1. ITV Report

Munitionette relatives proud of their WW1 effort

Gertrude Cursley was left to look after her four children when her husband Harry went off to serve his country.

Hers does not seem an untypical story of a working class woman during World War 1. What makes her special though, was that she too would be called to serve her country and would pay the ultimate price.

Gertrude became a munitionette, one of an army of 950 000 women who kept the men at the front supplied with shells to take on and ultimately beat the German army. She worked in Nottingham, at a huge site in Chilwell, purposely built with vast shell filling buildings and storage depots.

Women were enlisted, grudgingly by some male employers, to fill the gap left by their husbands, brothers and boyfriends who were serving on the front line.

There were around 2 million of them in all - working as land girls on farms to keep the country fed, driving trams and buses - and maintaining them too.

The munitions work was incredibly dangerous.

The majority were called to work in the munitions factories after a critical shortage of shells and ammunition caused a national outcry.

Chilwell was the most productive site of all and Gertrude's job was to fill shells with explosive powder - highly dangerous work. The sulphur in the powder would turn many women's skin yellow - giving them the name the Canary Girls.

In the days long before health and safety, the women wore little protection against the harsh chemicals they were handling. Accidents were frequent - but covered up as it was thought bad for security and national morale if the news got out.

It was a massive change for Gertrude and her colleagues. In an era of long skirts, they had to wear boiler suits, and after traditional work as maids or in sewing houses, factory work was a whole new world.

Their output was astonishing. In all the Chilwell site filled nearly 19.5 million shells, that's half of all shells fired at the Germans in World War 1. Gertrude's family were incredibly proud of her and when I visited them at their Nottingham home they had pictures of her and family tree ready to show me.

Some 139 people died when their factory exploded.

But they also had a notice of her death, a letter sent to her family. Such letters were until World War1, sent out to families of deceased males, soldiers in service.

That is why the letter sent out in 1918 has the word "he" hastily changed with ink, into "she". The words "his death" changed by pen to "her death". There was little time for such sensitivities it seems.

Gertrude died on July 1 1918. To this day noone knows for sure why the shell filling building exploded killing all inside. Gertrude was one of 139 victims. Almost all could not be identified and they are buried in a mass grave in Attenborough outside Nottingham.

Many bodies could not be identified after the huge explosion.

When I visited, it seemed so sad and shocking that these casualties of war were not afforded anything more fitting. There was a huge cross put there when the funerals took place 3 days after the explosion, but that was vandalised. And now there is a small plaque.

On the Chilwell site there is a memorial to the victims, and the storage building still stands.

But there is a new generation of women who are working to keep the story of the Canary girls alive. Arletty Theatre from Nottingham have written a play about their lives in the shell filling factory.

They are touring it around Nottinghamshire to show how vital the work these women did was to the war effort and to make sure their story is not forgotten.

Gertrude Cursley and her colleagues helped to change the lives of British women forever.

It was vital to women's fight for equality too. Regarded as second class citizens, with no vote, their efforts during the war would help change women's lives for ever.

After World War 1 ended, millions of British women did get the vote, though it would take another 10 years for the vote to be extended to millions more.

But the incredible efforts of the munitionettes and all the other women who helped keep Britain going during the war showed what they were capable of, given the chance.

When the men returned from the front line, it was simply accepted that the women would step aside and return their jobs to them. On the whole most did what was expected.

But something had changed for ever in the lives of British women.

And Gertrude Cursley and her colleagues had helped make that change.

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