Munitionettes women interspersed amongst large artillery shells on a factory floor as duotone

Wonder women: The munitionettes who helped Britain win the wars

Munitionettes women interspersed amongst large artillery shells on a factory floor as duotone

In all the coverage given to the history of the First and Second World Wars, it's easy to overlook the contribution and role of women in these conflicts.

World War 1, in particular, might arguably be redubbed Women's War 1, since it ushered in such vast, sweeping change in the gender makeup of the national workforce, albeit a temporary one.

Looking at this social change, and the way in which the process was repeated in the Second World War, reveals a lot about the impact of the conflict on the social, political and economic status of women in World War 1, and later 2.

The idea of women becoming labourers in mass numbers, both in rural and industrial settings, as well as police officers - another flip in the social stereotype that occurred during wartime - would obviously have been unconventional and, to many, unacceptable, before 1914.

The fact that, as far as the world of work was concerned, things returned to their pre-wartime norms should not detract from the importance of this change. Bit-by-bit, women got the vote after the First World War. And the changes in the workforce ushered in by wartime necessity helped to show that large-scale social change was possible for women who followed later.

And perhaps, more than anything, that is traceable to the way in which the war challenged gender stereotypes, even whilst initially seeming to reinforce them (i.e. by seeing all the men go out to fight, and their wives staying at home.)

As 'The Great War' channel's Indy Neidell puts it in the video below:

“Their role is quite often associated with weeping, waiting and working as wives, mothers and sweethearts.”

He then goes on to explain that, of course, the war proved that they were capable of far more than that.

In Britain, five million of them would work across the economy, including in government, private clerical roles and farm work – mere weepers and waiters they certainly were not.

Their most important contribution to the war, though, was on the front lines.

Not the trenches, but the front lines in the war of domestic reorganisation being waged by Minister of Munitions David Lloyd George.

His battlefield was the nation’s factories, and his army would be the roughly 1 million women who laboured in them, racing to outproduce the enemy. 

Munitions factory
Women inside Woolwich Arsenal before the war – they would become the majority of the workforce there once the war had started

Which they did.

According to Western Front Commander-in-Chief Field Marshal Haig, by 1918,

“it [was] possible to conduct artillery operations independently of any limiting considerations other than that of transport.”

The Germans could but dream of being ‘limited only by transport’ in their supplies of guns and shells in 1918. 

Not that this was obvious at the beginning of the year.

That spring, the Germans – bolstered by troops reassigned from the east after the collapse of Russia – smashed into the Allied lines.

They were supported by over 3,000 artillery pieces and when their soldiers broke into open country – a goal that had alluded both sides since 1914 – it looked for a moment like they might win. 

But the numerous small arms and 1,000 artillery pieces that fell into enemy hands would not slow Britain’s momentum. 

In ‘The First World War’, Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson point out “the prodigious accomplishments of (Britain’s) munitions industries”:

“By July (1918) the Ministry of Munitions had resupplied the army to such an extent that it now possessed more artillery than it had disposed of (in the German attack).”

Infantry weapons were also being churned out.

Manpower shortages may have meant that a British 1918 division was often half as numerous as its 1916 former self, but material advances still gave it more firepower.

The story was very different for the Germans.

Although the spring offensive was an impressive spectacle, they’d now shot their bolt, using up much of their men and ammunition in the process:

“By almost every measure of economic activity, Germany was in steep decline by 1918. Taking 1913 as the benchmark, industrial output had diminished by a third by 1918.”

First World War World War One 1 I
What was produced: An assortment of WW1 shells (image: historicair)

A song from the period highlights the contribution of the ‘munitionettes’ in Britain (from ‘munition’ plus ‘suffragettes’) to this effort:

“The guns out there are roaring fast, the bullets fly like rain; The aeroplanes are curvetting, they go and come again; The bombs talk loud; the mines crash out; no trench their might withstands. Who helped them all to do their job? The girls with yellow hands.”

The largest factory was the Woolwich Royal Arsenal, which employed 28,000 women. In this sense, it was a miniature community and, like any community, it required policing. The only logical answer was the creation of women's police service.

Gabriel West, who started out as a worker and went on to police Woolwich Arsenal, described the site this way in her diary:

“The first time you go around you think, ‘What an interesting place’. Then the evil smell becomes more noticeable. The particles of acid land on your face and make you nearly mad, feeling like pins and needles.”

Artillery factory
The Gatehouse outside Woolwich Arsenal around the turn of the 20th Century
Shell factory
The Gatehouse today (image: DAVID HOLT)

The fumes would cause well over a dozen casualties a day, but as Laura Downs of Michigan University explains, there were far worse accidents waiting to happen:

“War work was dangerous, laborious, heavy, dirty – women were blown up in powder factories in accidents with TNT and there were several hundred deaths in both France and Britain just due to explosions alone.” 

Then there were the Zeppelins.

The first of these to hit London came in May, 1915, the very first death (out of seven) being a two-year-old.

They were instantly branded ‘Baby Killers’. 

Osprey Publishing
A map charting the course of one Zeppelin raid in 1915 – Woolwich is in square number 7 (image from ‘London 1914-17’ by Ian Castle © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

West described what it was like to come under attack by one, noting that Woolwich was a prominent target: 

“No end of Zepp excitements lately. A few weeks ago we heard distant guns in the middle of the night. We looked up – and there was the Zepp so low you could see the cars hanging underneath. My word we did scoot. There was a tremendous din of firing, and things began to patter on the roof. I thought I was dead that time.”

First World War One 1 I
A recruitment poster from the war using the Zeppelin threat to galvanise volunteers

Being on board a Zeppelin was also terrifying.

In ‘London 1914-17: The Zeppelin Menace’, Ian Castle introduces Kapitanleutnant (‘Captain Lieutenant’) Heinrich Mathy and his crew. 

He was “the most revered of all the Zeppelin commanders”, but not invincible, and as the British got the upper hand, enemy morale - like the airships themselves - plummeted.

One of Mathy’s crewmembers described how they all felt:

“We discuss our heavy losses… Our nerves are on edge, and even the most energetic and determined cannot shake off the gloomy atmosphere… It is only a question of time before we join the rest. Everyone admits that they feel it… If anyone should say that he was not haunted by visions of burning airships, then he would be a braggart.”

On October 1, 1916, Mathy’s craft, Zeppelin L.31, was fired upon by a BE2c biplane equipped with a Lewis gun loaded with explosive rounds.

While regular ammo had simply bounced off, these bullets, and incendiary ones, could set the great hydrogen chambers ablaze.    

Every man aboard an airship by this point in the war had pondered whether, when that moment came, he would prefer to stay behind and burn or simply leap to his death

Mathy jumped. 

Osprey Publishing
Mathy’s death (image from ‘London 1914-17’ by Ian Castle © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Zeppelins, though, weren’t the only menace in the skies.

Large aircraft carrying bombs - Gothas and ‘Giants’ - also conducted a number of air raids.

The last of these took place on May 19/20 near East Ham and involved 38 Gothas and three Giants.

In total, seven of the Gothas were lost during the mission.

The fate of one of those shot down is also described by Castle in ‘London 1917-18: The bomber blitz’:

“It was clear that the Gotha was going down. All three of the crew jumped to their deaths… Searchers found the body of 27-year-old Hans Thiedke on an allotment in Brooks Avenue ‘a good half a mile north east of the Gotha’. That of Paul Sapkowiak, also aged 27, landed in ‘a ditch some 300 yards south of the aeroplane wreckage’ and the body of the third crew member, 20-year-old Wilhelm Schulte, was discovered a quarter of a mile to the south ‘in the next field on the bank of a ditch’.”

One British airman remembered seeing the Gotha do “about one and a half turns of spin” after he’d shot it before it was seen finally “bursting into a sheet of flame”, the spectacle being watched by civilians who had crowded onto the streets below.

First World War One 1 I
The May 19/20 1918 air raid over London (image from ‘London 1917-18’ by Ian Castle © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

While Germany pioneered air raids, Britain was using its most potent weapon on its adversary: The Royal Navy.

It had largely confined the enemy fleet to port and, having failed to break out, Germany’s sea war was now being conducted primarily by U-boats.

That, of course, would eventually bring America into the war, exacerbating the economic mess Germany was already in. 

Belinda J Davis goes into the effects of all this in ‘Home Fires Burning: Food, Politics, and Everyday Life in World War I Berlin’.

Flour supplies quickly diminished, forcing people to eat more potatoes or to make ‘ersatz’ (replacement) bread out them. 

People, naturally, got sick of them, though that was still better than not having enough to eat.

As the only staple, the price of potatoes soon shot up.

Rudimentary socialism didn’t help – when the government enacted price ceilings many farmers simply withheld a portion of the potato crop to feed to their pigs. (Pork wasn’t the subject of price controls). 

The wealthy could turn to the illegal food trade, much to the resentment of those who couldn’t.

It’s estimated that about 700,000 people died in Germany as a direct result of malnutrition – that’s close to the number of British soldiers who died fighting during the conflict.

There were also deaths from diseases like flu, which one must safely assume was also at least partially attributable to poor diet.

It seems reasonable to wonder if all this made the naval blockade counter-productive in the long run.

The social fissures that appeared in Germany would, after all, go on to fuel the murderous racial ideology of the Nazis.

Migrants who’d come from the east, many of whom were Jews, were seen as having put undue stress on the food supply. 

Trench Warfare
A trench mortar shell smashes barbed wire in Vimy, France, 1917

But the real culprit is described by Prior and Wilson:

“The blockade had deprived Germany of vital strategic materials such as cotton and nitrates, the shortage of which made the manufacture of munitions more difficult. More importantly, since August 1916 almost the entire German economy had been taken over by the military.”

The war effort would be undermined by factors on the home front, but this was not the stab in the back of Nazi legend:

“So many shell factories were constructed as to leave an actual shortage of steel for the manufacture of shells. At the same time, the rail system of the (Second) Reich had begun to collapse because vital activities such as the maintenance and replacement of rolling stock had been seriously neglected by the military… (C)oal could not reach the factories for want of adequate transportation.”

And food, despite sufficient stocks, could not reach people because that network had also been impacted:

“It was the matter of food availability that, more than any other factor, led to unrest on the home front: strikes, undernourishment and the collapse of real wages, resulting in further reductions in the output of the war-related industries.”

Economically brutal as the blockade was, U-boats were also trying to starve Britain into submission, and nobody in Allied nations was forcing Germany to feed her soldiers before her civilians.

The military, it seems, accidentally stabbed itself in the back.

For their part, Jews were also alleged to be ‘shirkers’ who worked in factories rather than doing the hard graft of fighting in the trenches.

This too was demonstrably false, though even if it hadn’t been, Britain’s canaries could have testified that munitions work was no lark.

The constant threat of being blown up aside, TNT poisoning (which caused the yellow hands and ginger hair) also made life miserable for many.

First World War 1 One I
Woolwich Arsenal pictured on January 1, 1917 (image: PA images)

An August 12, 1916, report in the Lancet entitled ‘The Effects of Tri-Nitro-Toluene on Women Workers’ details a medical investigation by the government into the matter. It does not make for good dinner-time reading.

Symptoms are classified as either ‘irritative’ and ‘toxic’, though even the former sound extraordinarily unpleasant.

In the respiratory tract, for instance, there was far worse experience than just the initial nasal congestion and accompanying watery eyes and headache.

A constricting feeling and pain in the throat and sternum soon came on too:

“Frequently a feeling of intense suffocation is complained of… Some workers complain of a dry cough, followed by sputum, described as a thick yellow phlegm with a bitter taste. In one case the cough was definitely paroxymsmal (characterised by violent outbursts), and only relieved by the expulsion of a thick bleb of the phlegm referred to.”

South East London
A map of the Woolwich Royal Arsenal area in 1877
Firepower - the Royal Artillery Museum
Woolwich in modern times - 'Firepower - the Royal Artillery Museum' pictured within the Woolwich Arsenal grounds (image: Glyn Baker)

When looking into the torso pain, investigators found that:

“The pain is spasmodic and griping in nature, and is accompanied by nausea and often by vomiting. The vomit is described as intensely bitter, often yellow, and sometimes green. Acid eructations (that’s violent eruptions from the stomach) are frequent.”

Naturally, it eventually worked its way out both ends.

Constipation was complained of at first, but diarrhoea that was “as green as grass” soon followed, accompanied by near-constant intestinal pain.

But these ‘minor’ symptoms could be relieved, it was found, by rotating those affected out of contact with the TNT portion of the production process.

When this didn’t happen, much worse could follow.

Symptoms of full-blown toxicity included, but weren’t limited to, “continuous ‘bilious (as in bile) attacks,’… nausea, bilious vomiting, anorexia, constipation, and jaundice”.

Blurred vision, “Irregular, scanty menstruation… Dark coloured scanty urine, with occasional scalding on micturition (i.e. when it was passed)”, inflammation of nerves, swollen hands and feet and bruises that appeared on limbs without any causal trauma were some of the other signs of toxicity. 

south east London
A railway shown just inside Woolwich Arsenal Gatehouse, late 19th Century

It was recommended that only non-pregnant women in their prime, between the ages of 21 and 40, be allowed to work with TNT, and that even from this age group, some individuals should still be removed:

“Judging from our series of cases, the following persons would appear to be unduly susceptible: (a) Women inclined to anaemia; (b) those who have had previous gastric or liver trouble; (c) those who sweat freely or who are unclean in person ; (d) alcoholics and those who are even slightly addicted to alcohol ; (e) those who have had previous throat or chest trouble ; and (f) persons of lowered vitality from over-fatigue, malnutrition, &c.”

For German women, however, factory work was a privilege.

The OHL (army command) had tried to draft women into war work in October 1916.

But union pressure and women themselves, unwilling to do anything that didn’t contribute to reducing their nutritional privations, pushed back.

Shell factory
A German munitions factory during World War 1

Incentives were worked out instead, the proverbial stick replaced not by the carrot so much as the turnip.

That’s because late 1916/early 1917 would be dubbed the ‘turnip winter’, so bitterly cold was it that the potato crop failed.

Those who’d complained bitterly about potato substitutes would now get more ersatz goods made out of the hardier but less palatable turnip.

Fat was also in short supply, leading to a dearth of soap.

An overreliance on cabbage also meant that, without bathing, people began to smell. (This was also impossible because there was no fuel to heat the icy-cold water). 

A picture showing a Zeppelin-Staaken ‘Giant’ bomber, of the type that bombed London in 1918 – this aircraft is shown in 1915

Against this depressing backdrop, the one bright spot was that factory floors were now ‘more feminine friendly’.

Classes were held to teach them important skills that would raise wages. 

They also got more rations – 43.9 grams of meat (176.6 calories) and 14.6 grams of fat (132.7 calories) daily, compared to 35.7 grams of meat and 8.9 of fat for those in the general population.

600 grams of protein and 500 of fat are the normal proportions for a 2000 calorie diet, the basic level of food intake recommended for the average person today.

Having said that, war workers in Germany did get over 3,000 calories, the majority presumably being made up of carbohydrates – mostly turnips in late 1916/early 1917.

Those in the general populace only got 700 to 900 calories. Small wonder there were instances of scavengers ripping flesh off horse carcases.

All in all then, British women seem to have been far better off than their German counterparts. 

Pat Barker’s well-researched factional novel ‘Regeneration’ - based around the meeting of the war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart War Hospital – features a munitionette named Sarah Lumb who is determined to keep her spirits up despite the circumstances:

“The women sat at small tables, each table forming a pool of light under a low-hanging bulb. Apart from the work surfaces, the room was badly lit and so vast that its far end disappeared into shadow. All the women were yellow-skinned, and all, whatever their colouring, had a frizz of ginger hair peeping out from under the green cap (they all wore). We don’t look human Sarah thought, not knowing whether to be dismayed or amused. They looked like machines, whose sole function was to make other machines.”

Shell Factory
George V inspects the Woolwich grounds along with Superintendent Donaldson in 1913 (image: PA images)

Things are more jovial off the factory floor:

“In the cloakroom, donning ankle-length green overalls, pulling on caps, dragging at a final cigarette, were thirty or forty women ... After a while conversations sprang up, the women appeared more normal, even jolly for a time, until the supervisor appeared in the doorway, jabbing her finger at the clock … (A) round-faced, bespectacled, crop-haired lady in a severely tailored suit, (she) bore down upon them. ‘Do you girls ever intend to start work?’”

But the girls remain mischievously defiant: 

“They watched (the supervisor) walk away. ‘Eeh, I hope a man never tries to shove anything up her flue,’ Lizzie said. ‘Be cruelty to moths’.”

World War 2 Two II
A woman working in a factory in Ohio during World War 2 – naturally, women were an important part of the American war effort too

In contrast, there seems to have been a more public spirit of fun during the Second World War.

This is evident in the song sung by music hall star Gracie Fields entitled ‘The Thing-Ummy-Bob’.

It features exactly the same message as ‘the Girls with Yellow Hands’ but is far more entertaining:

“She’s the girl that makes the thing that drills the hole

"That holds the spring that drives the rod that turns the knob

"That works the thing-ummy-bob.

"She’s the girl that makes the thing that holds the oil

"That oils the ring that takes the shank that moves the crank

"That works the thing-ummy-bob.

“It’s a ticklish sort of job making a thing for a thing-ummy-bob

"Especially when you don’t know what it’s for

"But it’s the girl that makes the thing that drills the hole

"That holds the spring that works the thing-ummy-bob

"That makes the engines roar.

"And it’s the girl that makes the thing that holds the oil 

"That oils the ring that works the thing-ummy-bob

"That’s going to win the war”.

The song can be heard between 2:10 and 3:09 in archival footage of a Fields performance embedded here:

If there was a greater sense of optimism amongst women this time around, that may have had something to do with granting them the vote. 

At first, though, the Representation of the People Act 1918 only extended suffrage, largely, to women over the age of 30 who were married to a property owner.

It also enfranchised non-property-owning men, who could not vote before the war. 

This, says Martin Pugh in ‘History Today’, came down to pure prejudice:

“The politicians had little desire to give votes to the spinsters and the young women factory workers whom they suspected of harbouring feminist views and of being career-minded.”

That perennial feminist bugbear, unequal pay, also reared its head.

While it’s true that, between 1914 and 1918, women were mandated to have a shorter working week, with a maximum of 65 hours as opposed to 96 for men, this too seems to have been part of a cynical political calculus.

As Birkbeck College History Professor Joanna Bourke has noted in an interview with the BBC:

“They (unions) say ‘OK we will have women in the munitions factories but we will not have them on the same conditions as men.

“We will firstly give them the duration [of the war]-only contracts and secondly we will divide up the tasks’.

“So instead of having one woman doing the job that one skilled man would have done, they divide it up and have several women supervised by a man.

“This means the women don’t have to be paid as much but it also means that at the end of the war the trade unions can say ‘They aren’t doing skilled jobs, kick them out and give the jobs back to our members’.”

In other words, a lot of the changes the war helped create for women in the workplace weren't permanent. 

And, as Bourke points out in an article for the BBC entitled 'Women on the Home Front in World War One', a lot of what drove the return of convention was the attitudes of and competition for jobs by women themselves.

Bourke quotes a Woolwich worker named M Pazzey who, in 1919, wrote in the 'Daily Herald' that:

"No decent man would allow his wife to work, and no decent woman would do it if she knew the harm she was doing to the widows and single girls who are looking for work."


"Put the married women out, send them home to clean their houses and look after the man they married and give a mother's care to their children. Give the single women and widows the work."

Single women, in some instances, pushed married ones out of certain professions (i.e. the civil service - in that case until 1946.) 

And certain social conventions also reasserted themselves, such as when female medical students were rejected in the 1920s to protect their 'modesty'.

World War 2
A woman in a factory in California during the Second World War

Fortunately, the political discrimination at least ended, with the ‘spinsters’ and ‘career-minded women’ under 30 also winning the vote in 1928. 

Though, even in this case, Bourke points out that this might have had more to do with feminist lobbying and the efforts of the Labour Party after the war than with gratitude for the work done in the war by munitionettes. It also very likely helped, she argues, that the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies and Millicent Fawcett were around in 1917 to draw government attention to the work that had been being done by women to help with the war effort. 

(At the time, the war was forcing the government to revise its voting laws anyway. The requirement that one be within the country for 12 months prior to a poll in order to participate was patently absurd in light of mass numbers of soldiers serving their country overseas).

Though even if Bourke is correct that gratitude for the work of munitionettes and other female workers wasn't directly responsible for extending the franchise to them, it's clear from what Bourke has argued that the war did facilitate women organising to that end. In this sense, even if many of the social changes the First World War ushered in were reversed again upon its completion, the right to vote certainly was enabled by the war, even if indirectly. 

This, in turn, may have helped garner a better sense of social cohesion come 1941, when women, and some men, were conscripted into war work, expanding on the existing pool of volunteers. 

Just as in the First World War, it would be no easy road.

As the BBC’s 1973 series ‘The World at War’ explains, there were certainly social strains:

“The cost of such concentrated effort (working in the high-speed war economy) was high. Familiar customs and industry were swept aside, workers put in massive overtime, which stretched mind and body to the limit, then sometimes, their patience snapped.”

A women working in a factory in Tennessee during the Second World War

‘Snapped’ in this case meant strikes, of which there were some.

But all-in-all, unlike Germany in World War 1, socialism in Britain worked well during the Second World War.

That appears to have been a result of the mutual respect and joint determination to defeat the Nazis exhibited by Winston Churchill and his cabinet member Ernest Bevin, head of the TUC (Trade Unions Council.)

Bevin’s efforts to optimise the use of national labour soon paid off:

“Aircraft production had trebled in two years, and in the next two it doubled again. By now, Britain’s war economy was much more widely based and thoroughly organised than Germany’s.”

Munitionettes  in January, 1917, amongst large artillery shells in a munitions factory (PA images)
Munitionettes in January, 1917, amongst large artillery shells in a munitions factory (PA images)

We know the result, of course – Britain and her allies winning the war on the battlefields.

This, though, was made possible by the fact that the war of production was also won by a domestic army of mostly female workers.

The stoicism and diligence they exhibited in the First World War was revived to help Britain win again in the Second.

Furthermore, in hindsight, it's possible to see that the temporary changes in gender roles ushered in, first, by World War 1, and then by World War 2, have led in the longer term to the more equal opportunities women have today.

To get more of an illustrated history into part of the home front in Britain during World War 1, read ‘London 1914-17: The Zeppelin Menace’ and ‘London 1917-18: The Bomber Blitz’, both by Ian Castle. Visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.

Cover image: Munitionettes amongst large artillery shells – date: Jan 6, 1917 (PA images)

For footage of women at work during World War 1, watch 'The Great War' channel's video on women's war efforts just below, and visit their channel for more on the First World War period.

* This is an edited version of an article first published on October 24, 2017.

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