One hundred years ago, Europe was in turmoil. The Great War had begun in August 1914, pitting the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary (soon to be joined by the Ottoman Empire) against the Allies of Great Britain, France and Russia. In early 1915, Germany declared all waters around the British Isles a war zone and warned that any ship, neutral or not, would be sunk by its submarines.
British agricultural production had declined severely since 1875. Prices for farm products had fallen while landowners raised rents to the tenant farmers, causing many to leave the farm. Agriculture had long been Britain’s major industry, but by the early 1900s, the country was no longer able to supply all of its own food and had to rely on imports. This, of course, played right into the hands of the Germans, who promised the U-boat blockade would stop all imports to the island nation, threatening the British people with starvation.
County Agricultural Committees were set up all over England. Their duties included the survey of uncultivated land, registration of all farms over 5 acres, supply and distribution of manure, and cultivation of crops and vegetables, as well as training women for farm work, and allocating machinery and labor. They also decreed that hundreds of thousands of acres of grassland be plowed up and put into crops.
But who was to do the work, and with what? All existing idle farm machinery was inventoried. That turned up a fair amount of the heavy steam plowing and cultivating tackle so popular in Britain, but not enough experienced hands to operate it. Urgent requests were made that experienced farm workers be excused from military service or returned if already enlisted.
The fact that British farmers were horse farmers and tractors had little attraction for them caused another big problem for the committees. Huge numbers of horses were requisitioned for the military, while investigation revealed few tractors on hand. For example, in Steam Plough Times, Peter Longfoot notes this finding by the committee in Kent County (which encompassed 1,442 square miles: “There were 21 Overtimes, 13 Weeks-Dungey (a tractor built in Maidstone, Kent), eight Moguls, two Saundersons, one Standard and one Martin Motor Plough reported as fit for work.
The British tractor industry was small and mostly engaged in war work, so the government, realizing a need for central control, formed an agricultural section under the Ministry of Munitions (MOM) and the import of tractors from the U.S. was stepped up. There were Waterloo Boys (renamed Overtime for the English market), Titans and Moguls from International Harvester Co. (IHC), Fordsons (known as MOM tractors in England, as Henry Ford hadn’t yet chosen the Fordson name for his new tractor), and a smattering of Case, Sandusky, Emerson-Brantingham and Bull tractors, as well as a few Burford-Cleveland crawlers (the Model H Cleveland Tractor crawler imported by H.G. Burford and renamed). English makes included Saunderson, Weeks and Ruston tractors.
Longfoot tells us more about the Kent County Committee report. “The committee also report that the two ‘caterpillars’ could easily pull two 4-furrow ploughs, but they were too large and used too much paraffin (tractor fuel) to be of any use. They go on to say that these tractors were destined for the Russian Army. This leads me to believe they were in fact examples of the 446 Ruston-built copies of the Holt 75.” Longfoot notes that about 4,500 IHC Titans and Moguls were imported, some 4,000 Waterloo Boy Overtimes and 6,000 MOM (Fordson) machines. The ministry also ordered 400 Saunderson and 500 Clayton & Shuttleworth crawler tractors. Eventually, most of these tractors were sold to the users.
The Kent Committee kept detailed records of the tractors under their care and by 1918 they had 64 MOM (Fordson), 112 IHC Titan and four Overtime (Waterloo Boy) tractors at work. Farmers paid 28 shillings per acre to use one of these machines. Performance records, again quoting Longfoot, were as follows: “The Titans took 4.17 hours to plough an acre, the Fordsons 3.81 hours and the Overtimes 4.03 hours. The Fordsons recorded the lowest cost per acre at 16 [shillings] and the Titans the highest at £1, 3 shillings. Until the arrival of the first Fordsons in Kent in early 1918, the Titans were the committee’s most reliable motor tractors. The committee’s Overtimes were especially favoured as threshing tractors and so spent most of their time away from cultivation.
Few British farmers knew anything about driving tractors, but a number of Women’s Land Army girls and demobilized soldiers were trained by the Ministry of Munitions and could be hired by the farmers to which the machines were allotted. The Royal Army Service Corps, which was responsible for transport, supply and most everything else needed by the fighting men was also pressed into service and told to operate tractors and other equipment. The large number of horses and mules in the Army had to be fed as well as the men, and vast amounts of forage were needed. There was even an Army Service Corps Fodder Corps that operated some 500 Ruston wire-tie balers to try to keep up with demand.
Of course the heavy steam plowing tackle was kept busy as well. It excelled at plowing heavy land, cultivating, and dredging swampy land to drain and put it into production. However, most of the plowing engines were showing their age, so the MOM ordered more than 50 sets of Fowler steam plowing tackle.
As a result of the extensive plowing campaign, cultivated land had increased by nearly 2 million acres by the time of the Armistice in November 1918. Not only that, but Henry Ford’s generosity with his tractors prompted the government to give him permission to begin production of the Fordson in Cork, Ireland, a factory that was later moved to Dagenham in Essex. The Fordson soon became the most popular tractor in Great Britain, and it is estimated that by the end of the Second World War, 85 percent of all tractors in the country were Fordsons.
And, Kaiser Wilhelm’s plan to starve the British into submission was ruined. FC
The author gratefully acknowledges David Parfitt, who shared images from his website featuring tractors built prior to 1930 (http://www.steel-wheels.net) and Peter Longfoot, secretary of the Steam Plough Club. The Steam Plough Club does all it can to preserve the heritage of British steam plowing, as well as the engines and other tackle associated with it. Check out the club’s website: http://www.steamploughclub.org.uk.
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He
now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at email@example.com.