When war broke out in 1914, some industries expanded so they could meet the demand of wartime. For example, more guns were needed in war than in peacetime, which meant that the steel and coal industries had to produce more in order to make and run them. Germany and Britain were engaged in an ‘arms race’, because the side with the best weapons had the best chance of winning the war. This meant that building those weapons was essential.
Whilst Britain had a shortage of manpower compared with Germany, they had access to the raw materials. What was particularly memorable about the First World War was that it was the first time women had been given such large responsibilities; they were drafted into the workforce to replace the men and without them the industries that Britain needed to make weapons would not have been able to function.
Steel and Coal
Whether it was making the material or building with it, the steel industry was very important because of the demand for ships, railways, shells, submarines and aeroplanes. Approximately 4 million rifles, 52 000 aeroplanes and 170 pounds of artillery shells were made by British industries between 1914 and 1918.
This required a high level of skill and therefore trained men were exempt from conscription. Wages also rose in many areas, in order to keep the workers happy. A ship-builder, for example, was paid 37 shillings a week in 1914 but 74 shillings a week by 1918 (£1.80 to £3.70 in today’s money.)
The coal industry was equally important because it provided the fuel to run these engines (and warm people’s homes.) It was in such huge demand that it was rationed in 1916.
It was not very pleasant to work in these places. The steel-workers used smelting-shops or cogging mills, which housed large ovens or guillotines used to make or cut the metal, and change its shape. Coal mining was underground, dark and very cramped. The tunnels were so small that miners’ could not stand up for most of their shift. They used pit ponies to drag the full tubs back from the coalface to the surface, and stayed by their seam all through the long shift. Both industries were subject to explosions and fatal accidents, by exposure to the materials as well as the conditions.
There were some miners’ fighting on the Front Lines as well, within tunnelling companies with the Royal Engineers. They lay land mines and dug tunnels underneath No Man’s Land. This was very dangerous because the men could be blown up by enemy shell bombardments and buried underground, or they could run into a German tunnel coming the other way. Poison Gas was also used in the First War and it was very hard to detect or get away from, particularly when underground.
The munitions factories were the cornerstone of the war effort, because this was where they made and assembled shells, bombs and bullets. These jobs were also highly skilled and Britain was so unprepared for war in 1914 that there were not many of the factories around. In 1915 the Army was only allowed to fire four shells a day because there was such a shortage! More factories were built and organised through a new Government body called the Ministry of Munitions. Shell production then rose from 500 000 in the first five months of war to 16.4 million in 1915. By 1917 this had risen to more than 50 million shells.
However, a bigger problem was that so many men had been conscripted that there was not enough manpower left to fill these factories, especially when conscription for skilled men was cancelled in 1917. To fix this, the Government relaxed the rules on employing women and started a programme of training and recruitment for the female population, mostly within munitions but across the steel, coal, textiles and agricultural industries too. The Board of Trade calculated that 966 000 women were unemployed in 1914, a statistic which had shrunk to 311 000 by 1918 as a result of their mobilisation for the war effort.
Initially, the Crayford Agreement allowed women to work on unskilled repetitive work in the factories, which was followed by the First Munitions Act, and the Shells and Fuses Act in March 1915, which allowed women into the industry, and women and boys to operate semi-automatic machinery themselves, as long as it was not skilled work. The Dilution Scheme in that October eased women into skilled work by breaking down production. Untrained women were taught one small part of the job, which could have been lifting and making cases, or filling and stacking shells. The Substitution Scheme in 1916 meant that gradually women were allowed to do more and more skilled work.
The new factories had a body of female workers that were supervised by a male skilled worker. This was very successful, but sometimes caused tension when men didn’t want to work with women or thought that the women were stealing their jobs. At that time, men were supposed to be the breadwinners and women were supposed to look after the families at home. It undermined a husband’s masculinity and place in the family if his wife was earning as much (or more, in the case of munitions workers) than he was, even if he was away fighting. Necessity was more important during the war, but afterwards a process of demobilisation meant that women were removed from the workplace.
Munitions could be just as dangerous as coal and steel. At Barnbow Factory, near Leeds, an explosion killed 35 women working there. It was very hot and noisy in the factories, and women often had to work in their underwear under protective smocks and caps. They had to wear rubber-soled shoes and were not allowed hairpins, combs or cigarettes in case of explosions. Some women were responsible for filling the shells with explosive (Trinitrotoluene – TNT) and this powder turned their skin bright yellow. These girls became known as ‘canaries!’ There was a similar problem when filling gas canisters, and there was little protective gear available.
However, because of the risks the munitionettes were paid more than women in the other industries and so it became glamorous to have yellow skin and work so close to danger. The average wage of a munitions worker was £3 a week, but could often reach £10-12 a week if the women were working with explosives. Sometimes this led to a better life: higher wages meant more spending money and the girls could spend this as they liked, since they lived away from home and without husbands (it was unpopular in a lot of communities but required by law!) However, this could also lead to jealousies and accusations that the rich munitionettes were pretending to be something they were not.
Building weapons was essential for the war effort, but so was growing food. Agriculture and farming needed to be maintained so that the civilians and the soldiers did not starve. As Britain was an Island and short on space, She imported a lot of produce from other countries (particularly from her Empire) – in 1914 Britain only produced 35% of the food it needed. However, the German U-boat submarines kept sinking supply ships, and therefore every bit of food grown in Britain was essential.
There was so little food that in 1917 the Government introduced rationing, which meant that people could only buy a certain amount of certain foods each week. They were issued with ration books to keep track of it (a more organised and well-known system was put in place in the Second World War.) In January 1917 sugar was rationed and by April so was meat, butter, cheese and margarine. Mostly this ended after the war, but sugar and butter stayed rationed until 1920!
Again, there was a shortage of manpower, and so 260 000 women were drafted in as farmers and labourers by the Board of Agriculture. This was called the Women’s Land Army (WLA) or ‘the land girls.’ Women of all ages and social classes moved across Britain (sometimes through volunteering and sometimes conscription) to rural areas where the farming was being done.
They would do jobs like looking after animals or crops, maintaining farm machinery, lifting hay-bales or chopping wood. These were traditional male jobs, though, and so the WLA was disbanded on 30 November 1919. Like the rest of women’s contributions, the WLA was restarted in 1939 in time for the Second World War.