Voices Of The First World War: Munitions

As the First World War intensified, each belligerent nation found that more and more armaments were needed for its fighting forces. On the home fronts, workers were recruited for the growing number of munitions factories. Lily Smith, from Derbyshire, explained why she took a job in one.

And dad, he was on the watching staff at the shell factory, the old shell factory. And I worked at Strutts Mill. And dad said, would I like to work at the shell factory. I said, ‘Ooh, yes.’ I was only 17 then and I went as 18 because you wasn’t supposed to work nights, you see, under 18. And so, of course, dad got me on there and I used to travel backwards and forwards from Belper to Derby. Course it was more money on munitions. Sort of attracts you doesn’t it?!

The factories were noisy, chaotic places. Elsa Thomas remembered her first impressions of the vast Woolwich Arsenal in London.

I never was so frightened in my life as when I went to the Arsenal. And they took us into a workshop and all I could see was a little cap and a huge pressing machine. And this little boy was pulling and pulling – making copper caps. These copper caps fell there just like glittering things falling… Well that’s what my first experience was. I thought, ‘Oh, I could never do this.’ The lathes up above, you know, frightened. I thought, ‘I shall never do this, no I shall never do this.’


We had to stem… when it first opened in the early part of the war, we had to stem the powder into shells with broom handles and mallets.  You see, you’d have your shell and the broom handle, your tin of powder. And you’d put a bit in, stem it down, put a bit more in, stem it down. It took you all your time to get it all in. It was very hard work.

Men, as well as women, kept the factories working. Henry Oxley described his role at Woolwich.

My particular job in the factory was relative to putting holes in fuses of shells. And you worked to a gauge. In other words, you did so many, then you put your gauge to the particular hole you were drilling and if it was oversize, you called your foreman and he would check it and make it suitable to the particular gauge. In other words, if the job was found to be too big or too small as regards whatever you was doing, it was rejected. We had a special department for inspecting these particular components we were making for the shells. They were very meticulous and any rejects of course were cast out. And other than that the work was repetition, so there was no skill required whatsoever.

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Ethel Wilby once found herself failing one such inspection.

Every now and again you had to test what you was doing and if it wasn’t right you had to get the tool setter to come and put it right for you. On one occasion I found it was wrong and he came and put it right – or thought I’d put it right – and each time I pulled the lever down, so it went wrong again. And he was so annoyed with me on this particular day that he said, ‘I’m not putting in any more for you’ and swore at me. ‘Go and see the boss.’ So I had to go and see the manager in his office and I explained to him what had gone wrong. I said, ‘I don’t seem to be doing anything right. I don’t know if it’s the machine or what.’ So he said, ‘Well, perhaps you’re not feeling so well today, go home and come back tomorrow.’ And I don’t know how many drills I broke but I know I was very sorry for myself.

The dangerous materials used in making explosives meant strict safety precautions had to be observed. But as Kathleen Gilbert explained, they were still not enough to combat the negative effects of the toxins.

We found work then at the Park Royal Filling Station. And it turned out to be a TNT factory – TNT. And you all had to change when you went in. You had to strip and change into other clothes because you weren’t allowed a little tiny bit of metal on you at all, not one hook or eye or anything. And of course they had corsets in those days with wires in them, you see. And you had to finish up with an overall and put your head covering on. And they used to give us domes of glass on the table with holes for your hands to go through, and you filled up the gains. Gains were something like cartridges but bigger. You filled them up with this black rock stuff. And everyone turned yellow there. And you washed so that the yellow came off, but it was always in your system.

George Ginns worked at White and Poppe’s Fuse Factory in Coventry. He clearly remembered the sight of munitions workers who’d been turned yellow by the chemicals they came into contact with.

They all went yellow. You know, very yellow. And there was quite a lot of them I don’t think they bothered at all, they never bothered about it they just carried on. But some of them were, you know, they used to make up decently and cover it up.  But a lot of them I don’t think cared a hang whether they looked yellow or green as long as they got the money – that was all they were interested in. But the majority of them in the loading were all on this TNT, were all went yellow. Quite yellow they were.  It was the toxic base of TNT, or Tri-Nitro-Toluene, that so affected the workers.

Caroline Rennles, who went yellow from working with TNT at Slade Green Factory in Kent, found there was a mixed reaction to her appearance.

Well of course we all had bright yellow faces, you see, ’cos we had no gas masks in those times and all our hair here… The manager used to say, ‘Tuck that hair under!’ you know, and you used to almost look like nuns. And you know what when you’re young… So it was all bright ginger, all our front hair, you know. And all our faces were bright yellow – they used to call us canaries. Well, when we used to come off this – not always, mind you, but sometimes – when we come off our little old train, like, the big main train would be coming through and it would be packed, you know, with different people. So of course the porters, like, they knew that we were all munitions kids, you know. So they’d say, ‘Go on, girl, hop in there,’ like, and they used to open the first class carriages, you know. And there’d be all – oh – there’d be all the officers sitting there and, you know, some of them used to look at us as though we was insects, know what I mean? And others used to mutter, ‘Oh well they’re doing their bit.’ As I say, some was quite nice and others, you know, used to treat us as though we was scum of the earth. ’Course we, all our clothes like, we couldn’t wear like good clothes because the powder used to seep into your clothes, know what I mean? But you couldn’t wear nothing posh there really.

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Munitions workers encountered other dangers, too, as Laura Verity discovered.

Well I’d got this bad throat, you see, and the doctor, I don’t know what it was, he said it was some kind of poisoning. Well, you see, if you’d a bit of an inflammation, you see, gas is no good to you. And then, you see, they used a lot of asbestos at Bray’s. When I think now, my sister was onto me she said it’s a wonder you and me’s living that all that asbestos, ’cos all these nozzles and things were made of asbestos, you know, and it used to lay on the floors and you could see your footprints in it. Used to make you wonder, you see, and we were working with it.

Beatrice Lee also found her role at the Yorkshire Copper Works had its drawbacks.

It wasn’t what you’d call a healthy job. Because, well, at that time my hair was jet black and I used to have to bend over the boshes with the acid. You’ve seen the style today where people have their hair bleached at the front well my hair went like that, just at the front with bending over the boshes where the acid was, because we used to have to put the tubes in this hot acid. Well the hot tubes used to make the acid hot and then the fumes used to come up. It was a very unhealthy job but nevertheless I was very happy there.

By modern standards, there was a relaxed approach to health and safety in the factories, as Sibbald Stewart recalled.

My machine was quite safe because there was no really intricate machinery in it apart from the lathe turning and the chuck to be tightened up. But of course dealing with other machines was a different matter. If you were dealing with a cutting machine or a screw turning machine there were knives on the machines. But I’m afraid the protection was very poor compared to what it should be now. Sometimes a belt would slip down and that would involve a man being hurt with the belt. It has happened. He’d go to hospital. He’d probably be pulled into the machine or pulled onto the lathe in the machine, turning, with a sharp knife in it.