Munitions workers played a crucial role in the First World War. They supplied the troops at the front with the armaments and equipment they needed to fight. They also freed up men from the workforce to join the armed forces.
Following a shortage of shells in 1915, the Ministry of Munitions was founded to control Britain’s output of war material. It oversaw all aspects of the production and supply of munitions, under the forceful and energetic Minister for Munitions, David Lloyd George.
A number of new initiatives were soon introduced to improve production levels. One of these was an appeal to women to register for war service work. Thousands of women volunteered as a result, and many of these were soon employed in the growing number of munitions factories across the country. By the end of the war, over 700,000 – and possibly up to one million – women had become ‘munitionettes’.
The munitionettes worked long hours in often hazardous conditions. Hear stories of some of the dangers and difficulties they faced by listening to these former munitions workers. Download a transcript of the interviews.
Becoming a ‘canary’
Munitions workers whose job was filling shells were prone to suffer from TNT poisoning. TNT stood for Trinitrotoluene – an explosive which turned the skin yellow of those who regularly came into contact with it. The munitions workers who were affected by this were commonly known as ‘canaries’ due to their bright yellow appearance. Although the visible effects usually wore off, some women died from working with TNT, if they were exposed to it for a prolonged period. As Ethel Dean, who worked at Woolwich Arsenal, recalled, ‘Everything that that powder touches goes yellow. All the girls’ faces were yellow, all round their mouths. They had their own canteen, in which everything was yellow that they touched… Everything they touched went yellow – chairs, tables, everything.’ (IWM SR 9439)
Article by Amanda Mason