Tag Archives: munitionettes

Poster Girls of WW1

Picture of women munitions workers

Shell-making Edinburgh

I was pleased to be invited by Helen Hollick to write a piece for her Tuesday Talk slot on her blog, Let us Talk of Many Things; of Books and Queens and Pirates, of History and Kings…

On it I talk about the WW1 female munitions workers (known as munitionettes) who inspired my novel, A Kiss from France.  You can read it here:-


Helen Hollick is the author of piratical and royal tales and Managing Editor of the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews.

image:  painting  by Sir John Lavery (Public Domain) via Wikimediacommons

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Only Connect: Inspiration from WW1

A Kiss from France WW1 NovelWhen I picked out a hundred year old silk postcard from among my late grandmother’s possessions, I had no idea that it would lead me to a WW1 battle, a scandal which many believed caused the Liberal government to fall in 1915 and a tiny detail about a dangerous munitions factory – and to writing my debut novel, ‘A Kiss from France’.

Initially, the postcard fascinated me and I often found myself looking at it because of its romantic greeting.  Gradually an idea began to take root in my mind and prompted me to find out more about the circumstances in which the sender and recipient might have found themselves between 1914-1918.

Picture of a WW1 embroidered silk postcard

I discovered that a scandalous shortage of ammunition shells, after the battle of Neuve Chapelle (1915), was one of the reasons the British government was brought down and that it led to the establishment of munitions factories to increase armaments production.  When Conscription (1916) took away most of the able-bodied men who had not already enlisted, hundreds of thousands of women rallied to the call to step up and support the war effort by making munitions. I became interested in these women’s stories. Then I picked out a tiny nugget of information, which lit the imaginative spark. These munitionettes (as the female munitions workers became known) put ‘Good Luck’ notes in random boxes of ammunition shells, destined for the British Army fighting in Europe.

Imagined letter from a WW1 munitionette

My imagined letter from a WW1 munitionette

Suddenly, there it was! I saw a British Tommy standing in a trench, finding one of these notes from a girl he had never met and sending a patriotic silk postcard in reply. Immediately I knew this was going to provide the inciting incident for the whole novel and that all of the twists and turns in the story would stem from this – and also that the romantic greeting on the postcard I had in my possession would be the title of my novel.

 A Kiss from France is available as an e-book or paperback from Amazon. Paperback is also available to order from bookshops.




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WW1 Canary Girls: When going to work was an act of bravery

Picture of women munitions workers

Women Munitions Workers (painting by Sir John Lavery [public domain] courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

During the First World War a group of British women, who became known as Canary Girls or Canaries, risked their lives every day by turning up for work. Yet they were nowhere near the front line.

So when I wanted to write a novel about women’s lives during the 1914-1918 war, I decided I didn’t want to invent characters who were upper or middle class members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) or the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) – essentially extensions of women’s accepted role as carer – but take my inspiration from women who filled the roles which would historically only have been done by men. Step up the Canary Girls!

Canary Girls got their name because they worked in British munitions factories, filling ammunition shells with explosives – the toxic nature of which turned their hands and skin yellow after prolonged exposure.  It sounds like an innocuous nickname but it masked the very real danger inherent in their work. The explosive was Trinitrotoluene (TNT), a very unstable compound of nitric and sulphuric acids mixed with other chemicals. Not only could careless handling of this prove fatal – at least two munitions factories in Britain exploded during the war, killing 400 civilians – it was also deleterious to the women’s long-term health. Yellow skin might be a precursor to anaemia, liver damage, a weakened immune system and an early death.

Yet, despite knowing the obvious risks at the outset,  around 64,000 of the 815,000 British women who went to work in munitions factories during the First World War filled these shells.  Why did they?

They were an ‘army’ of patriotic women. By risking their lives working in the Danger Buildings in munitions factories, the Canary Girls felt they were doing just as much as the men fighting at the Front to help Britain win the war.

Social freedom. Many female munitions workers had been in domestic service before the war, where they led isolated and confined lives of drudgery below stairs with little outside social interaction and no real life of their own.  Other women left home and moved away from the influence of their families for the first time to work in munitions. The war opened the cage door.

Illustration of a Victorian birdcage

Antique Bird Cage (Stampington & Co)

“You might be dead tomorrow,”was the prevailing morality in wartime Britain.  When subjected to enemy bombing from Zeppelins and Gotha planes, taking your life in your hands by filling shells with explosives took on a very different hue.

It was challenging and exciting. It might  have been dangerous, but it was also exciting. Many women relished learning new skills and doing ‘men’s work’.

Economic independence.  Munitions gave many working class women regular, full-time and well-paid work. Earnings as a Canary Girl were three times higher than those offered by domestic service or pre-war factory work.  Many flaunted their new wealth by buying fur coats and silk stockings, luxury apparel previously only worn by women of a higher class.

Many accepted it was only for the duration of the war.  As soon as the war ended, munitions factories began to wind down operations or close and many of the Canary Girls returned to their pre-war roles as homemakers, wives, and mothers or took low paid ‘women’s work’ jobs.

However, their aspirations had moved on.  The pre-war attitudes towards women and work would not alter completely, but their lives would never be the same again.

What do you think? If you were a woman living through the 1914-1918 war, would you have volunteered to fill shells with TNT?

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