For just this week, the subject matter of this blog will be only indirectly relevant to the Georgian period. Instead, I want to honour two remarkable young women and the part they and those like them played in Britain’s war effort during the Great War of 1914–1918. They appear in the photo at the head of this post. The one on the left is my grandmother, Dorothy. On the right is her elder sister, Beatrice.
Both worked in a munitions factory between 1915 and the end of the war: the Royal Filling Factory at Rotherwas, just outside the city of Hereford. The factory was built hurriedly in response to the so-called ‘Shell Scandal’ of 1915, when it became clear that offensive efforts by the British Army in France and Belgium were being hampered by a lack of shells for the artillery. The role of the filling factories — and Rotherwas was a large one which served in both world wars — was to take empty shell casings and fill them with high explosive, before fitting a suitable fuse and shipping them off in their tens of thousands to the front.
Forget any idea of lines of machines. All the work was done by hand, almost entirely by a legion of young women like my grandmother and her sister. The explosive — either picric acid, TNT or amatol (a mixture of 60% TNT with 40% ammonium nitrate) — was poured into the casing through a funnel, then pressed down hard using a wooden stick struck with a wooden mallet. It’s a measure of the danger of the task that the girls who did it earned more than a skilled man of the time.
It was hard, unpleasant and dangerous work, undertaken with little in the way of safety or health precautions. Too much pressure, or the least spark, could cause the shell to explode. The chemicals themselves made the skin and hair of the girls most exposed to it turn bright yellow. Prolonged exposure brought on lung damage and premature death. Much has, rightly, been said and written about the bravery and sacrifice of the fighting men in the trenches. Too little honour, by contrast, has been given to these young women, many still in their teens, who also risked their lives daily in the service of their country.
That’s why, in this year marking the centenary of the end of World War I, I have dedicated my latest Georgian mystery book* to the memory of all the women who worked “in the munitions” and to my grandmother and great-aunt in particular. The following dedication heads the book.
*“Black As She’s Painted”: An Ashmole Foxe Georgian Mystery, published today on Amazon.