[from 'Our Girls' 1916]



WE have always been proudly conscious of what the sons of Britain have been doing at the Front. But is it not time we realized, not merely in abstract phrases or yet definite figures, but vividly, tangibly, and as by the evidence of our own eyes, what the daughters of Britain are doing at home ? To do this we must get close to the mighty army of women in our munition factories, and we cannot do better than take a first sight of them at their work at Woolwich. The enemy knows Woolwich, where and what it is, therefore there can be no danger of revealing secrets.

But though the vast Arsenal is at our own doors few of us who sleep in London, under the broad shadow of its wings, have any real sense of its colossal presence, its immense significance, the tremendous force it stands for. Its origin dates back to the days of other wars, but when the present war began its workers were only fourteen thousand in all, without a woman of their number. Now there are nearly seventeen thousand women within its high walls, and fifty thousand men besides.

But that is not all. Notwithstanding its fierce reality, Woolwich is a symbol rather than a geographical expression. To that centre on the Thames, three and a half miles by two and a half, with its numberless workshops, its endless avenues, and its hundred and twenty miles of internal railway, there radiate the activities of scores of associate factories round about, so that thirty thousand workers more, chiefly women (ninety-seven thousand in all), are feeding this almost fathomless reservoir. Woolwich is a great mechanical octopus, with arms that reach over, across and around London and the country about it.

Has the world ever witnessed a mightier example of human force ? To think of the building of the Pyramids of Egypt is to fill the mind's eye with visions of innumerable armies of labourers, like trains of human ants, conveying gigantic masses of stone across the desert from the quarries of the Mokattam Hills to the plains of Mena. But Woolwich is a yet greater and more awesome vision than that, especially now, at this very moment, though we who walk the neighbouring streets of the metropolis think so little about it.

By permission of Mr. Montague, the Minister of Munitions, and with his approval, we are at the gates of the great Arsenal. The space outside is a square of irregular shape, to which many streets are converging, like rivers running to the mouth of an estuary. The rivers are always flowing. The scene reminds us of the human tide outside the gate of an Eastern city, and if less picturesque it is more urgent. Electric cars come clanging along the busy thoroughfares, stop, discharge people who are going in at the gates, take up others who are coming out. Outside the rails stand the town police ; inside wait the police of the Arsenal. You are challenged, questioned, summoned to a neighbouring lodge to present your credentials and register your name, a guide is assigned to you (or perhaps the Chief Superintendent himself undertakes your direction) and you begin on your tour of inspection.

It is difficult at first to realize where you are, so complete is the change from the world you have left without. You are walking between two lines of old guns on their gun-carriages, many of them broken, splintered, shattered, all red with rust or encrusted with hard-baked mire. They are back from the front for repair, with the scars of battle on their faces, and for a moment you could well believe you are walking, not in Woolwich, but among the batteries on the other side of the sea.

Before going into the women's workshops you are taken to the forges of the men, for it is impossible to come to Woolwich without seeing the awful basilicas of bridled force in which the mammoth guns are created. Here is one of them, a vast place, as big as Albert Hall. A colossal Nasmyth hammer with a blow of forty tons is pounding on a thick block of white-hot steel. First, a gentle tap to make sure of position, and then a thunderous thud that makes the earth quake beneath your feet, and gives you the sickening sense in your stomach which you may have experienced at the rumbling approach of a great eruption.

A few moments later you are in another vast forge, but here there is nearly no noise and hardly any motion. A gigantic press of four thousand tons' power is drilling a hole through another enormous block of white-hot metal. The great thing seems almost as large as the fašade of St. Mark's at Venice, and not unlike it in form, though stark and black. Under its open arch, without a sound, or the appearance of a hand to guide them, and with a motion that is almost ghost-like, the great anvils, with their burning freights, glide into position. A score of stalwart men, stripped to the waist, stand round with long iron rods and pincers. They push a thick black ring of apparently cold metal on to the top of the white-hot block. One man stands under a huge clock with his hand on a lever. No one speaks. There is scarcely a sound. Presently there comes slowly down as from the key-stone of the monster machine, a shining column of steel. It reaches the black ring, presses down on it, descends without a pause to the white-hot block, rests on top of it for a moment, there is a thud as of something falling into a pit beneath, and then the column rises, the arch is reopened, and the ring has disappeared, having passed through the metal and dropped to the ground below. The sense of silent, irresistible, oceanic, almost motionless power has left you breathless. After another few minutes you are in the smelting houses. Here are lines of furnaces, some locked, but with gleams of imprisoned fire looking out at you from the interstices of the shutters like ferocious eyes; some open and pouring out liquid metal into moulds in blue and yellow flame. Then there are huge ovens, from whose glittering depths, lit as by thousands of electric lamps, long ribbons of red-hot steel are being drawn at the ends of pincers by half-stripped men with the sweat pouring down their blackened faces. Then smithies, where shells in their earliest processes are being shaped, under fire and hammer, from rough blocks of metal into round things with noses, and flung off from the cranes of anvils to roll away and cool. And then underground pits of fire from which sinuous tongues of manycoloured flame are escaping into the airreminding you, if you have travelled so far, of the boiling solfataras on the breast of Hecla, among which you have walked with fear, knowing that one false step might be fatal, or, perhaps, with the intoxicating fumes of sulphur in your nostrils, dropped to your knees and crawled.

But perhaps the most awesome of all sights in Woolwich is that of the big furnace-house for the manufacture of the U M steel. I think I have witnessed in various parts of the world many scenes of nature in her wrath-scenes of earthquake, eruption, tidal wave, geyser, and boiling river-but I doubt if I have ever been more awed, more moved, and in a sense more terrified, than by the spectacle here presented of the physical forces of nature chained and harnessed to the work of man. How can I, who have no mechanical science, convey a sense of it ? A huge, clay-coloured oven, shapeless like a wart, thirty to forty feet high, topped with an open mouth like the crater of a small volcano, belching out a thick column of hungry flame, which comes with a blast and roar as from the bowels of the earth, driven up by some frantic subterranean tempest, and scattering showers of blue stars in a ring about it. The light is so fierce that you put coloured glasses before your eyes to protect them ; the noise is so deafening that it drowns all human speech. And around the furnace stand the half-stark furnace-men, fifteen to twenty feet away, but within the radius of its sweltering heat, silhouetted even in the glistening light of the vast chamber against the white glare of the roaring oven.

At the first moment you lose consciousness of the actual purpose of this gigantic agent of man's will, and think of it instinctively as a great sacrificial altar to some pagan deity-some far more real and terrible upleaping of heavenly or hellish fire than ever struck down to their knees in worshipful awe the terrified multitudes before the altars of Pompeii.

But you are brought back to the reality of the modern world a few minutes later, when you cross to the shed in which the big guns, forged and finished, lie resting for a while before their removal to the shipyards and the front. The gigantic things are almost beautiful in their sleek and shiny blue-black coats. Eight of their kind may protrude from the decks of a great battleship like the Queen Elizabeth, and, as the round breech of one of them is swung back, like the door of a safe, and you look down the shining and tapering barrel to the far-off mouth, it is easy to imagine that the grey waters of the North Sea are heaving beyond it, while the enemy ships are lying on the edge of the horizon, in their low visibility against a misty sky.

Nor is your spell broken, though the scene of your vision is changed, when you look up to the hundred-ton crane, wide as the Strand, that will soon lift these mammoth creatures into the cradles that will carry them away (and is now rolling over your head to the bell-like clangour of its swinging chains) and see above it, through the darkening air, for the day is now fading, the light coming from the glass roof of the lofty, iron-framed shed as from the open top of some Roman temple.

Surely this, and such as this, is a scene proper for man's work only-for man's muscle, man's naked and blackened body, man's brain and man's nerve alone. Every instinct of our nature revolts against the thought that woman, with the infinitely delicate organization which provides for her maternal functions, should under any circumstances whatever take part in the operations such scenes require. And just as we feel that our men only may do work like this, so we must see at the swiftest glance that to any question of which of our men should do it there can be one answer only-the skilled and brawny men who can do it best. Once cross the threshold of the places I have attempted to describe, and there can be no test for the workers but one test - capacity. Capacity to fight this mighty battle with natural forces, and compel them to obey man's will ; capacity to turn out the largest number and most perfect specimens of guns and shells. Man-power for the field, yes ; but manpower for the forges also. To forget that in this hour would be fatal.

But Woolwich has a world of operations that are entirely suitable to women, and in a few minutes more we are in the midst of them. Here is a new shop, entirely operated by women, having been built for them since the beginning of the war. The vast place covers an area which is apparently as great as that of Trafalgar Square. Two thousand women are here, and there is room for three thousand in all. Innumerable lathes, generally of small size, cover the cemented floor, with pulleys and wheels spinning in the air above them. It is a dense forest of machinery, pulsing and throbbing and whirring and tossing as from some unseen storm.

There is at first something so incongruous in the spectacle of women operating masses of powerful machinery (or, indeed, any machinery more formidable than a sewing-machine), that for a moment, as you stand at the entrance, the sight is scarcely believable. But you go in and move around and after a while the astonishing fact seems perfectly natural. Although most of the machines in this shop are small, some are large and a few are alarming. Here is a slip of a girl working one of the latter kind, a huge thing that has two large wheels like mill-wheels revolving at either side of her, and though she looks like a child in the jaws of some great black monster, she does not seem to be the least afraid. Here is another young girl who is feeding a round disc with bits of metal that look like discoloured farthings, and as her own particular Caliban eats them up it utters from its interior a hoarse grunt that hits you like a blow on the brain, yet she does not seem to hear.

But most of the work done by the women looks simple enough, and seems perfectly natural to their sex, although it has always hitherto been done by men. One woman is turning base plates for shells on a turret lathe. Another is cutting copper bands for shells from tubes. Another is pressing the copper bands into their places. Yet another is riveting brass plugs on to high explosive shell bodies. Some are drilling the holes through the six-inch shells. Others are rough turning the shell surfaces. And yet others are gauging and parting off the bodies of the huge, eightinch high explosives. Many are making shell fuses, a task in which women have become amazingly proficient, and many more are at work at the inspection board, where, being trained to the use of one gauge only, they have developed an efficiency to which men have never attained. All this sounds portentous in description, but at close quarters it looks astonishingly simple. The machines themselves seem almost human in their automatic intelligence, and, if you show a proper respect for their impetuous organisms, they are not generally cruel. So the women get along very well with them, learning all their ways, their whims, their needs and their limitations. It is surprising how speedily the women have wooed and won this new kind of male monster.

The vast workshop we are walking in is laid out on a simple methodical plan. The lathes are ranged in regular lines along the length of the place, with alleyways, called streets, between them. A few of the lathes seem to work almost automatically, and to require little or no attention, but before each of the other machines a woman stands to start, stop, feed and control it. Sometimes her machine goes wrong, a strap breaks or a tool wears out, and then a male mechanic, known as a setter, steps up to set it right. Sometimes it requires more than a woman's muscle to master it, and then a male labourer has to be called to pull the crank or turn the lever. In cross streets forewomen sit at desks, or walk to and fro at the heads of their sections, while up and down the alleyways the under-forewomen with their account books pass from operator to operator to take tally of the work that has been done.

All the women wear the same uniform, a khaki-coloured overall girdled at the waist, and a cap of the shape of a bathingcap. This is in the interests of safety, lest the dress or the hair of the operator should be caught in the pulleys and belts of the machinery; but it has the further and not altogether negligible advantage, in the eyes of the male creature, of being extremely becoming. If there is any man in London who can pass through the workshops of Woolwich without thinking he has been looking at some thousands of the best-looking young women in the world, it is certainly not the present writer. Their hard work does not seem to be doing much harm to their health, for their eyes are bright, their cheeks are fresh, and there is hardly any evidence of fatigue among them. The clamorous and deafening noise of the machinery, its jar and whirr and clank, which makes your temples throb, sings (after their first days in the factory) like music in their ears and they would miss it if it stopped. They work day and night, in two shifts of twelve hours each, with a break of an hour for dinner and half an hour for tea. Their pay, which is by the piece, is generally large, the minimum being, I think, a pound a week, and the maximum five to seven pounds.

But you realize that the lure of money is not the sole or yet the chief magnet that draws women to work for the war when you leave this immense workshop for the sinister-looking sheds in which the finished shells are filled. Everybody knows that a shell is not merely a lump of dead steel, but a living reservoir of compounds which have been brought up from the bowels of the earth and transformed into terrible explosives. Everybody knows, too, that somewhere the womb of the shell has to be loaded with its deadly charge. Therefore there ought not to be any question of exciting public alarm (there is no reasonable cause for it) or any fear of betraying a secret to the enemy (it is no secret) if, as evidence of the moral and physical courage of the daughters of Britain, and as an example of the bravest single thing woman does for the war, I describe the scene of what is known as the danger zone at Woolwich.

This section of the Arsenal is at some distance from the factories and we drive to it in a motor-car. The day has closed in by now, the darkness has fallen, and the moon is rising. We travel over a kind of marsh to a promontory that seems to have the river running about it. The long stretch of dark road is jealously watched. At one moment the car stops and the face of a guard appears at the window. He asks for any matches, cigarettes and knives we may carry about with us. After we have emptied our pockets of such combustibles our car is permitted to proceed. There is another long stretch of dark road (between wooden sheds, probably magazines for the storage of munitions) which reminds us of the rutted ways through the log-built villages on the steppes of Russia, and then we draw up at an open door from which the pale red of electric light is streaming.

A moment later we are in the women's cloak-room, with its rails (all full) for coats and hats. Here we take off our super fluous clothing, for the night is warm, and at a low footboard, which is the boundary-line of the safety and danger zones, put rubber shoes over our boots, lest the grit of the streets should strike fire from something within. And then, feeling as we felt when we walked, in Oriental slippers, into the Mosque of Omar on the site of the Temple of Solomon, we pass into a far more impressive and tremendous scene.

It is a broad encampment of small, one-story wooden houses or huts, separated from each other by a liberal space, and having wide streets between, with raised causeways on either side. Down the middle of the streets are lines of hooded and darkened lamps, at long and unequal intervals. But the streets here are not for traffic. Within this zone there is hardly a sound or sign of motion. The moon is now shining, and in the distance, under its slow-growing light, we see the shadowy figures of women workers in their khaki gowns and caps, moving noiselessly about like nuns. We could almost imagine that, out of the noise and tumult, the thud and roar of the forges behind us, with their tall chimneys show ing black against the steel-grey sky, we have passed into the calm rest and silent atmosphere of some open-air convent.

A Zeppelin might drop a bomb on this noiseless place without doing much mischief. But what of the peril within itself, and the courage required to work in it We walk along our causeway until we come to one of the detached wooden huts. The door is open (for fresh air is wanted), and electric light is streaming out of it. A dozen women are sitting within at two oblong tables, weighing and measuring out in little brass scales, like a chemist's, with all the care of apothecaries, small quantities of black, green, yellow and bluish powder (which recall in their volcanic colouring the lakes of Kruisivik and the pits of Caltanasetta), and then pouring them into the open mouths of half-empty shells that stand upright by their sides. They talk very little-indeed hardly at all. Perhaps their work requires all their attention; perhaps their spirits are under the spell of the deadly things they are dealing with. Some of them are wearing over their mouths and nostrils light green veils that are like the veils of Arab women inverted; others, in their indifference to danger, have tucked their respirators into their waistbands, and are working with nostrils and mouths exposed.

It is not for long we can bear to look on a scene like this, so fearfully charged with spiritual as well as physical tragedy, and when we step back to the causeway out-side we breathe more freely. It is still very quiet. The moonlight is now shining clear on the wraith-like figures which are moving silently to and fro in their rubber slippers. The river must be somewhere near, for we can hear the syrens of the steamers that are sailing by, and sometimes the lap of the running waters. We have a sense, too, of the imminent presence of the great city that is unseen and unheard from here, though not far away. Its tumultuous life must now be at high tide of early evening, with its darkened but crowded thoroughfares, its hurrying taxis, its glimmering theatres, its surging rail way stations and its faces, faces, faces everywhere. And is it only an effect of the strained and perhaps disordered con dition of one's nerves, at sight of these brave and fearless women filling with deadly explosives the shells that are soon to batter down the trenches of the enemy who lies in wait behind them to kill their husbands and lovers on the battle-field, that as one stands in the breathless silence of this sombre spot, one thinks one hears the low, deep, far-off, booming of the great guns across the sea ?

For centuries the spirit of mankind has knelt at the feet of its great creators, its Miltons and its Dantes, in awe of their awful imaginings. But what are the highest reaches of the imaginative mind compared with the realities of that mightiest of all tragic poets-War ?

  Back index next  

Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2018