For England’s Sake: Women Engineers in the First World War

Describing the First World War as ‘an engineers’ war’, which required ‘arms more than men’, Lloyd George acted on the urgent need to employ women in the armaments industries. Henrietta Heald explains how they in turn responded to the challenges.

Brazing blades at Heaton Works, the site of the Parsons family firm in Newcastle. (Tyne & Wear Archives ref 2402)The Shell Crisis of May 1915 triggered a political earthquake in Britain that would lead eventually to the fall of the Asquith government. At its heart was the revelation that heavy British losses on the Western Front had been caused by a catastrophic shortage of artillery shells. Immediate measures to deal with the crisis included the creation of a Ministry of Munitions under David Lloyd George and a massive recruitment drive for industrial workers. The women who answered the call in their hundreds of thousands not only provided the vital production capacity to salvage the situation but also made great strides towards their own economic emancipation.

On August 4th, 1914, when Britain declared war on Germany, 24-year-old Ruth Dodds, writer, diarist and campaigner for women’s suffrage, was living in middle-class comfort at the family home in Low Fell, Gateshead. Fourteen months later, as the need for workers in British industry grew more acute, Ruth and her younger sister, Sylvia, along with a multitude of other women from all backgrounds, found themselves plunged into the maelstrom of the mighty Armstrong Whitworth munitions factory at Elswick-on-Tyne. Armstrong’s had long dominated the arms industry. Indeed, so crucial was the firm to Britain’s fortunes that the first task of the Ministry of Munitions was to ensure that the Tyneside factory was generously supplied with skilled labour.

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