Women's Contribution to the War Effort

Gail Braybon

I think many women did find the war a genuinely liberating experience. It was very important to them that they were actually supporting the war effort, although lots of them didn't really think much about what the war was about. They knew that their friends, relations, husbands, sons were abroad. They were dying. There was a shell shortage. And, they felt they really could do something to support the war effort. So, it was very exciting for a lot of them.

There were two main dangers to women munitions workers. The first was simply from explosions. Obviously, if you're working with all these dangerous materials it's very important to keep all sparks, or possibility of sparks, away from the area. And, there were several big explosions in various factories around the country, the biggest one being Silvertown, and women were killed. It's very difficult to know quite how many women were killed because all this was subject to censorship during the war. So, that there were the immediate dangers of an industrial accident and injury, and lesser injuries as well. I mean, women cut their fingers, got grit in their eyes, and experienced noxious fumes from all sorts of processes. But, the other really major danger to women -- which was very much hushed up at the time -- was from T.N.T. T.N.T. turned women yellow. I mean they absorbed it through their skin and they breathed it in. Most descriptions of T.N.T. poisoning during the time implies that, oh well, you just went yellow and you're hair went orange, you came off work for a few weeks; you ate well, drank milk, and you got better. But, in fact, T.N.T. was much more dangerous than that. And, even if you didn't die, you could be seriously ill for a long time. So, this was something which most women didn't realize until it happened to them or their friends. They were told that it wasn't dangerous. And, then they discovered later that they did get quite sick from it.

The scale of the war meant that far more men either volunteered or were later called up. I think the country was used to the idea of a professional army which would go and sort things out. And, therefore, women who were married to ordinary men, who were married to men who had no wish to be soldiers, would have thought that wars were happening quite detached from ordinary life. But, the minute you actually have ordinary men (not soldiers volunteering) to go abroad and to die for their country, it's worse because they didn't want to go and die for their country but they had to. It's quite different for their families. These are not women who've married soldiers; they're women who've married ordinary men, and their men are taken away to fight. But, also the whole atmosphere of the war was quite different from earlier wars. Its scale meant that, it affected food supplies. It affected supplies of all kinds of goods in this country. It was quite obvious that women had to fulfill a new role in all sorts of jobs or the war couldn't have been fought. Women knew that they were important to the war. I think the way they actually coped with the fact they were making weapons of death varied from woman to woman. Some of them just cut it off from their home experience. They didn't want to think about it. Others actually felt they were making things which would bring the war to a close much faster.

Interview from the PBS series The Great War