Thursday, 8 March 2012

Munition Girls of The Great War

Whilst reading more books about The Great War than I dare to mention just yet, although the reviews are all nestled in my draft folder, I have been on a search for more information about the female role within such a historical time. 

There are books available solely about various roles - mostly nurses I have found -  and even a little bit about the Women's Land Army, which came into being in 1918, but very little exclusively about the munition workers. 

Not that I have found in any of my searches anywho's.

So, I turned to the mighty machine that is Twitter. There are many reasons why I love the Internet, the multi-faceted Tweeps being one of them. 

A quick question asked enabled me to connect with some much needed answers -  and it turns out that there aren't that many books out there. Sigh.

After adding the ones that I liked the look of to my Amazon wishlist for future, possible, purchases, I sat back and huffed. I needed to know more. And then the wonderful Mr Badger Writes  tweeted me with an offer I could not refuse.

He told me he had a book that I may find of interest. A book from 1916. A book written for the "Boy's at the Front". A book solely about the work of women in the factories back home.

And that he would lend it to me. Someone who he had never met. What an awesome gent.

Just the smell of the old book was enough to make me smile. I gave it a good read, and raising an eyebrow at some of the "don't worry boys, they will be back in their place upon your return and you can have your job back" connotations of the age (remember The Suffrage Movement was still in it's relative infancy), I really enjoyed it.

Something that has always struck me as ironic is, although the lads were away fighting and thinking of little else but home and the women in their lives -  chances are -  they were killed or maimed by ammunition made by them. 

Be they women from the Allies or the Enemy on either side - most munitions were made by women.

The work needed to be done, money needed to be earned, and the females of the populous answered the call. After UK conscription was introduced in 1916, women began to carry the load. By 1918 near on a million women were working in the factories.

Although not conveyed in the book lent to me, perhaps for reasons of moral  -  this book was going to the Front after all -  the hours were long and the occupation hazardous

Alongside the risk of explosion which could result at best with the loss of an arm and at worst with the loss of life itself, many women suffered long term health affects of such work.

From the physical fatigue to the chemical legacy, they bore the scars of their contribution. They lost hair, they lost teeth, in some cases their skin turned yellow and in others they lost all fertility. Some 400 women died as a direct result of over-exposure to TNT during those 2 years.

But the need to be "doing their bit" for the War effort, coupled with the monetary rewards, encouraged them to sign up for the role. 

One Corporal H.V Shawyer commented:

"I felt damned embarrassed when I walked into a pub ... one girl forestalled me saying, "You keep your money Corporal. This is on us", and with no more ado she … produced a roll of notes big enough to choke a cow. Many of the girls earned ten times my pay as a full Corporal"

It gave them a sense of independence and freedom of choice that was to continue, in varying degrees, once the War had ceased. The door was open and women began to push.

My quest continues for more information -  especially about the so-called "Canaries", a group of women from Scotland who, literally, turned canary yellow from the chemicals -  but this is a start.

The start of me learning more, realising more and piecing the bits together from my collective female history. 

A history that needs to be remembered.


  1. Great post...lets hear more as you come across it.

  2. Fascinating, I'm definitely looking forward to hearing more. Love seeing the old photographs too x


    If you fancy a wee journey!

    That was nice of him to have lent you the book, I must confess to being an absolute dragon about mine.

  4. Thank you SO much for that link!

  5. A wonderful post! I am in whole-hearted agreement, there ISN'T enough information available about the Munition Girls!
    My Grandmother worked in a factory making parts for Spitfires, and yet I have found little to go on to research more!
    She told me that once, on her way to work, she was chased down the lane by a German bomber plane that took pot-shots at her for fun, she had to dive into a ditch full of nettles to hide and luckily escaped them - but she still went to work that day!
    And all things considered, she did enjoy the job, they were a close-knit gang and I think they all enjoyed being in charge at last!

    ALSO, I've been meaning to send you this for a while,

    A great project by the lovely Lizzie Ridoult that I think you'll find interesting!

    I'm glad you enjoyed my Evelyn Dunbar post, I've asked for her book for my Birthday next week, fingers crossed, I could read that every day!


  6. What a captivating and fascinating read. I want to know more now too!

  7. Oh wow- he IS very generous (I would have such a hard time giving up my old book LOL).
    And how fascinating! When you are finished, perhaps you will know enough to start writing about that time ;)

  8. What a gent indeed! I was watching Michael Portillos' programme on the railways the other day and he visited a site where the girls made 'devils porridge' a mixture of nitro glycerine and cordite. Scary stuff indeed. Very interesting post. X

  9. That is truly fascinating and how lovely of him to loan you his book!! I love Twitter for that very reason too, you can always find an answer or someone to help.

    Can't wait to read more about your search for books. Whilst I'm out and about I will keep an eye out!

  10. Very interesting- do keep us updated. Have you tried the British Library for research perhaps?

  11. What an interesting post, I look forward to hearing more about this.

  12. tanksandtablecloths, just looked it up, love it.

  13. Really facinating, can't wait to read more on this!

  14. Every time I read your blog, I am simply fascinated by all the information! I agree, a lot of the history of women's work during the war years is glossed over, I think it's so important that you are finding it out and sharing it with everyone!
    From Carys of La Ville Inconnue

  15. Some friends got married at this munitions factory!


  16. I always love reading your blog, it's fascinating. How kind to lend and lucky to be lent.

  17. Great post. I want to learn more too! Hurry up and publish that list of good books!

  18. My grandmother worked in the munitions factory but she died when I was a baby and I would have loved to have asked her about it. My mum had me when she was in her 40s and nan died at 74, in 1968.
    My lovely mum died in 2010 aged 84 but she was 14 when WW2 started and she always told me tales about life then. She and her friend got chased down the road by a german bomber and I can remember her telling me she could quite clearly see the pilot's face and he laughed as he chased them. He didn't fire at them though thank goodness!
    My dear old dad was a submariner during the war too. I have mum and dad's love letters from just after the war when dad was still stationed away. They met on VJ Night. Very poignant reading I can tell you!
    Love your blog btw.

    From @mrsmarsa

  19. Great post, what a brilliant person to lend you the book. I don't know if you'd be interested but I just read a novel by Pat Barker called Liza's England (also published as The Century's Daughter) and the main character in that spends some time working in a munitions factory. It covers a lot of the period in history that you enjoy anyway.

  20. Hi,
    I happened upon your blog by chance. I wonder if I could ask a favour. I have a website that shows rare dustjackets from works of WW1 literature - - but I've never seen the Hall Caine before. Would it be possible for you to re-photograph or scan the front of the jacket again to fit in with the other 2000 images on the site. I'd of course acknowledge you with a link to your blog. Nice work by the way. The only other work I know is Boyd Cable's 'Our Girls in War Time' which is on-site,
    Kind Regards,

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