125th anniversary of Rheinmetall – the years 1889 to 1918

Turkish Delight or an optical illusion?

The autobiographic notes of Heinrich Ehrhardt are full of anecdotes about Rheinmetall in the pre-war era. One of the many stories to be found relates to the Supervisory Board member of Rheinische Metallwaaren- und Maschinenfabrik, Major General z.D. Carl Gustav Becker (1842 – 1913), the former head of the empire’s own artillery workshops.
Around 1899, Ehrhardt was hoping to win a big contract from Turkey: the once powerful state on the Bosporus wanted to equip its army with new ammunition and fuses, preferably from one source. Ehrhardt had the following problem: Rheinmetall didn’t manufacture fuses in those days. But Ehrhardt had invited a Turkish delegation to visit the Rheinmetall plant in Düsseldorf. In his autobiography “Hammerschläge”, Heinrich Ehrhardt recalls how nervous and embarrassed he was, realising that as soon as the Turkish commission reported back to Constantinople that Rheinmetall was unable to fabricate fuses, the order would be “lost”. So he decided to call their bluff.
Ehrhardt had the brand-new fuses that had been fabricated especially for firing tests at his factory in Zella-Mehls delivered to Düsseldorf, had them appropriately fixed in the lathes and machine tools of the Düsseldorf-Derendorf factory and let the workers work on them. As Ehrhardt himself was unable to accompany the Turkish visitors due to other prior commitments, he asked his Supervisory Board colleague Becker to give the Turks a tour of the factory and convince them that Rheinmetall produces fuses. Becker thought something was seriously wrong with Ehrhardt. This trick was totally anathema to Becker as a Prussian officer; Ehrhardt and Becker thereupon had a serious dispute in the course of which “I probably gave him a piece of my mind rather too enthusiastically” recalled Becker. The result of this heated discussion was that Becker immediately stepped down from the Supervisory Board.

Fortunately, this did not affect the order from Turkey. Apparently, Ehrhardt managed to move his other appointment and had no qualms in showing his Turkish guests the “fake” fuse factory. At the request of his Supervisory Board colleagues, he even managed to persuade Becker to remain on the board, although this naturally called for a sincere apology to the old warhorse. Interestingly, this is not mentioned in Ehrhardt’s memoirs. And the ammunition was also delivered: shortly afterwards, Rheinmetall acquired the factory belonging to Nicolaus von Dreyse in Sömmerda – giving Ehrhardt the skill and the facilities to manufacture fuses.

Nobleman or just a clever guy?

Engineer Heinrich Ehrhardt from Thuringia established and started to expand the Düsseldorf-based Rheinische Metallwaaren- und Maschinenfabrik from 1889 onwards. Right from the start until 1920 he was a member of the company’s Supervisory Board which he chaired from 1897 onwards. Until today, his origins are an unresolved myth. Nonetheless, it is astonishing how the orphan Ehrhardt managed to overcome tough challenges with shrewdness and how the young man worked his way up in the world with -perseverance and ambition in spite of many setbacks.
Rumours already existed during his lifetime. In his autobiography “Hammerschläge”, he described the decline of his large family that had lost its fortune at the beginning of the 19th century following the Napoleonic Wars. His grandfather, formerly a wealthy gunsmith, and family moved out of their villa and into a very small house by the woods to the north of Eisenach in the Thuringian Forest. Heinrich was born the son of a silviculturalist who supported himself and his family with occasional jobs. Heinrich Ehrhardt himself described this part of his history. In his biography, he notes that although he wasn’t a nobleman he nevertheless had noble blood in his veins. His grandmother was born a Graf (meaning countess) from Gräfenroda.
In reality, it is highly probable that Ehrhardt never actually got to know his father which is why he was given the maiden name Ehrhardt of his mother Barbara. A former Thuringian state archivist in Weimar, Dr. Wolfgang Huschke, discovered quite a different story in the church records in the 1950s: his research indicated that Heinrich’s father may have been a journeyman locksmith and later train driver called Gottlieb Reuther from Weinsberg in Württemberg.

In her biography of 1969, Maria Fischer-Ehrhardt tried to air the secret of her father Heinrich’s supposed nobility: according to her sources, a certain duke (Eugen von Württemberg) and commander of the Prussian regiment had fallen in love with the beautiful Barbara around one year before Heinrich’s birth. He fathered the child but the love affair was ill-fated from the outset: Eugen had to leave his mistress to follow the call of the King of Prussia. Barbara told her parents and grandparents about the extramarital affair and was thereupon disowned by her family. When her father died one year later, she made up with her mother and hoped that Eugen would return to her. This sounds like a fairytale or is it indeed the truth? The question of Heinrich Ehrhardt’s true origin is shrouded in myth to this very day.

It is, however, undisputed that Heinrich Ehrhardt was a remarkable personality. In his autobiography, he describes how his upbringing by his grandmother – and without parents – left a deep mark on him: the hard work on the farm and in the dairy were instructive, and the four to five year-old lad occasionally felt he needed a special treat after all the hard work: already at this early age, he showed signs of ingenuity, poking a straw through the holes of the milk container to secretly drink up some of the cream from the pot. His idea for a first hydraulic “suction device” was discovered but he used his shrewdness to his benefit on many occasions in the years to come. This was also the case in the forge belonging to this cousin, the mechanic Peter Ehrhardt who was a tough teacher to 14 year-old Ehrhardt. He had to collect timber for the workshop with lathe and also bring the evil-tempered Peter his daily bowl of soup at lunchtime. Once, Heinrich tripped on the old wooden staircase, the soup was spilt onto the floor and – terrified at the prospect of his cousin’s anger – Heinrich wiped the soup off the wooden floorboards back into the bowl. His cousin didn’t notice what had happened, had his soup but was surprised by the grit on his teeth. Might this have been due to the sand on the floorboards?

Heinrich’s apprenticeship then took a turn for the better: after his cousin had contracted an eye disease, Heinrich was offered the chance to run the business. But even before the four-year apprenticeship had come to an end, the two cousins had such a serious disagreement that Heinrich was forced to flee. His life in the following years was fairly unsettled with various professional stops. His strong leadership and his desire to acquire more knowledge motivated him to collect a lot of experience in many different areas, for instance, as a designer of distillation machines, as a mechanic, a works master and inventor in the field of weapons technology. The man who came from a smallholding and craftsman’s family embarked on an impressive lifelong journey. He is remembered as an assertive leader with the willpower to succeed.

Carl Völler, Ehrhardt’s most loyal engineer: “I definitely won’t join Krupp!”

He was one of the closest and most loyal employees of Heinrich Ehrhardt, and one of the most able engineers working for Rheinische Metallwaaren- und Maschinenfabrik in the years prior to World War I. The man in question is Carl Völler, chief engineer at Rheinmetall, weapons designer and plant manager at Düsseldorf.

Coming from his first job at the Cologne Helios works, the qualified lathe operator Völler probably joined the Eisenach vehicle factory also managed by Heinrich Ehrhardt at the end of the 19th century. In Eisenach, he replaced the engineer Konrad Haußner, the co-inventor of the famous barrel recoil cannon, as head of the artillery design office. Haußner had fallen out with Ehrhardt and emigrated to Argentina.
Völler moved to Rheinmetall in 1903, following the relocation of artillery design to Düsseldorf. He was appointed general manager in 1912, calling himself Rheinmetall director from then onwards. The young company owed him the 7.5cm mountain cannon “System Ehrhardt” for which Emperor Wilhelm II distinguished him with the colonial medal and that was officially fielded by the army in 1909. The heavy mine thrower developed in 1909 by Völler in collaboration with the corps of pioneers and engineers of the Großer Generalstab (Great General Staff) for attacks on fortified positions was particularly spectacular.
Personally, Völler felt more committed to Heinrich Ehrhardt than to Rheinmetall. In 1908, when he found out quite by accident that Krupp had secretly acquired the majority of Rheinmetall shares through the Stock Exchange, he was seriously worried: less about the future of the company as such, but mainly that the competitor from Essen might constrain his and Ehrhardt’s activities in the field of cannon design. So he wrote a letter to Ehrhardt, assuring him of the following: “I definitely won’t join Krupp. If Krupp buys up our Rheinische Company, we should simply concentrate all on our energy on building the cannon in Zella.” He also recommended the “establishment of a totally new Ehrhardt cannon factory displaying the full name of Ehrhardt and not as Rh. M.M.”

Luckily for him – and for Rheinmetall – things never got this bad and Völler stayed with “Rheinische” or “The Cartridge” as the locals lovingly called the Düsseldorf factory. His brilliant career as an arms designer came to a tragic end in 1916 when he suffered fatal injuries from an accident at the firing range in Unterlüß. The only accident report that still exists was written by the later chief designer Carl Waninger: In his collection of anecdotes entitled “Knallbonbon”, he gives a brief account of this event that was so tragic for Rheinmetall and Carl Völler: “During a firing exercise, Mr. Völler stuck his head out just a little bit too far as a result of which he was hit by a very small piece of metal. He asked for a cognac and to be taken to the hospital in Celle where he died a few weeks later.”

Völler’s popularity with the workforce in Düsseldorf was all too evident as the long funeral procession moved from the Rheinmetall premises on Ulmenstrasse to the northern cemetery where his large, artistically designed tombstone (that was restored a few years ago) remains to this very day.

From prison compound to catwalk – Today, hall 29 presents the Gerry Weber collection

Hall 29 – today owned by the internationally renowned and successful fashion business Gerry Weber – is generally turned into an international hotspot during the Düsseldorf fashion fairs. Right next door to Rheinmetall, the collections for the next winter and summer season are presented to the world of fashion, worn by beautiful models on the catwalk. Neither the models nor any of the other people engaged in the fashion business are likely to know that they are continuing a 100 year-old tradition.
Ladies already used to walk up and down the courtyard back in 1916, in full view of the production hall 29 that was under construction at the time. But these ladies were different: they were female convicts and their catwalk was the prison compound called the “Weiberspazierhof”.
The prison authorities didn’t find the constellation terribly amusing in those days. They believed a view of the prison compound should be avoided under all circumstances. The responsible authorities and executive board of Rheinische Metallwaaren- und Maschinenfabrik A.G. exchanged a lot of correspondence about the rules and regulations applicable to the construction of the hall that was urgently needed for the production of arms in 1916, including an own shooting range with adequate line-of-sight to enable civil servants to test and approve essential military goods. The company emphasised the importance of the project – not only in the interest of the factory but also with a view to its outstanding relevance for national defence.

The construction of the production hall was ultimately given the go-ahead under strict conditions. Any visual contact with the prison compound was strictly forbidden. It was agreed that the builders would always work behind a two meter high wooden screen preventing any view of the women’s compound. Furthermore, a new boundary wall of respectable height – namely four meters – and without any openings was to be built! It was strictly forbidden for the builders to establish contact with the prisoners by calling, giving signs, passing them gifts or anything similar throughout the building project.

Incidentally, the prison has since been moved to the neighbouring town of Ratingen, screened off by high walls and surrounded by 110 hectares of recreational area with two lakes and extensive green areas including a well developed network of paths used by walkers, cyclists and dogs for leisure time activities today.

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