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First World War: Shell Manufacture

As the Western Front stagnated into static trench warfare, shrapnel shells, designed to kill and maim troops in open formation, were found to be ineffective against fixed defence works. Here the requirement was for high explosive shells that could blast their way through barbed wire entanglements.

At first local engineering companies grouped together to produce the vast amounts of shells and many industries and factories were turned over to war work. These varied from well-equipped railway and tramway workshops, to a toy factory and a herring curing works.

Women workers using lathes to turn 6-inch shells
Women workers at Cunard Works using lathes to turn 6-inch shells. Although the women were supplied with buttonless overalls and caps for safety reasons, they were given no protection from metal swarf that could fly into eyes or hands. (BL24001/096)

In spring 1915 the inadequacies of this system were exposed in a series of newspaper reports on the ‘Shell Scandal’ and was one of the factors that led to the creation of the Ministry of Munitions led by Lloyd George.

New National Shell and Projectile Factories were built to increase capacity. These applied new principles of ‘scientific management’ to the labour force. This included ‘dilution’ whereby skilled work was broken down into individual repetitive tasks that could be performed by unskilled or semi-skilled workers.

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Shell Manufacture

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • Cunard’s Shellworks, Liverpool The Cunard Shipping Line’s Liverpool site was taken over for war work in 1915 and turned into a factory for producing shells. The building shown here, one of many on the site was used as a store.
  • Cunard’s Shell Works, Liverpool, August 1917 Women using spray guns to apply varnish to the surface of completed heavy artillery shells.
  • National Projectile Factory, Hackney, London, 1921 This factory was started in 1915 and completed early in the following year. Its principal products were 6-inch high explosive and chemical shells. Around 16,000 shells per week were produced by a workforce that in 1918 numbered around 5,000. After the war the factory was demolished and it’s now the site of Mabley Green Recreation Ground.
  • Cunard Shellworks, Bootle, Liverpool. During the war the factory produced over 400,000 shells, and was the first place where women workers manufactured 6-inch and 8-inch artillery shells.
  • Cunard Shellworks, Bootle, Liverpool. One of the features of wartime munitions factories was the increasing provision of canteens. This was partly in response to long hours spent commuting and working, but was also done through a desire to discourage workers from frequenting local public houses.
  • Coventry Ordnance Works. The company was formed in 1905 by a consortium of British shipbuilders to manufacture heavy guns, mountings, and turrets mainly for naval customers.