War history: Joining the war gave the Suffragette’s a sense of independence and even equality with their male counterparts

Munition workers

Munition workers - Credit: Archant

Contrary to popular belief, when war was declared in 1914 and Kitchener raised his call to arms, although the euphoria of patriotism was very much in evidence not all young men rushed to their local recruiting office to join up and do their bit for King and Country.

Poster advertising for munition workers

Poster advertising for munition workers - Credit: Archant

Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, had the foresight to believe the war would not indeed “be over by Christmas” and would be long and protracted. In order to counteract the diminution in lives he believed industrialised warfare would bring, he set about raising a citizen army.

Many men rushed to join up, especially from industrial areas where work was low paid and involved long hours. Some joined from a sense of patriotism but many joined hoping military service would give them a higher rate of pay, three square meals a day and, for some, the first set of clothes not handed down by elder siblings.

This was not the case in all spheres of occupation. Many men who were miners or dock workers experienced the luxury of a rate of pay that was, on the whole, higher than the daily rate they could expect from joining up. Therefore by July 1916 the average enlistment from these two industries was 5 percent under the average for all occupations.

Having said that, the vast majority of men did rush to the call to arms and by September 1914 recruitment of young men across the country was well under way.

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Early in the 20th century women increasingly demanded the right to vote, right up until the start of the First World War, they still had no voting rights.

Demonstrations held by women, or Suffragettes as they became known, were often frowned upon, at times violent and a cause of concern for the Government. When war was declared, the majority of Suffragettes swung behind the Government in the belief they could best promote their cause by demonstrating patriotism in the national emergency and supporting the call for recruits.

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The rush to get to the front meant many industries were left without key workers. Women were not averse to work, they already worked in factories in the nursing sector and in various households albeit, predominantly, at a lower wage than their male counterparts. By filling the gap in industry, the First World War for the first time opened doors and provided opportunities for many women giving them a sense of independence and, in some cases, equality with their male counterparts.

Early in the war, the United Kingdom’s munitions industry found itself having difficulty producing the amount of weapons and ammunition needed by the country’s armed forces. In response to the crisis, known as the Shell Crisis of 1915, the British Government passed the Munitions of War Act to increase Government oversight and regulate the industry. The newly created Ministry of Munitions regulated wages, hours and employment conditions in the munitions factories.

It also forced the factories to admit more women because so many of the nation’s men were engaged in fighting and male labour was in short supply. By the summer of 1917 roughly 80% of the weaponry and ammunition used by the British army during the war was made by women.

Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies in Ipswich employed 2,000 women on munitions work, making 690 planes in its support for the war effort. Notably Ransomes also produced the Stokes Mortar, named after Wilfred Stokes, Chairman and Managing Director. Greets in Bury St Edmunds produced hundreds of aircraft radiators and further afield Boulton Paul in Norwich was a major producer of the Sopwith Camel.

For many women factory work was hard involving long hours and indeed dangerous conditions, especially for those employed in the Shell Filling Factories where they could be exposed to toxic substances. Regular handling of explosives earned them the nickname Canaries as their skin and hair turned yellow, as emphasised by one munition worker.

“It was all bright ginger, all our front head, and all our faces were bright yellow. They used to call us canaries. This doctor was looking at us girls one day and said: ‘Half of you girls will never have babies and the other half is too sick. God help you!’”

Yet for the first time women felt they were really doing their bit for the war effort, they had money of their own, fashion changed and eyebrows were raised as women began to wear trousers instead of cumbersome skirts and for those women working in the remount depots, training and preparing horses for war it would be the first time they would ride astride their chargers instead of side saddle.

For those who were unable to work, knitting socks and mittens for the troops became an almost national obsession and virtually every community had its own knitting clubs.

Society for both men and women started to change as a result of the First World War. Class barriers would, to an extent, gradually be broken down as everyone pulled their weight and did their bit.

Many of these women signed up “for the duration” and simply did not want to go back to their pre-war lives. By 1918 approximately 1,600,000 had joined the work force. Without their contribution in the factories, in the offices, on the land and in almost all walks of life it is hard to see how Britain could have sustained and armed her fighting force overseas.

Would you like to organise your own bespoke group visit to the Western Front? Visit Galloway’s website to find out more.

You can also follow our battlefields feed on Twitter @GallowayBattles or you can find our battlefield tour reports on the Galloway Travel Facebook pageSee more on Ipswich’s war effort here

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