A WOMAN OF FURNACELAND: A STORY AND ITS SEQUEL
She had felt the strain; she was not well. To a woman unaccustomed to standing on her feet for twelve hours on end, the work had been terrific.
She had been a parlour-maid in a good situation, with plenty of room and fresh air, where she had cleaned silver, answered the door-bell, waited at table, carried trays, turned out her pantry, gone to the door, had her regular outings, and was perfectly certain to get an hour or two for sewing or reading every afternoon; where she had never got out of her bed before half-past six and was generally back in it before ten; where she had been well fed and well paid, warmly housed and generously considered.
Tom had joined the colours at the first roll of the drum. She would not have “walked out” with him had he not done so, and truth to tell, he was mighty keen and patriotic. Quickly trained, hard trained, strenuously trained, he was ready amongst the first batch of the New Army who went to the front, ten or eleven months after the outbreak of war. During these ten months she had kept her situation, had knitted him socks and mufflers, had seen him when on leave, and had encouraged him to do well at the guns. Then came the final parting. He was to sail from Southampton for “somewhere in France.” Before the momentous day, he received a final few days’ leave.
“Tom,” she said, “you are off to do your bit, God bless you, and you will be constantly in my thoughts and my prayers; but I do not suppose we shall meet again for many months — perhaps longer — and I am going to spring a mine upon you, not a German mine, old chap, but a truly British one. While you are at the front firing shells, I am going into a munition factory to make shells. The job will not be as well paid as domestic service, it will not be as comfortable as domestic service; it will be much harder work, but it will be my bit, and every time you fire your gun you can remember I am helping to make the shells.”
“Well done, my girl, it is splendid of you, but can you stand it?“
“I will stand it,” she replied with that determination which one knows to be the British characteristic, even when it means getting up at five o’clock every winter morning and not returning home for fourteen hours at a spell.
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It was an awful night. The wind howled. Sleet blew in great blasts. Tom’s letters had been frequent from “somewhere in France,” interspersed with those quaint postcards every soldier and every home knows so well. He had been through those awful days at Loos, when his battery had pulled out into the open and the only shelter was under the limbers. His leading horse’s driver had been killed before him, and without even waiting for the word of command he had scrambled along to that horse’s back and taken the dead man’s place. He had done his bit with a vengeance. The work of the 15th Division at Loos will never be forgotten; but very little news had travelled home, so the encouragement and inspiration that the girl might have had on that score had been sadly lacking.
That night Tom was constantly in her thoughts. It was her week of night duty. She had made a railway Journey, to arrive at the factory wet, cold and dejected, and before her lay a twelve-hours shift. Warm food in the Y.W.C.A. Canteen at midnight cheered her. She washed her hands in warm water (which means a great deal to workers, many, thousands of whom had to wash in cold and exist all the first cruel winters without a canteen at all), and through the factory mud and slush she waded back to her workshop, picturing the mud of Flanders and Tom.
What a scene!
A veritable beehive of workers. Eight thousand women answered the call of the drum in that district alone. Neat khaki caps and neat khaki overalls made them both trim and smart and a veritable little soldier-women’s army.
The glass domes of the Birmingham “shop” had been blackened overhead so that Zeppelins should no longer find their whereabouts. The great furnaces below were roaring flames. The machinery was drumming and banging and screeching. The noises were deafening; it was impossible to hear a neighbour speak. Everything was carried on by signs.
We have all seen men at the forge of a country village putting their black horseshoes into the fire with iron tongs and pulling them out red hot. That was what this woman was doing, but her horseshoe was a part of a shell, and it must be remembered that it takes 150 operators to finish the parts of one fuse, and 21 operators to machine a 4.7 shell. In addition there are other workers who gauge, who assemble, paint and varnish them, and yet others who fill them with explosives. Yes! one hundred and fifty operators to prepare the parts of one fuse and twenty-one people to machine a single shell.
Pause and think then: the brains, the skill, the machinery, the efforts put in motion to make; that little shell before it leaves the hands of the workers and reaches those of the gunner at the front, where hundreds of shells, now that the women have made them, may be fired in a single day from one single gun to which a dozen or so were handed out before and at Loos. And this is war, a half-century planned war, undertaken by the enemy for might against right, a deadly cruel war.
The chorus of machinery in that shed never ceases, it is incessant, it appears eternal and the amount of human effort is prodigious. Such is the exigency of war. A woman — one of hundreds — presses a lever with her foot, and instantly a big hammer falls with a heavy thud. At a single blow it fashions the-red hot metal on the anvil, and with a shriek it is snatched up again in the twinkling of an eye. The operator picks the still hot metal off the anvil with a tongs and drops it into an iron box with many others, while her mate— a young girl— pulls another piece from the furnace and places it in the die. The machine does the heavy work and yet the strain of that pressure of the foot is bad for the delicate mechanism of woman-kind. There is every class in that shed. There are well-educated ladies— enthusiasts; there are parlour-maids, like this girl— who are patriots; there are the usual factory hands, who have come from soda-water-manufactories, jam, biscuit, cocoa, toy or cheap jewellery factories, who are all doing their bit.
As the morning draws on in that thundering noise, that roar of machines almost as deafening as the roar of the guns, the drumming lathes work on; but the want of sleep, the fatigue of work, the need of food begin to tell, and our little parlour-maid is feeling weary, well-nigh prone to drop; so she makes herself a cup of tea, that everlasting and ever- joyful cup of tea, which the men enjoy even more than the women — and she thinks of Tom.
Renewed strength comes with the thought, and she works on. She looks at the lathe-belts as they go round and round, and feels that every turn furthers her job, and every day brings more succour to the front and the war nearer to its end. But, still she grows weary again. The hours are long. The night shift seems unceasing, the only possible rest from her factory is on Sunday, when she is almost too worn out to leave her bed. As for an evening out, or a cinema show, such a recreation has long left her horizon, such a thing as an hour’s sewing or an hour’s reading in a cosy parlour has ceased to be.
Two things keep her going, the thought of Tom, with a certain feeling that she is helping him, and the canteen at last provided by the Y.W.O.A. with its chairs and comforts. Had it not been for that canteen her health would have given out long before, for with all the will in the world the women Munition Workers’ hours in 1916 were too incessant for them to stand the strain.
Through the din no one heard.
“What did you say? “
Every one knew they would be thrust into darkness. Every one knew they must stop work. Every one knew they were prisoners amidst the worst of dangers — explosives on every side of them, inventive devils of cruelty above them — prisoners in a great arsenal. The chorus of machinery ceases. Belts are released and those palpitating iron and steel machines that grind the daily soul of the workers, slowly and dreamingly cease to toil. In a few minutes all is still.
Oh, the tension of it. The anxiety, the expectancy, yet not a woman falters. The hours wear on. It grows colder. The action of the right leg on the lever has ceased. Both arms are at rest. The cold seems to penetrate their very soul; but the women say nothing. They know their men face the guns day and night. Big guns, little guns, every kind of hell fire. They know a shell or a rifle-bullet may end a man’s life any minute. They know these men at the front never shirk, why should they? The only people who shirk are the slackers at home, the “down tools,” the wasters, the scum. No soldier shirks his duty, no woman worker turns chicken-hearted. Both are out to do their bit to consolidate and hold a great nation together and build up a great people under the greatest Democracy in the world, known as the British Empire and King George. Numbed, chilled, but not nervous, she sits on a backless stool and thinks of the first months of toil without any seat, without warm water to wash those dirty, swollen, sore hands, without a food canteen, and with only paper-bag lunches of sandwiches and buns; and she remembers the new canteens outside, where a fourpenny or sixpenny dinner can be “bought out of her pay of 3d. per hour, and there is a warm fire and a cheery welcome.
The clock strikes midnight, one, two, three. The Zepps have gone home again; but she can’t go home, she must still pull in and pull out of the re-kindled furnace her bits of red-hot metal. All she minds is the three hours’ loss in making shells for Tom.
Was it telepathy? Was it second sight? What was it that made her pause, as a cold shudder ran down her spine a couple of hours later and seemed to numb her senses? The night was still dull and cold and drear. Her face was deadly pale; the red glow from the furnace fire but accentuated the fact. She was just tired and nervy perhaps. And Tom’s cheery face pictured itself before her in the flames, as she worked on.
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An official envelope “On His Majesty’s Service” told the tale — “Killed in Action,” was all it said.
Tom was dead.
And she? She turned sick and faint when the news came. She almost gave in; but no. There were others, there were other mothers, other sweethearts, and other wives, and for them she would work harder even than before. Work till the war ended.
God Bless her, the Heroine of Furnaceland. These are the women who will never falter until real victory by the Allies puts an end to war for ever.
Surely if such a soldier-woman’s labour ends in death, she deserves as honourable a military funeral as any fighting-man in the field.
Women and Soldiers, Mrs. Alec-Tweedie, F.R.G.S., 1918
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil would not dare trivialise the work of such a woman by calling her a “Munitionette,” and wishes that the women workers had received better from Britain than the post-war governmental admonishment to go home, be good wives and mothers, and let the men have their jobs back. The author of the piece, Mrs. Alec-Tweedie was Ethel Brilliana Harley Tweedie, a travel writer and advocate for women’s rights. One of her sons was killed in the First World War; her second son was also in the military and died in a military aircraft accident while serving with the RAF.
This post was originally published in 2014.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.