[from 'Our Girls' 1916]
WE can never be sufficiently grateful for what the great towns of the country have done towards the output of munitions. But it is only as it should be that London, which is the soul of the Empire, is its right arm also. Let us try to form an idea of what the women of the Metropolis are doing for the war by making a rapid tour of some of the asso ciate factories which feed the great Arsenal of Woolwich. Only an imperfect survey is possible, for a tour like this is sufficient to show that in point of size London is the greatest city of the modern or perhaps of the ancient world, compared with which Carthage was probably a village and Athens a suburb, and even old Rome not much bigger than Battersea. We will begin at seven in the even ing at the gates of Woolwich, where the workers are changing shift. Seventy thousand of them of both sexes are passing in and out in two great streams, like the Rhône and the Saône at Lyons, one quiet and of equal speed, the other (the out going one) loud and urgent. The female workers, now in their outdoor costumes, are recognizable as the women we see in the streets, many of them apparently recruited from domestic service, but not a few out of offices and shops.
Crossing the river, we find the streets crowded with women. The electric cars, like long trains, are full of them. Some are returning to their homes, others are going to their work. One wonders what the ancient world, whose utmost idea of female labour seems to have been covered by the scenes of Ruth gleaning in the fields, or Rachel feeding her flocks, and then returning to her house at nightfall to lie soft and warm, or gather her children about her knee, would have thought of the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of the daughters of Britain on their way to the factories in which they are to work all night.
It is a dark and rather sullen evening, without moon or stars, and as we drive to one of the northern heights of London we become aware of the long journeys through lonely thoroughfares, and even open gaps of country, which multitudes of the girls may have to make before they begin on their night shift. We have also time to reflect that a stronger impulse than the desire for large earnings must be operating with many to enable them to defy so much discomfort. This is not the first time that women have made munitions of war. For every war that has yet been waged women have supplied the first and greatest of all munitions men. There has never been a war on earth but women have borne the heaviest weight of it. There has never been a battlefield but the flesh and blood of women have been lying among the slain. Therefore, consciously or unconsciously, the daughters of Britain may be answering some mysterious call of their sex in work ing all day and all night in the munition factories for the most glorious war in which Great Britain has ever been en gaged.
The associate factories of Woolwich have many forms of industry, and the first we call at is largely, though not exclusively, occupied in the making of cartridges. It is an immense place, cover ing an area of twenty acres and employing more than five thousand girls. You are perhaps surprised to see that paper plays an important part in the making of a shell. Large numbers of the girls are working machines that roll paper into hard, oblong tubes, some for use as cartridges, others as shell linings to receive the explosive. After what we have seen of women's work in steel and brass to shape the weapons of death this labour in paper seems almost tenderly proper to female hands.
But if such work makes less demand of robustious strength, it requires equal conscientiousness. Here is a young girl examining caps. Out of a boxful on the bench before her she scoops up as many as will drop into the holes of a small tray which is perforated like a colander. Then with a needle she flicks off, faster than the eye can follow her, the caps that have a scratch, a dot, a dent or such other defect as might prevent percussion. She works by the piece, receiving fivepence for each boxful. So small is the cap, and so buried will it presently be in the brass top of the cartridge, that if she scamps her work nobody may ever know -nobody, except the soldier at the front, when he is, perhaps, face to face with his enemy, and finds his rifle fail him after he has pulled the trigger. But the girl knows that, and she knows, too, that the soldier who may fall at the next instant under the enemy's more certain weapon may be her own brother or sweetheart.
The next factory we call at is engaged in the making of shot. It lies far out in the fields, and as we turn down the lane that leads to it we pass an obelisk to the memory of Warwick, the King-maker, who fought his last battle there and was slain. The earth around sleeps full of the dead who died with him that day, and over yonder, behind fires that burn through the darkness like blood-shot eyes, some of their daughters, down many centuries, are making deadlier weapons of war than Warwick's men ever knew.
It is practically an open-air industry, for the doors of the tent are thrown wide, the heat being great within. In long rows of vats that are like huge kitchen coppers, women are boiling lead and pouring it into the shot-moulds. They are older and, perhaps, coarser women who engage in this labour, and as you approach the tents, and see the scaly grey liquid ladled out, you find it impossible not to think of the witches in Macbeth, especially when the hair of one of the workers falls from its knot, and, in lifting her ladle, her gaunt figure sways across the light. A closer view brings tenderer feelings, for the elderly woman has a face such as Rembrandt loved to paint, seamed and scored with years of toil, and telling of children brought into the world in labour and sorrow, and then buried, perhaps, in infancy. You find that the poor old thing has lost her son in the war, that he was her breadwinner, and therefore she has had to begin again to work. It is perhaps the cruellest part of the ancient human tragedy she is living through, but there is a dark fire in her old heart still. "Yes, I'm cooking some pudding," she says, " for them as killed my Joe."
Our next call is at a filling factory, which has points of difference from the danger zone already described. It occupies a broad expanse of waste ground that used to be employed, long ago, I think, as a pleasure resort. Over the darkened ground-darker than ever on this dank and somewhat misty night the wraith-like figures of the girls in their overalls are moving to and fro. Inside one of the open-mouthed sheds a dozen girls are filling the paper containers with explosives. At the end of the shed there is a cauldron about five feet square, full of reddish-brown liquid, which is kept hot and seething by steam pipes beneath. One of the girls is stirring this sinister mess, while others come to her from time to time for supplies in a kind of two-handled kettle, from which they pour the liquid into the containers that stand upright in an aluminium mould on a long, low table. All the girls wear overalls and asbestos gloves, and some wear respirators, but most of them disregard the latter pre caution.
It is a weird scene, this silent encamp ment of detached huts, with the hum of the busy city round about it, and one of the great cemeteries of London lying cold and dark not far away. But if any- body thinks the women working in such places are in fear of their lives he makes a woeful error. Let nobody be afraid to speak of the filling factories, or talk of them as places not proper for women. If that were so we should have to put men into them, for their work is necessary and urgent. But I truly believe that the sense they give of the war being actually with us, not far off in a foreign country, is part of their fascination, their thrill and their power to attract female workers. One day a delicate-looking elderly lady, accompanied by a slight and obviously tenderly-nurtured girl of sixteen, called at the office of a filling factory and asked to see the manager. "I've lost both my sons in the war," she said, " and now I bring you my daughter-she is all I have left for my country."
We have a long drive to our next place of call, but the scene at the end is worth the journey. It is a factory for the making of the wooden boxes that carry the shells to the front. All the joiners are girls.
They are working the hand-saw, the circu lar-saw, the hand-plane, the machine plane, and are mortising and hammering the boxes into shape and splicing up their thick rope handles. Never was there a brighter scene. The girls seem to have a sense of doing big things with a blow and a swing-not tinkering with feminine trifles. They love their work. It is said that not long ago a theatrical company, playing a rather foolish revue, came to a neighbouring theatre, and some of the ladies of the chorus lodged at the same house with one of the female joiners. " I'm surprised at ye, my dears," said the munition girl, " kicking your legs over the footlights when you might be earning more money in our shop, and doing some thing for your country." " Well, that's worth thinking about," answered the ladies of the theatre ; and on the Friday night following the whole chorus presented themselves at the factory and were engaged.
But it is impossible to get away from the war-tragedy for long, and I am one of those who think it cowardly to attempt to do so. Our way to the next factory lies along a road that borders one of the sinuous reaches of the Thames, past the docks for the ships that bring foreign cattle. A few hours hence these dark ways will be noisy with the trundling of heavy lorries taking live cattle to the abattoirs and dead ones to Smithfield market, that the big, hungry monster, London, may be fed to-morrow. It is growing late, and the night air is misty and damp. We can scarcely see the waters of the river, though we can hear their wash as they run past the wharf-head to the sea. But we can plainly descry the dark outlines of a line of barges which are being tugged at long range up-stream. These spectre-like shapes are ammunition boats, carrying the filled charges we have seen to Woolwich. They bear a signal, often changed but always known to the initiated, warning other craft to keep clear.
It is a factory of a new kind we come to next. Not one vast chamber, but a number of small rooms in big, naked, unhomely houses such as you may have seen in some of the meaner towns of Galicia, where, before the war, people seemed to live and work in herds. The girls here are seamstresses, and many of them are plainly of Polish-Jewish origin. Their work is to make Batiste bags (like elongated finger-stalls of rubberized cotton) that are put into the shells, and also the gas-masks which the men now carry at the front. The gas-mask is a canvas hood such as the burial confraternities wear at funerals when they walk in pro cession through the streets of Rome, covering the head and neck and shoulders, but with eye-places made of transparent mica and an aluminium mouthpiece that filters the air before allowing it through. Looking at the comely, dark faces of the girls who are sewing these canvas hoods in their close workshops in the East End, one has visions of the ghoul-like figures of a line of infantry hacking at a barrier of barbed wire, running frantically up and down to find a gap in it, and falling, perhaps, under curtains of fire, but no longer, thank God, before clouds of the poisonous gas which used to burst the lungs and plunge down the throat like bars of burning steel.
Our way is now westward, past one of the great London hospitals, and through the dark zone of the city, which, thronged with millions by day, is nearly deserted during the night. It is eleven o'clock by this time, the theatres are emptying, the supper-rooms are filling, and London, with its lowered lights, is looking like old Cairo under its dark mantle of night, with the difference that taxis are hooting through the principal thoroughfares, and in the silence of some of the narrower streets, which flank the great railway stations, lines of ambulance wagons are waiting for their nightly toll of our wounded from the front.
The first factory we visit in the western area was formerly a motor factory. Its long garage is now half full of taxis which are lying up, but its workshops are breath lessly busy. They are chiefly occupied with the manufacture of the larger-sized shells, and are especially interesting as showing men and women working together. In a huge shop, which is pulsing and throbbing with machinery, seven hundred and fifty of them are face to face or side by side. It is a stirring sight. The women are generally of larger build than we have seen before, and some of them are superb specimens of virile woman hood. The men are of a big type too, for the work here wants strength. As far as one can see the sexes get on well together. Common interests and common labour seems to have brought them into friendly relations. Constant intercourse at work appears to have given the men a high opinion of women, of their steadiness and power to endure. In like manner the women seem to have come to a good under standing of the men, their helpfulness and unselfishness when at work. It looks like a brave fellowship, a fine camaraderie, and one hopes that long after the war it may continue to be a living reality. And let nobody suppose that to these men these women will be less desirable as wives because they have worked by their sides in soiled overalls with oily hands and even blackened faces. In an immortal passage an old Roman writer tells of how the wives of the men who built up the Roman greatness ground the swords of their warrior husbands, accompanied them to war, and exhorted them to deeds of valour. What else are these daughters of Britain doing ?
But here allow me to strike a note of warning. As in the march of humanity (or is it inhumanity?) the swords of modern warfare are generally shells, and shells are heavy bodies, it is impossible that women should make them without the help of men. Look, for example, at these two lathes standing back to back. A man and a woman work them in partnership, the man receiving five-eighths of the piecework pay, and the woman three eighths. They are roughing or drilling eight-inch shells. First the man lifts the shell into its place in one of the two machines, leaves the woman to watch it, and then crosses to the other machine, lifts another shell into its place, and stands by it himself. When the woman's shell has been roughed out or drilled she calls to the man, and he returns to it, lifts it off and substitutes another, while she, per haps, takes her partner's place at his lathe. Each of these eight-inch shells weighs something like a hundredweight. Attend ing to two machines, the woman's and his own, the man fixes and removes about one hundred of them twice in the course of his twelve hours' shift. Thus he has lifted ten tons a day ! And, if he works on Sunday also, seventy tons a week ! There are thousands of such men in the munition factories. I am not con cerned about who they are, whether they are of military age, or what brought them to the workshops. That is their business, not mine, and not even, I think, the State's. They are doing inevitable work that can only be done by broad loins and brawny muscles. And when people talk about removing them to the front and filling their places, either with women, assisted by cranes, or with other men who have been adjudged too old or too weak for military service, the natural man in me can only be appeased by one reply Don't talk damned nonsense.
The last of our visits to the munition factories of the London area is to a colossal place, whereof a portion was previously engaged in the manufacture of a musical instrument. We find vast numbers of women in the workshops here, chiefly occupied in the making of fuses. It is a delicate job in which an error of a thousandth of an inch is enough to scrap the work. The lathes are carefully set, so that errors may not occur, but the machine has never yet been made that is fool-proof. There is an inspection bench with lines of examiners from Woolwich, but the worker is well aware that in the last resort much must necessarily be left to her own conscience. She knows, too, that a faulty fuse may mean the blowing out of the breach-block, and the wounding or killing not of the enemy's men but our own.
The women have done almost miracu lous work in the munition factories, but they have their limitations, and it would be madness to forget it. The first of their limitations is want of physical strength, and the next their lack of long mechanical training. Here, for example, in one big shop, is a line of girls sitting idle for a quarter of an hour at their lathes, because the lusty labourer who lugs the heavy shell-bodies in his hand-bogey along their " street" is away sick for the half-day. Here, again, is a girl whose machine has been pulled up by the failure of a clutch, or, perhaps, for want of the tools which wear out quickly against the hard steel, and require frequent changing. In the tool-shop near by there are a hundred and fifty men, all skilled mechanics, having served seven years to their trade, and earning one-and-sixpence an hour. They have intricate drawings before them in white lines on blue paper, and are working with the precision and delicacy of the makers of watches and chronometers. The manager of their tool-shop is said to be one of the best mechanics in London, which means one of the best in Europe. He looks like five-and-thirty, and few of his men seem to be older. But let there be no talk of combing out men like these. Too many of their comrades enlisted at the beginning of the war, and are now lying under the sod in Flanders, and if you remove these men the women cannot be expected to replace them. Yet so closely co-ordinated, so deftly dovetailed, are the many processes in the manufacture of shells that if one process fails, or is even temporarily arrested, the long wave of production is broken and the output goes down.
It is approaching midnight, but so far as we can see there is no weariness any where. The girls look fresh and bright, in their blue overalls and caps, and when the steam-whistle is sounded at twelve for their midnight dinner, they fly off to their canteen amid a chatter of tongues like children let loose from school. We follow them down the dark ways outside, and find a beautiful picture. In an immense shed, well lit and admirably appointed both for warmth and colour, three thousand of the blue-capped girls are eating at cross tables, and of course talking in linnet-like chorus as only three thousand girls can. When their meal is over they have a delightful surprise. A famous singer, with the splendid generosity of her class, has come down after her work at one of the concert halls to sing to the girls who are working all night for her country. The girls are overjoyed. And what an audience they are ! Never has a singer had a more glorious reception. Very wisely she selects the simple ballads familiar to everybody, and she has her reward. Only three thousand working girls, yes, but that means three thousand human hearts capable of being filled to over-flowing. What more does any artist want ?
And now I come to an incident which moves me more, perhaps, than any single thing that has ever fallen with my experi ence. I pledge myself to the general truthfulness of the fundamental part of the story I am about to tell, though for good and sufficient reasons I do not vouch for the details, or indicate in any way the scene of the incident I describe.
We are in a large munition factory within the broad circle of what may be described as the London area. It is somewhat later than twelve o'clock at night. The vast shops are humming and pulsing and throbbing with machinery; several thousands of girls, fresh from their midnight dinner, are working with good cheer; the labourers are bringing their trolleys up " the street," and the setters are moving about the lathes. Suddenly the hooter is sounded. It is sounded twice. The girls know what that means the Zeppelins are coming !
We wonder if there will be a panic, and a few shrill cries in the first moments give hint of gathering hysteria, with here and there the laughterless laugh that sometimes goes before a fainting fit. But at the next instant one of the managers, a manly fellow with a knowledge of female nature, shouts in a loud, encouraging, yet com manding voice, " Now, girls, sing some thing! " It is an inspiration. The word acts like magic. One of the women strikes up, "If you were the only boy and I were the only girl." Before she has reached the second line all the girls in her shop have joined her, some in full voice, others in the quavering tones that tell of still trembling hearts. It is thrilling; the situation is saved. After another few moments the machinery slows down, the pulleys and belts begin to stop, the lights are put out, and the whole factory is plunged in darkness. It is safe enough now.
We feel our way through the big room into the adjoining workshop. There the foreman, with no less prescience, has pulled out a gramophone, turned on a " rag-time," and the girls (having more open space) are dancing a two-step. The darkness seems to be full of the drumming of innumerable feet, punctuated at inter vals by little nervous shouts and trills of laughter.
We reach the lift and are taken on to the flat roof of the factory. It is pitch dark up there. The night is still misty and dank. Not a sign of anything on the earth or in the sky. Clearly the authori ties have given timely warning. While we wait for the Zeppelins which are approaching our metropolis, we can hear the deadened beat of the dancing below, and the sound of the singing that is creeping up the walls from the open windows.
The factory is a very lofty one, and from the roof one may look over nearly the whole of greater London. We can see nothing of it to-night through the mist that lies on it like a shroud, but the mind's eye is full of pictures. The same warning must have been given to the whole of the London factories at the same time, and what is happening here is almost certainly happening everywhere. Up yon der in the filling factories, over there among the shot-vats in the fields, and down on the dark promontory at the bend of the river, the girls will be singing, as they are singing here, to crush down fear and keep brave hearts, while the big furnaces will be locked hard and the hundred and twenty miles of railway standing still. One has the sense of all the munition factories within the twenty five mile area of London crouching in the dark and waiting. While one waits one self, with the singing and the dancing in one's ears, it is impossible not to remember the night before Waterloo, when the beauty and chivalry of Brussels were startled out of their revelry by the booming of the guns. But this is a far more tremendous moment.
Presently the sky is shot through as by a star that comes from below. It is a searchlight, clear and white as a wand, and in another moment ten, twenty, thirty of its kind seem to leap out of the earth and to cross each other like silver swords that are fencing. The Zeppelins must be near; they have been heard; the lights are trying to find them. After a few moments they find one. There it is, far up in the south-eastern sky, perhaps three miles above the earth, a huge, oblong thing of steely grey, as plainly to be seen in its circle of silver white as if it were sailing in broad daylight.
I despair of conveying a sense of the emotions of that moment. Man, who had developed the powers of angels to ride through the sky, was using them for the work of the devil. Even if our enemy had to be believed that he was not coming in his airships to kill non-combatants (which on such errands he always is), but only to destroy fortified places, and places for the making ' or storing of ammunition, it followed that he was hunting our women at work in the munition factories. Still one heard the singing of the girls below. It was impossible to think calmly. If at that instant, by touching a button I could have destroyed the whole body of the enemy nation that had sent out these assassins of the air and the darkness, I should certainly have done so.
At the next moment there was the boom of a gun, followed by the booming of another and another, until a hundred guns seemed to be firing at once. For some minutes the roar was deafening, and then, suddenly came dead silence. The searchlights remained, and they were keep ing the flying thing in focus, but the sky seemed to be holding its breath. Then a sharp, blue, horizontal star stabbed the black clouds, and at the next moment, there was a red flash that flew across the sky like a desert sunset. The Zeppelin was aflame. She seemed to stop for an instant, to pause and to shudder. Then she dipped nose forward and fell earthwards, at first slowly, and then headlong.
During this time, standing on the high roof of the factory, one had forgotten London, thinking of it as lying asleep. But now there came from below that most moving of all sounds on earth, perhaps more moving than the sound of the sea, the mighty shout of innumerable voices under one universal impulse. People everywhere were cheering. Near and far their cheers came in short, sharp cracks, like the splashes of breakers, and then in long, low, far-off, rolling waves. It was just as if the great city London itself were uttering its cry of relief and joy.
I trust I shall not be blamed for attempt ing to describe a scene which I have twice witnessed (a scene which has occurred three times this autumn, with unimportant variations, in nearly every great munition factory in the London area, and outside of it), if only for the sake of the object
I wish to serve. When public men, with more zeal than knowledge or imagination, talk of people " skulking behind munitions," let them know that the war is in the munition shops just as surely as it is in France, and that, without the rightful glory of the battlefield, our women, as well as our men, are constantly facing the perils of it.
The manager of the big factory told me afterwards there was not too much work done during the remaining hours of that night's shift, but there was no scare, and not a girl in the employ showed broken time next day.
At eight in the morning, when the night hands went out and the day hands came in, there was a tumult of excitement at the gates, with breathless stories of the fallen Zepp. and pieces of her aluminium framework handed round. The sunrise was beginning to creep up over the fields as the night girls went chattering and laughing homewards-brave daughters of a brave breed.
Why, in God's name, do we so often talk of the great deeds of our race as if they had all occurred in the past ? In one of the old sagas we read of how Brynhild, the warrior maid, whom Sigurd found, gave him " the deepest counsel that ever yet was given to living man, and wrought on him to the performance of great deeds." What hinders us from opening our eyes and seeing that we have tens of thousands of Brynhilds in our midst at this moment ? Cockney girls, perhaps, but the old heroic blood is in our women still-the blood that made our Britain great and will make her greater yet.
Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received
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