British women were not allowed anywhere near guns when the First World War happened, but they were not just in their homes sitting and sipping their teas while waiting for the war to be over and men were dying in the field. Instead, they were also actively engaged in the war, not in means that you might be expecting but in ways that helped the men in the battle zone win the war. And while they were far from the battle lines, they also risked their lives and tirelessly offered their service at one point, even after their skin turned

These were the Canary Girls of WWI.

Answering the Government’s Cry

Munitionettes poster. (Hulton Archive/BBC)

When British men were sent to combat the Germans in 1914, the workforce that once kept the country running decreased: engineering, factory, and transport workers were needed, and thousands of women answered the cry and took the place of those who were in service. Housewives and young women became part of the working force, and they kept the economy going.

Shell Crisis of 1915

Prior to WWI, combat between armies would mostly occur in the open field where shot and shrapnel were really effective. But the First World War was in the trenches. By then artillery was so accurate(relatively speaking) it was suicide to fight in the open, and both sides showered each other with artillery day and night and a staggering 75% of the casualties in that war were from the big guns on both sides.  As a result, cannon shells were always running short. 

The people blamed this shortage for the Battle of Aubers in May 1915 becoming a total disaster: the British attacked the Germans in hopes of widening the gap in their defenses. Nothing was gained from this attack— no ground, no tactical advantage, and their casualties were ten times the Germans’. Tactics had changed, the shrapnel shot that worked so well against troops in open fields did not work on the battlefields of France, what did work were high explosive rounds that could collapse trenches and fortifications, and they could not make them fast enough.


Women Working in the Munitions Industry during the First World War. (Photo from the Imperial War Museums/Wikimedia Commons)

Around 950,000 women working in factories were assigned to help in manufacturing munitions in an effort to combat the shell crisis. The “munitionettes” would fill the casings with explosive powder, put a detonator on top, and then tap them down. Tapping it too hard could cause an explosion. A possible explosion that could amputate or blind them was just one of the risks they had to face during their 10 to 12 hours shift. This was combated by banning them from wearing silk and other fabrics that could cause static a static charge that could set of the gun powder. They were also not allowed to wear anything with metal. As reported by BBC:

Nellie Bagley, whose first shift at Rotherwas in 1940 was on her 18th birthday, remembers having to strip down to her underwear to be inspected.

“You took everything off, and you had just your bra, and if it had a metal clip on the back, you couldn’t wear it… and no hair grips, of course, because they would cause friction… explosions.”

Canary Girls

The powder that these girls were mixing by hand was TNT which acts as the explosive, and then cordite which was the propellant. These two were hazardous to health, and the women were mixing them without any sort of protective gear on their face, hands, or clothes. TNT penetrated their skins and entered their nostrils. Soon, the effect showed: their skin and hair began to turn into a shade of yellow, but that was the least of their worries as the color faded in time, and although they would give birth to yellow babies soon after, their color turned to normal too as they grew up.

circa 1914: Women shell makers at Vickers Ltd armament works, fitting interior tubes inside the shell cases. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

What they worried about were the harsher side effects that caused liver toxicity that led to anemia and or jaundice. Jaundice would also turn their skin yellow but was different from those who didn’t catch the disease. About 400 munition workers had jaundice at that time.

When it was discovered that TNT was harmful, the government tried to lessen the risks by providing protective clothing, but that could only do so much.

But perhaps the greatest risk of them all that these women took was the possibility of their factories being bombed to halt the munition production. During WWII women again returned to the munitions factories to make shells. In 1942 a lone  Luffewaffe bomber came in low over the Rotherwas factory and dropped a couple of 150-pound bombs on the site, killing numerous “munitionettes,” although the exact number was uncertain.

Although they should have, the Canary Girls did not receive any recognition after the war, but they braved harse working conditions among toxi chemicals that killed some of them performing this essential duty for England’s war effort in two world wars.