The Hardcore of Yore: Chilwell Canaries

Military high explosives are pretty stable, except for when they start to break down. Any of you who’ve read any Derek Lowe [lowe] are aware that most high explosives involve nitrogen and oxygen that want to change state and release lots of energy very fast: the more nitrogen and oxygen, the bigger the bang. It’s never “safe” to work with, though, even the more stable formulations – once the reaction starts, it’s going to finish.

During WWI the industrialized nations of the world militarized their entire economies into a war-footing, following the practice since the Napoleonic Wars: most of the population was involved in the war, somehow – either directly, or manufacturing war supplies, or as targets. One of the side-effects of the war was some temporary breakdown in gender/race/class norms: everyone bleeds the same color and more or less the same amount. Thus, we had rich cannon-fodder fighting next to poor, and black cannon-fodder next to (well, 350,000 of them hauling stuff) as white, and – in WWII – women snipers shooting male officers. [stderr] And a lot of women made the tanks, guns, and ammunition.

At the English arms-filling plant at Chilwell, women poured liquified TNT into the shells. It was dangerous work – there were heavy things moving about that would grind you into paste without even slowing down. In 1918, 8 tons of high explosive detonated, killing and injuring hundreds. Most of the dead were unidentifiable and were buried in a mass grave.

The factory resumed production the next day.

Sulfuric acid used in the process of manufacturing TNT would volatilize slightly – but considering the amount of TNT that was being slung around, there was a lot – and would stain the workers’ skin yellow.

They were called “Canary Girls.”

Some of them were pregnant, and had yellow-tinted babies. There were all sorts of health side-effects from working unprotected around the chemicals. It was a less obvious hazard than being crushed or blown up.

Organizing civil society for the production of violence necessarily involved women as well as men. This was proceeding in a variety of ways, but not necessarily evenly or unproblematically. It is easy enough to see how women were mobilized for war once hostilities had begun, but it is less easy to establish how this was happening in the decades before 1914. Here we can use the insights provided by recent historiography on women, which has shown the many subtle and indirect ways that gender fits into the process of militarization. Cynthia Enloe has shown how patriarchal ideologies use even the most pacific notions of womankind to serve the purposes of militarism. [Geoffrey Best writing in Gillis]

Women had been being ‘drafted’ into wars with increasing fervor throughout Europe, both as causus belli (“the rape of Belgium”) and promoters of toxic masculinity (“the white feather”) – having them working in the munitions-plants was the step before putting them in the trenches with sniper rifles, or in the air flying with the ‘Night Witches.’

After the world wars, the militarization of women continued apace, with a new generation of women working at the uranium refineries at Hanford and Oak Ridge.

They preferred blondes for the factories, because the yellowing didn’t show as much. As usual, the women were expected to be pretty and soft while handling all that nitro.

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Hager’s The Alchemy of Air is on my recommended reading list. It’s about the Haber/Bosch process for fixing nitrogen out of the atmosphere, which was the source of most of the nitrates used in WWI and after.

Gillis’ book (cited above) is tough going and depressing. He charts the change from the 1800s, when societies were indoctrinated to support wars (“militarism”) to when societies were restructured around war economies (“militarization”). It’s an academic text written for historians, but if you’re interested in the topic, combine it with David Landes’ The Unbound Prometheus for a good analysis of the societal changes that turned Europe into a charnel-house.

8 tons of high explosive makes a hell of a mess. Pouring TNT into shells was not just a theoretically dangerous job.

Health problems in children of the “Canary Girls”: [Daily Mail]

Of course, the German women were drafted, too – at a Krupp plant.



  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    I have to doubt the Oatine ad picture intended to make their customers out to be two-headed, but it does remind me of a (Fredric Brown?) science-fiction short story about a post-WWIII clothing store marketing report which concludes: “But we can expect to sell twice as many hats!”

  2. cartomancer says

    This reminds me of an interesting precursor from seventeenth century Europe. The manufacture of black powder for firearms, as we all know, requires charcoal, sulphur and saltpetre. Charcoal is easily acquired wherever wood grows (basically everywhere), and sulphur is abundant throughout Europe, wherever volcanic vents and hot springs occur. So most of the great European powers could acquire these ingredients when the time came to adopt gunpowder technology en masse. Saltpetre is the tricky one, though. In most of continental Europe it was derived from bat guano found in cave systems, but England was peculiarly lacking this resource. As such the English crown had to scrape whatever meagre deposits of Potassium nitrate it could from anywhere it could be found – dovecotes, public toilets, even church floors. The need for saltpetre was so great that Charles I’s saltpetre men were universally despised for their heavy-handedness, and their excesses contributed to his unpopularity and the onset of civil war. They did, however, leave England with a much more centralised and efficient system of military materiel production than her rivals, and set the stage for her Imperial expansions after the civil war.

  3. chigau (違う) says

    The stuff I have never, ever heard of…
    They™ used to encourage us to memorise the list of the monarchs of Britain, starting with Arthur…

  4. cartomancer says

    Egad, how did I forget to correct the Latin? Latin lecture time! (cue my theme music)…

    It’s actually “CASUS belli”, not “causus” (which isn’t an actual Latin word, though it is a genus of poisonus snake). The plural, should you want it, is cāsūs belli (long second vowel) for several things leading to one war, or casus bellorum for one thing leading to several wars.

    The Latin word for a cause or reason behind something is actually causA (found in several legal Latin phrases, such as the famous ex turpi causa non imprimatur), but the phrase casus belli uses a different word. Casus means, literally, a falling down, and by extension an occurrence, happening, accident or event. So an accurate translation of casus belli would be closer to “outbreak of war” than “cause of war” or “case for war” (our “case” does come from casus though, so “a case of war” would capture it).

    It’s not a classical phrase though. A Roman statesman would scratch his head if you used it in its modern sense. It actually comes from 17th century military theorists and philosophers, and it has never been quite clear whether it is supposed to mean factors leading up to the war in a general sense, immediate events triggering the war or those reasons explicitly given by the aggressor for starting the war. Most people understand the last of these though.

    As ever the Greeks got there first and were far more systematic about this. Thucydides uses the term prophasis (“fore-appearance”) to mean the real causes of the war and proschema (“fore-shape”) to mean the elaborate excuses the aggressor came up with to justify the war.

  5. Siobhan says


    Casus means, literally, a falling down, and by extension an occurrence, happening, accident or event.

    Or “accident,” as I’m sure was often the case.

  6. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#1:
    I have to doubt the Oatine ad picture intended to make their customers out to be two-headed

    Isn’t it fascinating how, once your brain has made one interpretation, it’s so hard to make another? I didn’t see that immediately, and have to look at the four feet at the bottom in order to not see that as a high explosive-scented 2-headed flapper gorgon.

  7. says

    It’s actually “CASUS belli”, not “causus”

    Arrgh!!! I have been making that mistake for years, now!
    Serves me right for being pretentious.

    Thank you!

    I associate the term with Augustine’s “just war” theory, and I believe Augustine wrote in Latin. I always assumed that the word was extracted from Augustine’s writings – bad assumption!

  8. says

    They™ used to encourage us to memorise the list of the monarchs of Britain, starting with Arthur…

    He was the one who invented fish and chips, right?

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    cartomancer @ # 2: … the English crown had to scrape whatever meagre deposits of Potassium nitrate it could from anywhere it could be found …

    The French, during their Revolution, reportedly scraped just about every stable in the Kingdom-cum-Republic down to the dirt.

    Hercules wept.

    Marcus Ranum @ # 7: … a high explosive-scented 2-headed flapper gorgon.

    OMG, now that’s a [ahem] dynamite concept. Somebody please pass it along to Emma Bull &/or Esther Friesner!