Workshop – Bullets and Banknotes: War Financing through the 20th Century

By David Foulk (University of Oxford)

This workshop intends to bring together military historians, international relations researchers, and economic historians, and aims to explore the financing of conventional and irregular warfare.

Martial funds originated from a variety of legitimate and illegitimate sources. The former includes direct provision by government or central banking activity. Private donations also need to be considered, as they have also proven a viable means of financing paramilitary activity.  Illegitimate sources in the context of war refer to the ability of an occupying force to extract economic and monetary resources and include, for example, ‘patriotic hold-ups’ of financial institutions, and spoliation.

This workshop seeks to provide answers to three central questions. First, who paid for war? Second, how did belligerents finance war – by borrowing, or printing money?  Finally, was there a juncture between resistance financing and the funding of conventional forces?

In the twentieth century, the global nature of conflict drastically altered existing power blocs and fostered ideologically motivated regimes. These changes were aided by improvements in mass communication technology, and a nascent corporatism that replaced the empire-building of the long nineteenth century. 

What remained unchanged, however, was the need for money in the waging of war. Throughout history, success in war depended on financial support. With it, armies can be paid and fed; research can be encouraged; weapons can be bought, and ordnance shipped. Without it, troops, arms, and supplies become scarcer and more difficult to acquire. Many of these considerations are just as applicable to clandestine forces. Nonetheless, there is an obvious constraint for the latter: their activity takes place in secret. This engenders important operational differences compared to state-sanctioned warfare and generates its own specific problems.

Traditionally, banking operations are predicated on an absence of confidence between parties to a transaction. Banks are institutional participants who act as trusted intermediaries, but what substitute intermediaries exist if the banking system has failed?  This was the quandary faced by members of the internal French resistance during the Second World War. Who could they trust to supply them regularly with funds? Where could they safely store their money, and who would change foreign currency into francs on their behalf?

Members of resistance groups could not acquire funds from the remnants of the French government while Marshal Pétain’s regime retained nominal control over the Non-Occupied Zone, nor could they obtain credit from the banking system.  Instead, resistance forces came to depend on external donations which were either airdropped or handed over by agents working on behalf of the British, American and Free French secret services. The traditional role of the banking sector was supplanted by military agents; the few bankers involved in resistance activities acted more as moneychangers, rather than as issuers of credit.

Without funding, clandestine operatives were unable to purchase food from the black market, or to rent rooms. Wages were indeed paid to resistance members, but there were disparities between the different groups and no official pay-scale existed.  Instead, leaders of the various groups decided on the salary range of their subordinates, which varied during the Second World War.

As liberation approached, a fifty-franc note, was produced on the orders of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (S.H.A.E.F.) in anticipation of being used within the Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories, in 1944, once the invasion of France was underway (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories (A.M.G.O.T.) fifty-
franc note (1944). Source: author’s collection

Clearly, there are many aspects of resistance financing, and the funding of conventional forces, that remain to be investigated. This workshop intends to facilitate ongoing discussions.

Due to the pandemic, this workshop will take place online on 6th November 2020. The keynote speech will be given via webinar and participants’ contributions will be uploaded before the event.

The workshop is financed by the ‘Initiatives & Conference Fund’ from the Economic History Society, a ‘Conference Organisation’ bursary from Royal Historical Society, and Oriel College, Oxford. 

More information about the Economic History Society’s grants opportunities can be found here

For more information: david.foulk@oriel.ox.ac.uk                          

@DavidFoulk9

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