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Women and War Work By Helen Fraser Characters: 18940

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

"For all we have and are,

For all our children's fate-

Rise up and meet the war,

The Hun is at the gate.

* * *

"Comfort, content, delight,

The ages' slow-bought gain,

Have shrivelled in a night,

Only ourselves remain.

* * *

"Though all we knew depart,

The old commandments stand,

In courage keep your heart,

In strength lift up your hand."


"Hats off to the Women of Britain!"-Sir ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE in The Times, November 28, 1916.

When war broke out the Government had three National workshops producing munitions-today it has 100, and it controls over 5,000 establishments through the Ministry of Munitions, many of which are continually growing in size.

The total output has increased over thirty-fold but in many cases increase in production has been far greater. In guns, the production of 4.5 field howitzers is over fifty times as large; of machine guns and howitzers over seventy times and of heavy howitzers (over 6 inch) over 420 times as large.

More small shell is now made in a fortnight than formerly in a year, and the increase in output of heavy shell has been still larger. Equally striking results have been attained in the production of machine guns, aeroplanes motor bodies, and the other war supplies, for which demand and replacement have necessarily grown with the demand for guns and shells. To these have to be added the ships and the anti-submarine and anti-aircraft machines and devices that have been demanded by the enemy's method of warfare.

This work has only been possible in a country that has raised five million men, 75 per cent from our own islands, because of what women have done.

Today there are between 800,000 and 1,000,000 women in munitions works in our country, and the history of their entry and work is a wonderful one. Women themselves were quicker than the Government to realize how much they would be needed in munitions, and started to train before openings were ready.

Women realized vividly what Lloyd George's speech of June, 1915, made clear, the urgent, terrible need of our men for more munitions-the Germans could send over ten shells to our one-and women volunteered in thousands for munition work.

The London Society for Women's Suffrage, which was running "Women's Service," had women volunteers for munitions in enormous numbers and tried to secure openings for them. It investigated and found that acetylene welders were badly needed. There were very few in Britain, and welding is essential for aircraft and other work, so they started to find out if there were classes for training women, and found none in Technical Schools were open to women. They found welders were needed very much in certain aircraft factories in the neighborhood of London and the manager of one assured them that if women were trained satisfactorily for oxy-acetylene welding, he would give them a trial. So "Women's Service" decided to open a small workshop and secured Miss E.C. Woodward, a metal worker of long standing, as instructor. The school was started in a small way with six pupils. Oxy-acetylene welding is the most effective way of securing a perfect weld without any deleterious effect upon the metal.

The great heat needed for the purpose of uniting two or more pieces of metal so as to make of them an autogenous whole is obtained, in this process, by the burning of acetylene gas in conjunction with oxygen.

Carbide, looking like little lumps of granite, is placed in a tray at the bottom of the generator for acetylene gas, which is of the form of a small portable gasometer. The tap, admitting water to the carbide trays, is turned on, and gas at once generates, and forces up the generator in the way so familiar to those who often see a gasometer. This gas passes through a tube to the blow-pipe of the welder, or to any other use for which it is destined.


In oxy-acetylene welding, the process employs the flame produced by the combustion in a suitable blow-pipe of oxygen and acetylene. When a light is applied to the nozzle of the pipe a yellow flame, a foot long, flares up, and in the centre of it, close to the nozzle, appears a very small, dazzling, bluish flame, which can only safely be gazed upon by eyes protected by coloured glasses. The temperature of this flame at the apex is about 6,300 degrees Fahr., and it is with this that the metals to be welded together are brought to a suitable degree of heat.

The workers' eyes are protected by black goggles, their hair confined by caps or handkerchiefs, and overalls or leather-aprons protect their clothes from the sparks and also from the smuts which naturally accrue on surrounding objects. Each welder holds in her right hand the blow-pipe of the craft, from which depends two long flexible tubes, one conducting oxygen from the tall cylinder in the corner, and the other acetylene from the generator. In her left hand she holds the welding-stick of soft Swedish iron, from which tiny molten drops fall upon the glowing edges of the metal to be welded together. The work is fascinating even to the onlooker, and to see the result, metal so welded you feel it is impossible it ever could have been two pieces, is still more fascinating.

The first welders triumphantly passed their tests and gave every satisfaction in the factory, and the training went on and the School was enlarged.

The oxy-acetylene welders turned out by this School have gone all over the country and 220 were trained and placed in the first year. Those selected were, with few exceptions, educated women, which was undoubtedly a material factor in the success of their work. This School opened training to women and welding is now taught to women in many of our Technical Schools. A class in Elementary Engineering has also been carried on by Women's Service with great success and the women placed in workshops.

The Ministry of Munitions has also arranged, in conjunction with the London County Council and other Educational Authorities, to have free munition training for women at every centre in the Kingdom. The courses vary from six to nine weeks and maintenance grants are paid during the period of training.

In October, 1915, the Central Labour Supply Committee which dealt with women's and men's conditions, issued certain recommendations in Circular L.2. These dealt with the conditions and rates of pay of women and fully skilled and unskilled men. The provision of this much-discussed circular that affected women doing skilled work was in Clause 1, which provides that "Women employed on work customarily done by fully skilled tradesmen shall be paid the time rates of the tradesman whose work they undertake."

These provisions were then only binding on the Government establishments, and could not be enforced by the Ministry of Munitions in controlled establishments. On December 31, 1915, a conference was held between the Prime Minister, the Minister of Munitions and representatives of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, when an agreement in regard to "dilution" was arranged. Circular L. 2 was adopted at this conference as the basis of the undertaking given by the Ministry in regard to dilution of labor. An employer under it can be punished as contravening the Munitions Act if he fails to carry out the direction of the Minister. The power of enforcing the provisions of L. 2 were acquired in January, 1916, and it is quite obvious that in this circular a principle of the greatest importance to men and women is laid down. Women were wholly averse to being "blacklegs" in industry.

The great work of "Dilution" in Munitions-and by dilution we mean the use in industry of unskilled, semi-skilled and woman labor, so that highly skilled men may not be used except for the most important work-is done by the Dilution Department of the Ministry of Munitions, which issues Dilution of Labour Bulletins and Process Sheets periodically, showing the work women are doing. A series of exhibitions of women's work have also been arranged by the Technical Section of the Labour Supply Department in all the big towns in England. In Sheffield over 16,000 people came to see the Exhibition-the largest number of these being foremen and workmen sent by their firms.



The Exhibitions consist of two main sections, one of which shows actual samples of munitions made by women, and the other of photographs of women doing work on apparatus or processes that could not be shown. A complete Clerget engine, for instance, was lent by the Air Board to illustrate the final assembly of the numerous parts of these engines being made wholly or partly by women. In the same way, many parts of complete Stokes Guns, Vickers Machine Guns and Service Rifles were exhibited. The exhibits were divided into fifteen groups. The first group dealing with engines for aircraft. The second group showed engines for motor cars, tanks, tractors, motor buses, motor lorries and motor vehicles.

A separate group consisted of a variety of accessories for internal combustion engines, including air pump for the Clerget engine, which is completely manufactured and assembled by women, largely under women supervision; and magnetos, a very important and accurate industry, before the war largely in German hands, of which women now undertake the entire manufacture.

The fourth

group dealt with steam engines, including details of locomotives, high speed engines, steam winches, and steam turbines.

The next two groups dealt respectively with guns and components and with small arms.

The next three groups included gauges, drills, cutters, punches and dies, trucks, jigs, tap pieces and general tool-room work. The gauges included plug, ring, cylinder and screw gauges to the closest degrees of accuracy, which in practice are verified by the rigid inspection of the National Physical Laboratory.

A fair illustration of the accuracy that is habitually required in a large volume of work is to be seen in the final gauging and inspection of a screw gauge for a fuse, in which the women inspectors were described in the catalogue as examining these screws by an optical projection apparatus, magnifying fifty times, with the help of which the inspector notes the defects in size and form, and the necessary corrections.

The cutting tools included sets of cutters for the manufacture of shells, as well as twist drills, reamers, milling cutters, gear cutters, screwing dies, taps and lathe tools. Some of this work is of high accuracy, and a set of solid screwing dies has the particular interest that almost all the operations are carried out by women after they have been in the shop for a fortnight. The general tool-room work included an exhibit of seventy-one punches and dies for cartridge making. Another set of dies was shown for small-arms ammunition, and specimens were also exhibited of chucks, die-heads and other work.

Two other groups dealt with the metal fittings and wooden structural parts of aircraft, and to see girls work on these is intensely interesting-anything more fragile looking and more beautiful than the long uncovered wing it would be difficult to find. A notable feature of the metal group was a number of parts that are marked off from drawings by women working under a woman charge-hand, and themselves making their own scribing-templates when necessary. Many examples of welding work were also shown.

There were Optical Munitions and medical and surgical glass and X-ray tubes made entirely by women, and the Exhibitions record the progress of women in Munitions in the most wonderful and striking way.

Mr. Ben. H. Morgan, Chief Officer, in a recent speech on Munitions and Production said:

"Labor had to be found to staff the thousands of factories in which this stupendous production was to be carried out, and it has been possible to find it only by subdividing work closely, and entrusting a large variety of machinery and fitting to women, with the help of the fullest possible equipment of jigs and all available appliances for mechanically defining and facilitating the work, and of instruction by skilled men. By this means an output has been obtained that will compare favorably with that of any class of workers in any country. Comparing, for instance, our women's figures of output on certain sizes of shell and types of fuses with those of men in the United States, I found recently that the women's machining times were not only as good but in many cases better than those of men in some of the best organized American shops.

"This is an extraordinary result to have been obtained from women who, for the most part, had never known either the work or the discipline of factory life, and were wholly unused to mechanical operations. More than one circumstance has doubtless contributed to making it possible; but it is my assured conviction that foremost among the incentives by which women have been helped has been their constant thought of their flesh and blood, their husbands, brothers, sons, sweethearts, in the trenches. I know a typical example in a Yorkshire mother, who early in the war sent her only son to the fighting line. The lad was a skilled mechanic, and she took his place at his lathe in the Leeds shops where he worked. She is not only keeping this job going, but her output on the job she is doing is a record for the whole country."

The women workers' productions has been admirable and is steady and continues so. The Manchester Guardian of November 15, 1915, astounded women and men alike by its announcement that "figures were produced in proof of the very startling assertion that the output of the women munition workers is slightly more than double that of men."

In the latest Dilution of Labour Bulletin this is recorded:


"A firm in the London and South Eastern district making propellers for aeroplanes has recently begun the employment of women, and the results are exceeding all expectations. As an instance it is reported that five women are now doing the work of scraping, formerly done by six men, with an increase of 70 per cent in output."

The way in which managers, foremen and skilled men have trained and helped the women and work with them cannot be too highly praised-the success of "dilution"-the ability of women to help their country in this way, was only possible through the good will and co-operation of our great Trade Unions and skilled men.

Women supervisors and examiners are trained at Woolwich, and the first of these were found by "Women's Service," and we find women control and manage large numbers of women in the big works extremely well. One girl of twenty-three, the daughter of a famous engineer, is controlling the work of 6,000 women who are working on submarines, guns, aircraft, and all manner of munitions.

One great engineer who believes in women and women's future in engineering has started what we might term an engineering college for women.

He has built a model factory away in the hills "somewhere in Scotland" with four tiers of ferro-cement floors. It is built with the idea of taking 300 women students and eight months after it opened, it had sixty women students. It is a factory entirely for women, run by, and to a large extent managed by women, with the exception of two men instructors. In the ground floor the girls are working at parts of high power aeroplane engines, under their works superintendent, a woman who took her Mathematical Tripos at Newnham College, and was lecturer at one of our girls' public schools. The women rank as engineer apprentices and their hours are forty-four a week. The first six months are probationary with pay at 20/- ($5) a week, and the students are doing extremely well.

"Women are now part and parcel of our great army," said the Earl of Derby, on July 13, 1916, "without them it would be impossible for progress to be made, but with them I believe victory can be assured."


Mr. Asquith, too, has paid his tribute to the woman munition maker and to others who are doing men's work. In a memorable speech on the Second Reading of the Special Register Bill, he admitted that the women of this country have rendered as effective service in the prosecution of the war as any other class of the community. "It is true they cannot fight in the gross material sense of going out with rifles and so forth, but they fill our munition factories, they are doing the work which the men who are fighting had to perform before, they have taken their places, they are the servants of the State and they have aided in the most effective way in the prosecution of the war."

Our munition women are in the shipyards, the engineering shops, the aeroplane sheds, the shell shops, flocking in thousands into the cities, leaving homes and friends to work in the munition cities we have built since the war. When our great arsenals and factories empty, women pour out in thousands. Night and day they have worked as the men have and it has been no easy or light task. We know that still more will be demanded of us, but we think, as our four million men do, that these things are well worth doing for the freedom of the souls of the nations.

In the munition factories that feeling and conviction burns like a flame and the enemy who thinks to demoralize our men and our women by bombing our homes and our workshops finds the workers, men and women, only made more determined.

The women handle high explosives in the "danger buildings" for ten and a half hours in a shift, making and inserting the detonating fuses, where a slip may result in their own death and that of their comrades. Working with T.N.T. they turn yellow-hands and face and hair-and risk poisoning. They are called the "canary girls," and if you ask why they do it they will tell you it isn't too much to risk when men risk everything in the trenches-and sometimes the one they cared for most is in a grave in France or on some other front, and they "carry on."

The Prime Minister paid a tribute to munition makers in one of his speeches when he said:

"I remember perfectly well when I was Minister of Munitions we had very dangerous work. It involved a special alteration in one element of our shells. We had to effect that alteration. If we had manufactured the whole thing anew it would have involved the loss of hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition at a time when we could not afford it. But the adaptation of the old element with a fuse is a very dangerous operation, and there were several fatal accidents. It was all amongst the women workers in the munition factories; there was never a panic. They stuck to their work. They knew the peril. They never ran away from it."

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