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Photograph of Munitions workers, Gretna

  • Female Munitions workers, Gretna, 1914-1918
  • Female Munitions Workers, Gretna, 1914-1918

Women were the essential cog in Britain’s industrial war machine from 1914-1918. Around 20,000 people were employed at HM Gretna including 10,000 munitions workers. It was the largest munitions works in Europe and female workers were employed to produce cordite for use in explosive shells destined for the Western Front.

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Cordite was a highly explosive paste formed from guncotton, nitro-glycerine and vaseline. The paste was mixed by hand in large vats by female munitions workers. It became known as ‘The Devil’s Porridge’ after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s remark while on a visit to the factory. By 1917 HM Gretna was producing 800 tons of cordite per week. Drying the nitro-cotton was a risky undertaking.  A sudden increase in the temperature above 80 degrees could render the material explosive. Working with highly explosives could stain the skin and hair yellow and cause rotting gums. Burns could also be inflicted by splashing acid. Female workers were well paid and many gained financial independence for the first time. Munitions workers developed strong friendships through the tough working conditions. In Britain women were at the centre of this essential war work.

Operating staff at Mossband came from diverse areas of Britain including London, Blackpool, Leeds, Accrington, Birmingham, Manchester, Sunderland, Birkenhead, Stockport, Bradford, Perthshire, Rutland, Leith, Leeds, Kilmarnock, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Gretna, Ayr, Langholm, Portpatrick, Belfast, Liverpool, Bray, Carlisle, Longtown, Shipley, Glasgow and Hull. There were also South Africans, Australians, Canadians and Mexicans employed at the site.

 It was partly the drunken activities of the female munitions workers that led the British Government to control the Carlisle district’s drinks trade in 1915.Carlisle was the closest urban centre near to the largest Munitions factory in Europe- HM Gretna. Many of the female munitions workers and irish navvies that worked on the Eastriggs and Mossband sites were using Carlisle’s pubs, bars and hotels to drink large volumes of alcohol.

The resultant drunkenness and anti-social behaviour was seen to be compromising the war effort. The Government’s Central Control Board used the Defence of the Realm Act took to take direct control of the City of Carlisle’s drinks trade in 1915. The Board undertook a program of pub closure and reform in 1915 which rapidly reduced drunkenness and improved production. From 1916 this social experiment was known as the State Management Scheme. By 1917 40% of the city’s pubs were closed with the rest being converted to include dining facilities.

Key facts: 
  • Women were very important to the war effort during WWI. Many worked in factories or filled the jobs of men who were fighting in the trenches.
  • Munitions work was an important wartime industry, to provide ammunition and explosives for the war. These women worked at the Gretna Munitions factory, which was the largest in Europe.
  • The financial and social independence of the women and other workers at Gretna caused increases in the use of pubs, and drunken behaviour in Carlisle. The government brought in the State Management Scheme 1915- 1917 to control this.

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