American Tractors in Great Britain

With British tractors in short supply, the import of American tractors was ramped up to assist farmers during World War I.

| December 2016

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.

Tractors and manpower in short supply

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.

Fordson shines in committee findings

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.