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GWRSwindon

UK Railways Without the Great War?

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The Great War irrevocably changed a number of things, among them Britain's railways. They still had some bright years ahead of them, but things were never quite the same as they had been before the war.

 

To help explore just how much the war really affected the railways, here's a what-if scenario: in August 1914, Germany does not invade Belgium, and Britain either doesn't join the war, or only joins in a limited capacity (sending the BEF, economic support). The war is not the focus here, but rather how the railways fare without it. 

 

It seems mergers were on the horizon before the war, but how will they happen without the Grouping? Hopefully strange like combining the L&YR with the LNWR or the H&BR wth the NER won't be taking place.

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There would have undoubtedly been mergers, although not to the extent of grouping. I suspect there may not have been mergers south of London as they were among the most profitable and (along with the Met) had the most lucrative suburban commuter routes. GWR would simply have continued what it had been doing for decades and bought up smaller companies anyway.

 

It's important to remember Grouping was a compromise to nationalisation. The Railway Executive Committee showed how inefficient it was having so many separate companies and there were serious supporters of full nationalisation in 1918, Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George being among them. The Ways and Communications Bill of 1919 actually included powers of State purchase, but Andrew Bonar Law opposed it and it was dropped from the Bill. Some historians have theorised that the Conservatives were spooked by Red Clydeside, fearing a Communist revolution in Scotland in 1919 (only ~15 months after the Russian Revolution), and the Big Four was the result.

 

Cheers

David

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The Midland would have stood a much larger chance at completing it's proposed Anglo- Scottish route and have finished its lines through and around Bradford to connect with the Settle Carlisle.

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Without Government interference, mergers would likely have been driven more traditional business concerns, as they still are in many industries. One feature of railroad mergers in the USA that we have not really experienced in the UK is that post merger, some less desirable elements are disposed of to new, smaller or local operations. These 'spin offs' would be an interesting feature if say two trunk route companies wanted to create a single core route and divested themselves of some less attractive aspects of the merging companies. You could have the situation where at the same time as railways fell into fewer larger owners, parts of the network were being run by smaller, local operators. 

 

John

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I think many of the smaller railways would have slowly collapsed, unless they could persuade one of the bigger ones to take them over. In the case of my favourite, the MSWJR, GWR would never have got their hands on it, so Midland /LSWR may have taken it over, to give them a route to Birimingham and the south coast.

 

Alliances would certainly have been different, grouping generally put the railways in one area together. Being private , often alliances would have been against nearby other railways, provding more competition..

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6 hours ago, GWRSwindon said:

The Great War irrevocably changed a number of things, among them Britain's railways. They still had some bright years ahead of them, but things were never quite the same as they had been before the war.

 

To help explore just how much the war really affected the railways, here's a what-if scenario: in August 1914, Germany does not invade Belgium, and Britain either doesn't join the war, or only joins in a limited capacity (sending the BEF, economic support). The war is not the focus here, but rather how the railways fare without it. 

 

It seems mergers were on the horizon before the war, but how will they happen without the Grouping? Hopefully strange like combining the L&YR with the LNWR or the H&BR wth the NER won't be taking place.

 

Strangely enough, I think both of those mergers would likely still go ahead. There were good business reasons for them, allowing the reduction in duplication of facilities, as well as expanding coverage of service.

 

South of the Thames, there had already been one "merger" - the formation of the SECR joint committee. I could see that the Brighton might eventually join that. The South Western always considered itself more of a proper railway than the other 2/3, so would probably have remained separate.

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4 hours ago, DavidB-AU said:

Some historians have theorised that the Conservatives were spooked by Red Clydeside, fearing a Communist revolution in Scotland in 1919 (only ~15 months after the Russian Revolution), and the Big Four was the result.

 

Cheers

David

 

And here we are a century later with history repeating itself. Not that I think Nicola Sturgeon is a Communist.

 

To get back on topic, I agree with others that some mergers would definitely have taken place. But perhaps Government should have taken a bit more interest in the process to protect the railways' customers (freight and passenger).

 

The classic case is the H&B which had been built to get round the NERs monopoly. It should probably have been joined with the Midland. Or perhaps the GC. I have contemplated building a Minories type layout with LMS and ex-Midland locos based on the Midland having taken over the H&B.

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1 hour ago, sulzer27jd said:

Without Government interference, mergers would likely have been driven more traditional business concerns, as they still are in many industries. One feature of railroad mergers in the USA that we have not really experienced in the UK is that post merger, some less desirable elements are disposed of to new, smaller or local operations. These 'spin offs' would be an interesting feature if say two trunk route companies wanted to create a single core route and divested themselves of some less attractive aspects of the merging companies. You could have the situation where at the same time as railways fell into fewer larger owners, parts of the network were being run by smaller, local operators. 

 

John

 

An interesting thought. If lesser branch lines had been divested from main line companies to Col Stephens type operations, would they have survived until today instead of being closed in the Beeching era?

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10 minutes ago, Joseph_Pestell said:

 

An interesting thought. If lesser branch lines had been divested from main line companies to Col Stephens type operations, would they have survived until today instead of being closed in the Beeching era?

 

Not all, but some might have done. Or at the very least lingered on as freight only for much longer. But you're probably talking of some of the pre-Beeching closures - eg Isle of Wight

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7 hours ago, GWRSwindon said:

The Great War irrevocably changed a number of things, among them Britain's railways. They still had some bright years ahead of them, but things were never quite the same as they had been before the war.

 

To help explore just how much the war really affected the railways, here's a what-if scenario: in August 1914, Germany does not invade Belgium, and Britain either doesn't join the war, or only joins in a limited capacity (sending the BEF, economic support). The war is not the focus here, but rather how the railways fare without it. 

 

It seems mergers were on the horizon before the war, but how will they happen without the Grouping? Hopefully strange like combining the L&YR with the LNWR or the H&BR wth the NER won't be taking place.

 

I'm sure there would have been a degree of merging - merging had been going on pretty much since the dawn of the railways - L&M, London & Birmingham, Grand Junction combining into the LNWR for starters, so I would expect merging to have continued. One obvious one would have been for the separate companies which made up the West Coast main line to have merged, and the same for the East Coast. At some point, the Furness would likely have either merged with the West Coast company or the Midland.

 

One other thing that definitely would not have happened - there would not have been a large stock of ex-ROD locos being sold to other railways after the War, and on a smaller scale, no narrow gauge armoured/protected Simplexes either!

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44 minutes ago, JohnR said:

 

Strangely enough, I think both of those mergers would likely still go ahead*. There were good business reasons for them, allowing the reduction in duplication of facilities, as well as expanding coverage of service.

 

 

* LYR and LNWR      and NER and HBR

 

Possibly but it is important to remember that the LYR and LNWR had already had a proposed merger blocked by parliament in 1871.  50 years on, would the mentality that avoided the creation of large regional monopolies have continued?  Although the GWR had de facto already created one such monopoly, without a major incident like WW1 showing the real weakness of the multitude of small to largish companies would the 1871 mindset have continued?  

 

One major impact that we must not forget is that the development of the internal combustion engine would have been slower and the sell off of cheap war surplus vehicles would not have occurred.  Competition from road traffic would therefore have been delayed.  The railways would then had a continued advantage for a number of years.

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and on a smaller scale, no narrow gauge armoured/protected Simplexes either!

 

Now that's an interesting one...  How many industries such as the Lincolnshire potato farms owed their post-war success to the mass of ex-WD stock they were able to aquire?  For that matter, railways which ended up with such locomotives (the Ffestiniog with their cheaper petrol-mechanical locomotives for shunting, the Glyn Valley with their steamer)?

 

 

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One major impact that we must not forget is that the development of the internal combustion engine would have been slower and the sell off of cheap war surplus vehicles would not have occurred.  Competition from road traffic would therefore have been delayed.  The railways would then had a continued advantage for a number of years.

 

Actually that also occurred to me as I writing about the Narrow Gauge bit above.  Also, what would have happened to the output of all the railway works and factories which had to go over to making shells, tanks and things?  Would they have kept producing locomotives and rolling stock instead?  Or struggled to survive without the war-work?

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15 minutes ago, Ben B said:

 

Actually that also occurred to me as I writing about the Narrow Gauge bit above.  Also, what would have happened to the output of all the railway works and factories which had to go over to making shells, tanks and things?  Would they have kept producing locomotives and rolling stock instead?  Or struggled to survive without the war-work?

 

Some of that depends on what is happening on the continent. If Britain is "neutral" but supplying beligerants (in reality France) with armaments, then factories like Armstrong-Whitworth will be working flat out on war work. Maybe even railway works will be doing some - building new locos for damages overseas?

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There was a proposal to merge the LNWR, MR and L&Y in 1909. I can't find a reference to hand about why it didn't go ahead.

 

If you look at the Board of Trade Railway Returns 1912 (I think the last complete list before the war), of the 15 largest companies the most profitable was the NBR with operating expenses being 55% of revenue. CR was 56%, TVR was 57%, LBSCR as 60%, L&Y and SECR were 62%, GWR was 63%, GER, LNWR, LSWR, MR and NER were 64%, GNR was 65% and GCR was 66% (after a very quick decline from 49% to 68% during construction of the London extension). After that is a big gap and the also rans barely made any profit, if any. Pretty much anything not in the above list was open to being taken over or merged with larger companies.

 

When you look at return on capital, surprisingly TVR came out on top and unsurprisingly GCR was the worst. The companies above average were TVR, GNR, GWR, LNWR, LSWR, LBSCR, MR and NER.

 

So the Big Four could quite easily have become the Big Somewhere Between Eight and Fifteen without any government encouragement.

 

EDIT: This is not counting joint railways.

 

Cheers

David

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I think the OP's basic premise is in itself not going to keep Britain out of the war.  The BEF could not be sent in a limited capacity - it either went or it didn't - and if it went what then happened depended entirely on Germany and Germany had decided to invade France via Belgium.  So it wasn't so much a question of Britain staying out of the war (which some politicians favoured in any case) but more a matter of the war not occurring at all or not occurring in the form it actually took.

 

So we are then in two possible scenarios - the highly unlikely one of no war at all or the potential one of Britain keeping out of a war which by inference meant that what Germany did would have been much more limited around the world compared with we what actually happened.   And these two scenarios would I think have produced very different outcomes.

 

No war at all - Britain's industrial decline, albeit in many respects a relative decline, would have continued with some impact on the overall economy.  But coal exports would have continued, and possibly grown, benefitting certain areas of the country, while overseas investments would have remained in British ownership benefitting another part of the overall economy however the more advanced overseas dominions (e.g Canada) would have advanced more rapidly towards independent nationhood.   Social change would have proceeded at the more rapid pace which had been building up since the turn of the century creating a larger 'middle class' while the 'working class' would have suffered or benefitted according to their particular work.

 

Overall then and feeding this back into the railways there would have been commuter growth into London and other cities serving a wider economy with continuing and more widespread electrification on the part of those Railways which already had it in hand such as the LB&SCR which would in turn have reduced operating costs.  The railways which were continuing to be heavily dependent on coal traffic would have remained strong but some would have been affected by relative decline of other industries such as cotton in Lancashire as the work moved overseas.  So an easy, and basically already pre-destined change would be the merger of the L&YR and the LNWR which would also work hard to take over the Rhymney in South Wales.  The GWR would continue in a position of some strength because of its position in the coal mining areas and would no doubt formalise its absorption of such companies as the Port Talbot Railway while looking to buy out other companies in that area, and elsewhere to keep the LNWR at bay.  

 

The Midland would be in an unusual position in some respects although it had strong coalfield involvement it also served a wide variety of other areas and would have undoubtedly set out on a course of acquisitions in order to protect both its traditional area and expand - the Hull & Barnsley would have been a logical target.  On the east coast the somewhat impecunious GNR would logically be looking to either strengthen itself or become the prey of a much sounder company - logically the NER who, if nothing else would go for the GNR simply to keep other wolves out.  Similarly the GER  - albeit with growing commuter traffic and a reasonably stable agricultural traffic - could become the prey of a larger company and here it would be a battle between the NER and the Midland with the GER's shareholders being the main beneficiaries, especially in the longer term.

 

The GCR would be in an awkward position but could well survive with plentiful coal traffic, shipping assets on important routes and developing commuter business at various of the cities it served but it would have needed determined management to do so.  But if it became a target there could well be a battle royal to grab it with it forming a very obvious target for the GWR. (with which it had some links but was mostly not in a competitive position) but affording various  'northern' companies a chance to 'deal with' a potential competitor which also had some useful traffic from the coalfields and some useful shipping routes.

 

The Scottish picture is more mixed I think.  the High;and and even more so the GNoSR would be in a poor positions to take much advantage of any remaining or growing industrial wealth, limited benefit from agriculture and fisheries and little change to their core passenger business so I suspect both would have become targets for takeover or - more prosaically - the shareholders achieving best return on their money by selling their company.  The Scottish 'big two' = with coal traffic and passenger commuter potential would no doubt have continued as they were - at daggers drawn.

 

Incidentally one other factor which would have a widespread effect would have been the downturn in shipbuilding as the country increasingly found it could not support, and continue to improve the quality and strength of the navy with no threat of war on the horizon.  A large proportion of Britain's shipbuilding capacity (by tonnage) was reliant on orders from the navy and reductions there could have affected various parts of the country in much the same way as the impacts of the Geddes axe and various post WWI treaties.  So some of what I have surmised above could be hit by this change which might also hasten what I say in the next paragraph

 

The slightly longer term gets more  interesting because as railways develop their road involvement they will grasp its economic advantages and look to close less remunerative lines and stations.  But the $64,000 question is whether or not there will be a major crash and slump in future years and I suspect the answer to that is that there would have been one - and more amalgamations and economy measure.

 

Oh and the 'left field' - thinking about those growing commuter etc markets.  A merger between the GCR and the Metropolitan is an  obvious one while it isn't beyond the realms of imagination to see the GWR taking over the Central London Railway (o which it would already have been providing infrastructure).  Would the GWR possibly have gone for the District as well as it would have allowed some rationalisation of its services and have kept others out?  I suspect that if any mainline company started to go for what are nowadays TfL UndergrounD and tube lines others would have joined the fray as much to protect their interests as for any other reason.

 

I'd best leave the other scenario for another post but I think ultimately that some things would go very much as above except the pace of change would be different although in the shorter term things would have been very different.

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4 minutes ago, The Stationmaster said:

I think the OP's basic premise is in itself not going to keep Britain out of the war.  The BEF could not be sent in a limited capacity - it either went or it didn't - and if it went what then happened depended entirely on Germany and Germany had decided to invade France via Belgium.  So it wasn't so much a question of Britain staying out of the war (which some politicians favoured in any case) but more a matter of the war not occurring at all or not occurring in the form it actually took.

 

So we are then in two possible scenarios - the highly unlikely one of no war at all or the potential one of Britain keeping out of a war which by inference meant that what Germany did would have been much more limited around the world compared with we what actually happened.   And these two scenarios would I think have produced very different outcomes.

I hadn't planned on focusing overly much on the war itself, but I'd like to expand on this to decrease confusion.

 

We'll assume Germany goes on the offensive against Russia, waiting until France declares war on them rather than vice versa, and fights a defensive war against the latter. In this scenario, it is the Germans choosing an alternate course, not the British. 

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The railways of this country have suffered from government interference in the C19 which vacillated between forcing them to compete one moment and then to cooperate at the next. The obsession with competition gave us a lot of wasteful duplication and a number of lines built more to keep the opposition out than to serve the community. Incidentally, Gladstone had proposed government control of the railways as far back as the 1840s.

 

If, and it's probably a big 'if', the government had had the sort of change of heart that was induced by the war, they would have encouraged consolidation. The GCR/GER/GNR merger that had been blocked earlier would probably have gone ahead even without the Grouping. Likewise the LNWR/LYR. The MR is reputed to have had its eyes on the G&SWR to consolidate its Anglo-Scottish route and may well have looked at a few other possibles – such as the MSWJR, the N&BR, and even possibly the H&BR. I think the consolidation of the Underground group would have continued unchanged. As for other mergers...speculate away!

 

 

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2 hours ago, GWRSwindon said:

I hadn't planned on focusing overly much on the war itself, but I'd like to expand on this to decrease confusion.

 

We'll assume Germany goes on the offensive against Russia, waiting until France declares war on them rather than vice versa, and fights a defensive war against the latter. In this scenario, it is the Germans choosing an alternate course, not the British. 

Unavoidably there is a need to focus on the war itself but then to draw the line at where Britain's involvement would or wouldn't take place - which was in reality a political decision which moved almost from one extreme to the other in a few days.  So. Britain not getting involved in 1914 historically really means that the country followed the alternative course, of non-involvement, which many (at one stage a majority of) senior politicians wanted.

 

Re-writing history where it makes little sense to do so doesn't really help - France and Russia were tied by a mutual defence alliance which meant if Germany (and possibly even Austria-Hungary) attacked one the other was bound to intervene.  Similarly Germany had little choice but to protect its major industrial and armaments producing area in the Ruhr without which its ability to wage war would be massively reduced.  Thus the Germans, not unsurprisingly, had to maintain sufficient forces on the French border to keep the French out or throw them out if they did attack (which is of course exactly what happened).  Similarly logistically the Germans had little choice but to attack France first because it could mobilise and concentrate its forces far more quickly than Russia.  Thus even when Russia began its early mobilisation it didn't really throw the Germans too far off balance although it arguably provoked them into declaring war on Russia.

 

The only break point is what happens when Germany violates Belgian neutrality - that is the decision point for Britain.  And in the event there was still considerable political weight within the Govt against declaring war on Germany - which is therefore the point at which Britain would have stayed out but maintained the mobilisation of the fleet for defensive and 'insurance' purposes.  And automatically maintaining the mobilisation of the fleet meant that the pre-existing plans (mostly prepared in 1911) to supply stores and fuel to the fleet would have to be implemented which inevitably had an impact on the working of various railways and the use of privately own coal wagons.   That would have been an early reality of staying out.

 

What then happens to the railway companies depends very much on the course of Britain's neutrality but assuming that Germany does not act against the British Empire (the second potential difference from what actually happened) it is probably not unreasonable to assume that  Britain's neutrality would have worked in a similar way to the real neutrality of the USA although obviously in a 'more British' manner.  The REC would most likely have been activated anyway (again a structure agreed some years before the war)and the British equivalent of the Schlieffen (which unlike the shambles of the German one actually worked to perfection as far as the railway element was concerned) would undoubtedly have been kept constantly up to date and reviewed against a number of possible developments in the war.

 

The question then becomes how long various companies heavily loaded with the mainly naval consequences of the neutrality could survive on the agreed charges imposed by the Govt for its traffic.  And similarly to what exteent the REC might, or might not, impose any controls (which might not be all that much because it wasn't much anyway in the early part of the real war)?  So the emerging picture could well be one of a few companies suffering financially plus some others have difficulty obtaining wagons to load non-naval coal traffic, which might lead to somse mall loss of overseas markets.

 

Equally the French would no doubt turn to. Britain for military supplies which would then possibly lead to U-Boats operating in the English Channel which might potentially end the neutrality of change it emphasis - just as happened with the USA.  But again, short of joining the war, the main impact on certain railways is going to be financial and imposeing resource constraints with the latter falling to the REC to provide solutions.  Finally, as with teh USA, i could not see Britain stayng out because it would inevitably be sucked in - and then it would be much like what actually happened but on a different timescale.

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Seems to me that instead of the war almost bankrupting Britain, staying out would have led to a (at least  temporary) burst of prosperity. Coal, steel, arms, it would all have been in demand. However if you assume that without Britain the Germans would have won, then the long term consequences are incalculable. Consider for instance that a defeated France as part of the German empire would not be repaying all the loans it took from british institutions to pay for all those guns...

I agree that mergers/takeovers would have continued.

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1 hour ago, JimC said:

Seems to me that instead of the war almost bankrupting Britain, staying out would have led to a (at least  temporary) burst of prosperity. Coal, steel, arms, it would all have been in demand. However if you assume that without Britain the Germans would have won, then the long term consequences are incalculable. Consider for instance that a defeated France as part of the German empire would not be repaying all the loans it took from british institutions to pay for all those guns...

I agree that mergers/takeovers would have continued.

 

We need to steer away from the concept that invading a country means colonising it.

 

German aims in the first world war was to make France surrender, secure Alsace-Lorraine then leaving them free to pursue their territorial aims in the East. Not to capture the whole country and turn it into a piece of Germany.

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Without the war, how long would it have taken the alternative transport modes too develop as far as they did? In 1914 horses were the prime mover off the railways, by 1918, not only was the petrol lorry a powerful and reliable alternative but there was a surplus of them at knock down prices.

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The big thing that changed Britain from being friendly to Germany and distrustful of France to the reverse was when Imperial Germany started to build up a fleet to challenge the Royal Navy. If Kaiser Wilhelm had decided to concentrate on his army and not challenge Britain at sea, and then kept clear of the Low Country neutrals. Britain might not then have been that upset about another Franco German war. Being content to prosper while two potential rivals weakened each other.

 

Without British back up and having lost the previous Franco German war, it is then possible that the French would have followed a Maginot line type defensive stance, along a shorter Western Front just along the Franco German border. Making the main theatre of operations the Eastern Front, with a large German drive into Russia. The main thing that lost Germany WW1 was the British sea blockade. Without a hostile Grand Fleet at Scarpa Flow blocking the exit from the North Sea, Germany would have been a lot better off, and keeping the Royal Navy out of WW1 minus GB, would probably have become a German priority.

 

As others have said a neutral Britain might have made money selling arms to the combatants, with both sides avoiding upsetting British opinion in the same way that Germany restricted their submarine operations in case they brought the USA into the real WW1 against them. I would then see British society moving in much the same direction as it did in the real world but more slowly, without the impetus and technical progress provided by the shocks of total war. With Railway mergers occurring steadily on a commercial basis, but no doubt there would have been a few oddities where some small companies with a sound income and independent mind set, or just ones no one wanted to take over stayed in existence, against the trend to enlargement. The four main groups West and East Coast, Southern and Western were already partly in existence as geographical and/or business alignments, so we might have got a flavour of the big four. But with some surviving "Pre-Grouping" companies included in the mix.

 

Then again someone might have got clever and ambitious, perhaps with a combined LNWR/L&Y group taking advantage of a head start given by an early merger given their history. To strangle the potential ECML group by pre-emptively taking over a company at the north end of that line. So that you end up with Euston for the North and Scotland, via an upgraded WCML with Kings Cross being the main station of a group serving the Midlands and Eastern counties. The possibilities are endless.

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3 hours ago, JimC said:

 Consider for instance that a defeated France as part of the German empire would not be repaying all the loans it took from british institutions to pay for all those guns...

 

 

I think the mistake with this view is that it takes its position from what happened in the second world war, whereas all indications of intent in WW1 was that Germany would have been more than happy with a rerun of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/71 - where the UK did remain neutral.  This resulted in the siege of Paris and the ultimate surrender and humiliation of the French.  Once all settlements had been agreed, the Germans were more than happy to withdraw with Alsace Lorraine as a new German Republic and firmly in their fold.  What would have appeased the Germans in a rewritten WW1?  Possibly a buffer between France and the kingdom of Alsace Lorraine.  Possibly further ceding of territory from France to Germany, but certainly not full-scale encompassing of France into the German Empire.  

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Its worth looking at the state of the motor industry in Germany in 1939 - very few private motor cars existed, and only one German in 50 owned a motor vehicle (compared to one in 15 in Britain). Without the flood of ex-MOD vehicles into the British market, the position could have been reversed. 

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