SEAMS News Archives

2014: Anniversary of WW1

This year, 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1 and is quite rightly being remembered by the many ceremonies and events taking place in the UK and across the continent.

I have been restoring my 1914 International Famous engine and am reminded that wars generate rapid developments in technology. During WW1, not only was the military mobilised but agriculture had to be mobilized to provide food for both civilians and soldiers (many of whom had been farmers and needed to be replaced by old men, boys and women) and for horses to move supplies.

World War I put the tractor firmly on the map. German U-boats were sinking so many British ships that it was necessary to increase food production by bringing thousands of acres of new farmland into production or face food shortages. There were not enough horses to plough this new land (In all 800,000 horses served with the British Army on the Western Front). For the first two years of war, the supply of machinery to farmers was adversely affected by the manufacturers undertaking government munitions contracts. Nonetheless, state-sponsored mechanization increased the numbers.

The UK Government bought about 500 tractors which were distributed around the country by War Agricultural Executive Committees. There was a wide variety of types and implements, not all reliable, but this gave farmers their first real experience of tractors. Later the five thousand tractors ordered by the British government from Henry Ford were delivered within five months, and were soon at work on British farms. Very quickly, British farmers became accustomed to seeing tractors displacing teams of horses. This stimulated U.S. tractor design and manufacture and massive industrialization led to greatly increased production.

It’s hard to be sure how all this affected the import of USA built stationary engines as very little on this subject is documented but it seems that the WW1 period resulted in an increasing number of USA built engines entering the UK market. Maybe this was because UK engine factories were producing for the war effort, if you wanted an engine to replace labour lost to the war, it had to come from the USA. It is also probable that most engines built in the UK by established firms such as Hornsby, Blackstone, National etc though well engineered were heavy, expensive and beyond the means of most farmers.

The large numbers of engines being built at that time in the USA and the competitive nature of the business there gave a low cost reliable product that even with shipping costs could be affordable to UK farmers. Just as tractors started to become established during the WW1 period then so too did engine power on the farm.

Richard Amos