British Rubber for German Binoculars

Secret Deal is A Devil’s Bargain

Special to The Great War Project

(18-20 July) The British army is running short of binoculars.

“Disastrously short,” according to historian Adam Hochschild. And not just binoculars.

“Aerial reconnaissance camera lenses, periscopes, rangefinders, and telescopic sights for sniper rifles.”

Zeiss binoculars, World War One vintage.

Zeiss binoculars, World War One vintage.

“All were essential,” reports Hochschild, “particularly the last; when the lives of his men on the battlefield could depend on locating an enemy sniper or machine-gunner, every officer or NCO needed a reliable pair of binoculars hanging from his neck.”

The British optical industry is incapable of meeting the need. The demand is especially strong as the British are planning new offensives on the stalemated Western Front.

So in an entirely unexpected and unorthodox pan, the British turn “to the world’s leading manufacturer of precision optics: Germany.”

Hochschild reports that an agent of the British Ministry of Munitions “was quietly dispatched to neutral Switzerland to propose a deal.”

And in a perhaps even more unorthodox response…

…the German company, Zeiss Optics, promptly says yes, and the deal is authorized by the German War Office.

Germany will supply the British army with 8,000 to 10,000 of two types of binoculars, “one for infantry officers and one for artillery officers,” according to Hochschild, citing the official record of the German Ministry of Munitions.

The Germans could fulfill part of the order almost immediately, and it is prepared to take some German workers off of defense work for the German army “to enable these orders to go through quickly.”

Of course Germany wants something in return: rubber.

Germany has no indigenous source of rubber, yet it is in much need of substantial quantities.

“Without rubber,” writes Hochschild, “the Germans, among many other problems, faced the prospect of using steel tires on their army trucks, which rapidly chewed roads to bits. The rubber, it was agreed, would be delivered to Germany at the Swiss border,” later in the summer.

German battlefield optics, combined periscope binoculars.

German battlefield optics, combined periscope binoculars.

So the plan is to start this shocking “devil’s bargain” in a few weeks. As it turns out, the Germans are prepared to deliver even more binoculars than the British request: 32,000 all told, 20,000 of which are of higher quality.

The outlines of this deal are known, but details have vanished in the mists of history. It is not known how much British rubber is delivered to the Germans.

“More frustrating,” observes Hochschild…

“there seems to be no written trace of what was in the minds of the men who negotiated this extraordinary agreement.”

“Did each side think it was getting the better deal? Were both British and German business executives so eager for profit that nothing else mattered?

“Or did the war have such all-encompassing momentum that, to better fight it, anything at all seemed justified, even trading with the enemy?”

Hochschild rightly calls this a devil’s bargain.