Japanese War brought heavy orders, and the war between Russia and Japan found Vickers sending munitions to both sides.  The English firm was well launched on international roads to prosperity, and by this time it was offering to customers every lethal article from machine guns to warships.

In South America and the Far East, its principal competitor was Armstrong-Whitworth.  This firm had a salesman, Mr. R.L. Thompson, who was less famous than Vickers’ Zaharoff but no less energetic.  He was particularly active in the ’90s of the last century, but the world was unaware of it until he sued his employers in 1904 for salary and commissions which he claimed were due him.  His counsel claimed that he held, with Armstrong-Whitworth, “ a position somewhat analogous to that of a private diplomatic agent, or a sort of private ambassador.”  After a few days in court the action was settled, but not before some interesting revelations were made.

It seems that Mr. Thompson acted as special correspondent for the London Times while working for Armstrong-Whitworth.  His first exploits were in South America, where, during the tension between Argentina and Chile, he tried to sell to both republics ;  he was successful in the latter country, where he sold warships.  Then he transferred his operations to Siam, China and Japan.  Selections from letters which Thompson addressed to his employers, read at the trial, disclose his methods :

“ I shall try to see the Mikado with regard to the model of your new battleship.  In spite of all difficulties I shall also try and show the model to the Emperor of China.”

“ I intend, with De B——’s help, to make this (the increase of the American naval force in 1892) very clear to the Japanese ;  and I think they will go ahead in their naval preparations.”2

In America it is often habitual to think of the era of business consolidation—when Roosevelt with his “ big stick ” was pursuing the “ soulless trusts ” and the “ malefactors of great wealth ”—as peculiar to the U.S.A.  In fact the trust movement was also sweeping Britain.  In 1901 Vickers became a part of a vast international armament trust—the Harvey United Steel Co. Albert Vickers, managing director of Vickers-Maxim, was its chairman, and on its board of directors were representatives of other British firms interested in the production of war equipment :  Charles Cammell & Co., shipbuilders ;  John Brown & Co., also naval constructors ;  Sir W.G. Armstrong-Whitworth, Vickers’ biggest competitor in the general arms industry ;  the firms of Krupp and Dillingen in Germany ;  Terni in Italy ;  the American Bethlehem Steel Co., and among the French, the powerful Schneider, the Chatillon Steel Co., and the St. Chaumont Steel Co.—all producers of arms.  Other rings also became affiliated with this great trust—notably the Nobel Dynamite Trust and the Chilworth Gunpowder Co.—a formidable massing of forces on the side of Mars which covered all the great modern states, Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy and the United States.3

England did not lack its “ trust busters.”  Philip Snowden, now safely shelved in the House of Lords, was then sowing his wild oats as a muckraker.  In the House of Commons he revealed to England what accompanied this aggregation of forces : 4

“ The First Lord of the Admiralty . . . some time ago said that the relations of the Admiralty with Vickers and another large firm in the trade are far more cordial than the ordinary relations of business.  That might be one reason why the representative of these firms was received in audience at a Cabinet council.  Patriotism is not one of the distinguishing features of the trade methods of this great combine.  For instance, I find Messrs. Vickers have works at Barrow, Sheffield and Birmingham, but they do not confine themselves to this country.  They have a yard in Placencia de las Armas in Spain ;  they have another place in Spezzia, Italy.  They evidently take time by the forelock, they anticipate the promise of a Mediterranean squadron.”

No wonder the relations between the departments of the government dealing with national defence and the arms firms were “ cordial.”  The representatives of the arms firms were in many cases former army or navy officers, and the men they dealt with had the pleasing prospect, when they would retire, of augmenting their pensions with the salaries of the arms manufacturers.  It was natural that these interests should want to obtain former officers of the govern ment.  They wanted men who “ knew the ropes,” and retired officers naturally kept in touch with their old comrades.  As Mr. Snowden put it, “ kissing undoubtedly goes by favour and some of these things might be characterised as corruption.”  Certainly the following list of honourable servants of their country’s defence did not consider themselves as scoundrels.  We find these men on the board of directors of Vickers :  General Sir Herbert Lawrence, Sir Mark Webster Jenkinson, formerly auditor of the Ministry of Munitions, General Sir J.F. Noel Birch, Sir J.A. Cooper, formerly with War Office, Sir A.G. Hancock, formerly of Ordnance Committee.  But the system had become so ingrained in the conduct of the Government and the industry that it was not regarded as corruption.

Sometimes there was a great rubbing of hands when a notable fire-eater and friend of the armament manufacturers attained a vantage point for the handling of munitions orders.  Sir Charles D. Maclaren of John Brown & Co., a manufacturer of naval armaments, commented on the promotion of Sir John Fisher to the control of the Admiralty ;  Fisher was the Von Tirpitz of England, always thundering for greater naval armaments.  At a meeting of the shareholders of John Brown & Co., Sir Charles allowed himself to gloat, as follows : 5

“ The appointment of Sir John Fisher at the Admiralty is a fact of some importance to a firm like ours, and I am glad to see Sir John is prepared to go in for building battleships, because the heavier the work, the more of it goes to our firm.  We are makers of armour plate, large marine shafting, and turbine engines, so that, when heavy work is about, we will get our share of it.”
    But the tentacles extended farther than this.  In 1911 a British financial journal made the following analysis of the boards of directors of three of the leading British arms firms, classifying them according to rank and occupation :

Earl, baron, or wife, son or daughter
Military or naval officer
Naval architect or government contractor
Journalists (including newspaper proprietors)
Sons &


John Brown
& Co.



& Co.



It will be noticed that the nobility and titled classes were the largest groups represented on these boards.  To those who are familiar with the influence which these classes wield in British politics, particularly in matters pertaining to the national defence, the list points a moral.  But while it is not recorded on this chart, the First Estate was also present ;  several bishops were named as shareholders in these enterprises.6

While the friends of war were busy, the friends of peace were waking up.  Increases in the naval estimates aroused their suspicions and some of them voiced their opinions as to who was responsible for this warminded situation.  Lord Welby, one peer who had withstood the attraction of armament shares—and who held the highest and most responsible position as permanent Civil Servant in the country—burst out in indignation :

“ We are in the hands of an organisation of crooks.  They are the politicians, generals, manufacturers of armaments and journalists.  All of them are anxious for unlimited expenditure and go on inventing scares to terrify the public and to terrify Ministers of the Crown.”

Mr. Snowden brought up in the House of Commons the fact that the Member of Parliament for the Hallam Division of Sheffield was then a debenture trustee for Vickers and also for Cammell Laird & Co.;  and, as his speech proceeded, he became more uncomfortably personal :

“ Now who are the shareholders ?  It would be too long for me to give more than a very short selection from the list, but I find that honourable members in this House are very largely concerned.  Indeed, it would be impossible to throw a stone on the benches opposite without hitting a Member who is a shareholder in one or other of these firms. . . . The honourable Member for the Osgoldcross Division of Yorkshire . . . I congratulate him on his election last week as honourable President of the Free Church Council . . . is the great imperialist.  I find that he is the holder of 3,200 shares in John Brown’s and 2,100 in Cammell Laird’s.  Another of the Members for Sheffield figures in practically every list, as he figures in every debate in this House when there is a possibility of more money being spent on arms and ships.  I refer to the Member for the Ecclesall Division (Mr. S. Roberts).  He is a shareholder in John Brown’s, a director of Cammell Laird, also a debenture trustee of the Fairfield Co., and a shareholder in the Coventry Ordnance Co.”7

But the officials of Cammell Laird were not content to rely on their governmental directors.  In 1909 they were very much concerned about the weak condition of the British navy—then the most powerful in the world.  Would the growing menace of the German fleet result in a débâcle for England ?  British arms magnates were determined that it should not, that the British government should be made to recognise the danger and forestall it by more dreadnoughts.  And these guardians of the national safety were prepared to take all measures to see that this was done.

It was the famous “ Big Navy Scare ” of 1909.8  Mr. H.H. Mulliner was managing director of the Coventry Ordnance Company, then partly owned by the great steel and ship works of Cammell Laird.  A long time previous to 1910 Mr. Mulliner had displayed a touching solicitude about the British navy’s international position.  In 1910 he tells the story of his efforts in The Times under the heading “ Diary of a Great Surrender.”  Here are two entries which provide an interesting sidelight on his work :,?P>

“ May 13th, 1906—Mr. Mulliner first informs the Admiralty of preparations of enormously increasing the Germany Navy.”  [This information was concealed from nations until March 1909.]
    “ May 3, 1909—Mr. Mulliner giving evidence before the Cabinet proves that the acceleration in Germany for producing armaments, about which he had perpetually warned the Admiralty, was an accomplished fact and that large quantities of naval guns and mountings were being made with great rapidity in that country.”

In the autumn of 1908 Mr. Mulliner was able to get the ear of a prominent British general who lamented in the House of Lords that a “ terrible awakening is in store for us at no distant date.”  As a result of Mr. Mulliner’s agitation, the navy estimates showed an increase of over two million pounds sterling ;  and calculations on what Germany might be doing were so skilfully introduced into newspapers that there was much demand in Parliament for eight new cruisers with the slogan—“ We want eight and we won’t wait.”

In the end they got four battleships and it was proved that Germany had been falsely accused of these alleged activities.  But one of the first contracts was given to Mr. Mulliner’s client Cammell Laird.  The rest of Mr. Mulliner’s career is not so brilliant.  He boasted that he was the sole author of this scare and his indiscretion was a bit too much for the British public.  His effectiveness as a contact man was so reduced as a result of his boast that he was replaced in the firm, quite typically, by a retired British admiral who had specialised in naval ordnance and torpedoes.

Mr. Mulliner’s own personal career suffered, but his firm soon recovered from this exposure of their plot.  One of the most cheering bits of news for the arms merchants in 1913 was the fact that Coventry was no longer in “Coventry.”  True the company had received no orders from the government for some time after the confession of Mr. Mulliner, but no less a person than Winston Churchill gave them his absolution and welcomed them back into the fold.  At a stockholders’ meeting of Coventry, Lord Aberconway seemingly had no qualms about its future, when he made the following announcement : 9

“ Coventry was improving, but it was a great drag on their finances and would be so for some time (he had reference to the Mulliner case).  The place was not fully recognised by the Government as an essential part of the national armament works.  Last autumn he went over to the Scotson works where they made the heavy naval mountings with Mr. Winston Churchill, who gave him an assurance—which he carried out—that Coventry would now be regarded as one of the most important supplying firms for the Government, instead of being cold-shouldered as it has been for years past.”

From these stories, it would seem that Shaw’s Undershaft was perhaps not such a gross exaggeration, after all.  Indeed, some of the opinions of arms merchants, uttered out of the range of meddlesome reporters’ ears, could well be lifted from the dialogues in Major Barbara.

When the Hon. Louis Philippe Brodeur, Canadian Minister of Naval Affairs, in company with his colleague, Sir Frederick Borden, Minister of Militia, came to London before the war, they were lavishly entertained by Vickers officials at a banquet in the Carlton Hotel.  The liberal Premier had been exploring the possibilities of disarmament and the hospitable arms makers were moved to complain bitterly about this anti-social and anti-financial policy.  “ Business is bad,” confided one executive to M. Brodeur.  “ How could it be otherwise with a man like Campbell-Bannerman in office ?  Why, we have not had a war for seven years.”  While he was unburdening himself of these genial sentiments, one of his fellows went on in much the same vein to Sir Frederick, with complaints that “ the Empire is going to the dogs for lack of a war and, worst of all, there is not even one small war in prospect.”10

The pacific-minded Canadians were shocked by these remarks, but with Japanese buyers the Vickers salesmen had more congenial auditors.  In 1910 Rear Admiral Fujii visited England as officer for the supervision of the construction of warships.  The Admiral recommended Vickers’ specifications and bid, and the Vickers firm got the business.  Subsequently the Admiral fell foul of Japanese justice and it was proved that Vickers, in order to return Fujii’s goodwill, had remitted to him large sums of money.  No wonder they were large, for the Admiral had reported to his superiors that Vickers’ bid and specifications were lower and better than any others.

As a matter of fact Vickers were not the only corrupters.  Other firms added to the purse of the venal Japanese envoy.  The Naval Constructor, Hanamoto Kaizo, visited the Yarrow works in England, and A.F. Yarrow showed him a new type of destroyer fitted for the consumption of oil fuel, the latest invention of that year.  Fujii approved these specifications, and remittances were made later to him by Messrs. Yarrow, Arrol & Co. helped out this enterprising officer to the extent of £1,750 for an order of materials, and Wier & Co. sent him £1,000 for an order of pumps and machinery.  The German firm of Siemens and Schuckert also attempted to bribe the Admiral, and perhaps were successful.  But it was clear from the material brought to light during the trial that an elaborate system of bribery in connection with armament firms existed.

What a deplorable situation in Japan, said the world.  But Japan, sensitive about these revelations, hit back at the conduct of other nations in an article in the Japan Weekly Chronicle of July 23, 1914 :

“ There is no nation which can afford to throw stones at Japan in connection with the existence of bribery and corruption in State services.  Only recently a series of scandals in connection with the supply of stores to British military canteens was brought into publicity in the courts, and the firm concerned . . . has been struck off the lists of Government contracts.  In Germany and other countries there have been cases equally unsavoury, until it has been made clear that the ‘ profession ’ of arms has become as sordidly money-grubbing as it possibly can.  It would seem that, in some countries, it is absolutely essential to resort to practices which, if not actually criminal, are grossly immoral, if any business is to be done by contractors anxious to get orders.  Even when an order is obtained it is sometimes necessary to resort to further corruption.”11

Corruption, influence of the press, directorates, share holdings, friendly members of Parliament—this was the cordon that was drawing tighter about Britain in the years before the war.  While men like Philip Snowden were unveiling the true picture of the danger, Vickers waxed stronger.  The great steel trust of which it was a member was dissolved in 1913, and thereafter began a keen and augmented competition for greater orders.  It was a competition which grew more feverish for some years and found full play in the famous Putiloff case, which brought into the first rank of competition another gigantic firm.

1 Lewinsohn, The Mystery Man of Europe.

2 F.W. Hirst, The Political Economy of War, pp. 98-102.

3 Murray H. Robertson, op. cit., pp. 150ss.

4 Philip Snowden, Dreadnoughts and Dividends.

5 Francis McCullagh, Syndicates for War, p. 6.

6 McCullagh, op. cit., p. 5.

7 Snowden, op. cit.

8 Perris, The War Traders, pp. 103-116.

9 The Secret International, p. 38.

10 George A. Drew, The Truth about the War Makers, p. 9.

11 The Secret International, p. 39.