Published on July 17, 2014

OTHER VOICES: A WWI story you probably don't know

(Crain News Service photo)
Ed Noga

By Edward Noga, Crain News Service

AKRON (July 17, 2014) — The history of rubber doesn’t lack for interesting and unusual tales.

Stories such as Henry Wickham smuggling 70,000 Hevea brasilensis rubber seeds out of Brazil—at the risk of his life if he’d been caught—and onto Kew Gardens in England.

Plants derived from these seeds created the natural rubber (NR) industry in Southeast Asia, thereby breaking Brazil’s monopoly on the business.

Speaking of monopoly, how about Benjamin Franklin Goodrich, tired of being smothered by the rubber trust back East, migrating to little Akron, Ohio. There, he planted the seeds that turned Akron into the Rubber City, the center of the tire and rubber industry for a century. Not Melrose, N.Y., where his business had failed.

For sheer boldness, you won’t find many stories that match Henry Ford’s massive attempt to create a NR plantation—“Fordlandia”—and transplant Midwest American values and lifestyle to the Brazilian jungle. Or how about the collaborative effort of industry, government and academia in World War II that created GR-S general-purpose synthetic rubber, thereby overcoming the Allies’ loss of the Southeast Asian rubber plantations.

Fascinating stories, all.

A new one, for me, is the barter arrangement that happened in World War I between the British and the Germans. The best source on this is Adam Hochschild’s excellent book, “To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918.”

The British blockaded Germany, thereby making it impossible for the Germans to obtain the rubber it needed for its massive war machine, let alone civilian use. The Germans worked hard to develop synthetic rubbers, but the results were meager and the rubber subpar.

At the same time, the British were desperate for quality binoculars. In the brutal trench warfare, they were of vital importance.

Necessity makes strange bedfellows. As Mr. Hochschild relates, Britain’s Ministry of Munitions sent an agent to neutral Switzerland where he met with the German War Office officials. Could Germany supply binoculars, one type for infantry officers, another for artillery officers?

Germany jumped on the deal. The war office wanted rubber in return.

Within six weeks after signing the contract, 10,000 to 15,000 of each type of binoculars were delivered to the British via neutral Switzerland. The British shipped NR from Southeast Asia and Africa through that route to Germany in payment.

According to the scant records of the arrangement Mr. Hochschild found, the Germans offered lower-grade binoculars for non-commissioned officers, and even telescopic sites for sniper rifles.

Think about it: The need for rubber was so huge, the German government was willing to aid in the deaths of its soldiers directly to get the material. The British war office, for its part, was fine with an agreement that had the same net result, just more indirectly.

Since this year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I—a conflict where generals displayed a criminal disregard for the lives of their troops—maybe rubber-for-binoculars isn’t so surprising.

Ed Noga is the former editor of and now a contributing editor to Rubber & Plastics News, an Akron-based sister publication of Tire Business. He can be reached at elnmails@yahoo.com.

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