According to the website for the Imperial War Museum, shell failure at the Somme was a significant issue:

To make matters worse, it has been been estimated that as many as 30% of the shells failed to explode.

Similarly, shell failure was a problem at the Battle of Jutland. In that case it was Churchill who took responsibility although he did not know about the shell defects.

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(from British Naval Supremacy and Anglo-American Antagonisms, 1914-1930 by Donald J. Lisio)

Despite the problems with testing and manufacturing, it was Churchill who accepted responsibility. Regarding shell use on land however, I can not find any scapegoats or anyone who faced repercussions for duds. Were there similar cases like the one referenced above, either in regards to the the Somme or the Western Front in general?

1 Answer 1


It was overall a strategic general decision, a decision of quality vs quantity, and what was needed was quantity. The preliminary bombardment at Somme used over 1.5 million shells.

The Shell Crisis of 1915 did generate quote a political scandal, so that was important for something like that not to happen again. No-one wanted a shortage.

The Munitions of War Act in 1915 ended the shell crisis and guaranteed a supply of munitions that the Germans were unable to match. That was the actual point: make a lot more munitions, no matter the quality. A sudden large increase in produced quantity will inevitably lead to lower quality.

Responsible for oversight and co-ordination of the production and distribution of munitions for the war effort was the Minister of Munitions.

So you can in theory blame minister David Lloyd George for the quality (who led the Ministry of Munitions). Note that he was actually replaced on 9 July 1916. But from a neutral perspective there can be no blame of poor quality because the objective of the Ministry was purely quantity.

  • 2
    Without sources to the contrary, I am not ready to believe that a 30% failure rate was actually deemed acceptable.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 9:23
  • The new National Shell and Projectile Factories were built strictly to increase capacity. These applied new principles of ‘scientific management’ to the labour force. This included ‘dilution’ whereby skilled work was broken down into individual repetitive tasks that could be performed by unskilled or semi-skilled workers. You clearly cannot expect high quality from that approach. Failure to explode was already an issue, so what actual result would one expect ? Even more failure to explode.
    – Overmind
    Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 9:41
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    Again, OP pointed out that apparently 30% failure rate was deemed excessive, because it led to much less effective bombardment. Your answer is "that didn't matter", which directly contradicts OP's source. I don't say you're wrong, I just say that I'd like to see some actual sources that somebody, anybody, back then actually said "30% failure rate is acceptable". That they ramped up production because supplies were not meeting demand is somewhat orthogonal to the failure rate issue.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 10:23
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    The intent with 'dilution' of work ie to divide procedures in smaller tasks. Quality becomes easier to verify if the work can reduced into smaller tasks which is easier to organize. Commented Jul 6, 2020 at 21:46
  • 4
    If quality is sacrificed to quantity, it is better to have non-exploding shells than having shells exploding during transportation, handling, or on firing (inside the cannon). At least their mistake was in the right direction.
    – Luiz
    Commented Dec 3, 2020 at 13:32

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