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.”