‘The average citizen...has patiently submitted to irritating, unnecessary and useless restrictions...’
League of the Man in the Street leaflet, 1915
The government brought in new laws to help pay for and win the war. The rate of income tax increased, as did the number of people paying it. Clocks were put forward to make the most of daylight hours during the working day. Personal freedoms were restricted in a way never imagined before.
How were freedoms restricted? Beaches were closed off for fear of invasion. Railways and docks were taken over to move weapons and troops. Censorship of letters and newspapers became a fact of life. ‘Enemy aliens’, mainly Germans, were interned.
To curb drunkenness, pub opening hours were limited. People were fined or faced prison for breaking any one of hundreds of new regulations.
Most people accepted such restrictions on their freedom as a necessary sacrifice.
These are just some of the thousands of war proclamations pasted up across Britain’s cities and towns. Most restrictions for ‘securing the public safety’ were brought in under the Defence of the Realm Act, introduced on 8 August 1914.
The measures relating to fireworks, pigeons and sketching seem trivial, but they reflect the fear that German spies might collect and send vital information.
People in Britain bought illustrated magazines which offered vivid war reports. In them they learned about soldiers’ lives and deaths, the progress of the fighting, acts of gallantry and unfamiliar new weapons.
‘Bystander’ magazine published special volumes containing the humorous drawings of Captain Bruce Bairnsfather, which gave a soldier’s view of trench warfare. The first two volumes sold nearly two million copies in 18 months.
‘…the problem set is a comparatively simple one, munitions, more munitions, always more munitions.’
Field Marshal Sir John French, March 1915
In 1915 a shortage of shells was blamed for a British defeat in France. In the wake of public uproar, Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith formed a new coalition government of the three main political parties.
How did Britain solve the supply problem? A Ministry of Munitions was created to increase supplies for the Front. It took over existing munitions factories and built a sprawling network of new ones. It recruited an army of workers to take the places of men away fighting. Many of them were women who left their pre-war jobs to become ‘munitionettes’.
All across Britain, vast quantities of shells and guns poured out of factories. Railways and ships pumped this essential equipment to the front line.
Without this lifeline between factory and Front, worker and soldier, there could be no victory.
In the first five months of the war, munitions production had increased significantly, but not enough. In May 1915 BEF commander Sir John French blamed Lord Kitchener’s War Office for a shell shortage which he insisted had led to the failure of an attack at Aubers Ridge. The press went into a frenzy over the ‘shell scandal’.
In the aftermath Prime Minister Herbert Asquith dissolved his Liberal government. He formed an all-party coalition to oversee Britain’s ‘full mobilisation and organisation’ for war.
Government recruitment posters showed the value of munitions work and encouraged women to work alongside men in war industries. Patriotism and good pay saw 563,000 women enter the factories in the year from June 1915.
At Woolwich Arsenal there were 195 women workers in June 1915. Two years later there were over 25,000.
Factories also took on refugees, volunteers from the Empire, children over 12 and men too old for conscription.
Figurine and cartoon
David Lloyd George proved a great success as the first Minister of Munitions. Energetic, determined and innovative, but also self-promoting and cunning, his achievements are celebrated in this figurine and ‘Punch’ magazine cartoon.
In his year in office, shell deliveries rose nearly five-fold. In June 1916 Lloyd George would succeed Kitchener as war minister following Kitchener’s death when the ship in which he was travelling struck a mine.
Asquith’s new government created a Ministry of Munitions under David Lloyd George in May 1915. The Ministry, rather than Kitchener’s War Office, would now direct production of shells and guns. It built huge munitions factories and encouraged women to help fill the labour shortage. Thousands of small businesses, from jewellers to manufacturers of railway carriages and bicycles, were converted to ‘controlled establishments’. They churned out guns, wagons, fuzes and shells.
The Ministry of Munitions appointed a health committee to ensure all workers were looked after and therefore more productive. More women in the workforce meant that factories had to provide more facilities. New, large factories had to build separate canteens and washrooms for men and women. Some even had crèches for the children of working mothers. ‘Townships’ sprang up around new factories. These were busy and social places, with housing, schools, shops, cinemas, and banks.
Union membership and ‘Punch’ cartoon
Four million workers held trade union membership in 1914. The Trades Unions Congress pledged not to call strikes but, even after strike action was made illegal in 1915, workers in some factories still downed tools. Knowing their value to the war effort, they tried to secure higher wages. They also objected to ‘dilution’, the employment of unskilled workers for skilled work.
Many saw them as unpatriotic, as echoed in this ‘Punch’ cartoon.
Rule book and diary
Every munitions factory produced a rule book and enforced strict discipline. A Women’s Police Service, unheard of before the war, supervised female workers, as described by policewoman Gabrielle West in her diary.
Alcohol was seen as the greatest threat to productivity. Lloyd George declared that, ‘we are fighting Germans, Austrians and Drink’. The British tradition of ‘treating’, buying rounds in the pub, was banned.
Leaflet, photograph and employer’s manual
Employers encouraged workers to use their spare time profitably.
The Church Army Rest Huts promoted in the leaflet here provided chapels, reading rooms and free writing paper. The photograph of a factory's football team reflects the popularity of the women's game at the time.
Without such activities, the employer’s manual Health of the Munition Worker warned, ‘the public-houses and less desirable places of entertainment may benefit’.
Munitions factories were dangerous places. Major explosions happened in several of them.
These cards commemorate 73 workers killed in a blast at a factory in London’s Silvertown factory on 19 January 1917. Chemicals in explosives also caused sometimes lethal blood disorders and liver damage, turning the skin yellow. Sufferers were known as ‘canaries’.
Funeral of a Swansea ‘munitionette’ killed in an accident at work
The arrival of women in heavy industry was a profound social change. Yet women still faced discrimination. Men, who outnumbered women in the factories two to one, usually took home better wages. David Lloyd George thought pay equality ‘a social revolution which…it is undesirable to attempt during war time.’
Relations between the sexes could be sour. According to a 1915 labour report, men saw women colleagues as ‘interlopers’ and ‘unfair competitors’.
8-inch high explosive shell
This 8-inch high explosive shell was the first ever made by women in Britain, at the Cunard National Shell Factory in Liverpool. Of the factory's workforce, 85 per cent were female. The majority of ‘munitionettes’ were working class and had previously been employed as maids or in the textiles industry. But at Cunard, most were middle class and had never worked in a factory before.
The Cunard factory would go on to make 400,000 more shells.
Uniform for munition worker
For the Ministry of Munitions, a uniform for female munition workers added to ‘smartness and neatness, and so to the general appearance of the factory. It also aids discipline’.
The sight of large numbers of women wearing practical trousers and overalls was something quite new.
Novel ‘Munition Mary’
The well-paid ‘munitionettes’ did not always have a good reputation. A poem of the time contained the lines, ‘I spends the whole racket, on good times and clothes’.
The novel ‘Munition Mary’ was more generous towards them. The heroine unmasks Mrs Webb, who runs the factory canteen, as a spy for Germany intent on sabotaging the factory and the reputation of women workers.