In this guest blog, Roger Deeks tells us what he found out from fieldwork at the site of a WW1 munitions factory carried out nearly 100 years after they produced shells for the First World War.
The history of munitions supply is one of the most compelling stories of the First World War. A revolution in shell production allied to the more effective use and development of artillery was central to the ultimate British success on the Western Front. The development of indirect fire, meteorology, creeping barrages and aerial coordination were key components in what has become known as the ‘learning curve’ of the British Army. However the scale of bombardment that led to the British firing over one million shells per week in the concluding months of the War was achieved through a monumental shift in shell production in Britain. The creation of the Ministry on Munitions in 1915, galvanising shell production through the creation of new factories, transformed Britain. To staff the munitions factories the home front was mobilised on an unprecedented scale, with women taking on hazardous work that had been traditionally a male preserve. The history of munition production stretches over two of the themes of the BBC World War One at Home stories; about Women and how war transformed their status, and Working for the War, the production boom that fuelled the frontline.
As an AHRC-funded adviser to the BBC I had the opportunity to advise on munition stories in a number of locations and in one particular case this involved fieldwork. This was in Coventry, central to munitions in the First World War, and whose workers were both praised and castigated by the wartime government. The fitting of fuses and explosives into shells had traditionally been carried out at Woolwich Arsenal but such was the scale of demand a huge number of factories known as a National Filling Factories were built around the country. I was particularly interested to be involved in the story of National Filling Factory No. 10, Whitmore Park, Coventry or White and Poppe’s, as it was better known locally. Some preliminary research threw up a lot of information about the company who operated the filling factory on behalf of the Ministry. In 1899 working from a site lower down Drake Street, just off Lockhurst Lane, two engineers, Alfred James White and Peter August Poppe, engine and gearbox manufacturers, had seized the opportunity to grow as part of the development of the automotive industry. As precision engineers their work was ideally situated to address munitions production and they first diversified into shell manufacture during the Boer War. Returning to their traditional manufacturing base the company was ideally placed to respond to the demands for massive high quality shell production in the First World War and the company expanded onto a massive 66 acre site part of which is still in existence.
I met Siobhán Harrison, BBC journalist producing the World War One at Home programmes, in Coventry at Drake Street on a wet November day, equipped with plans kindly provided by the Herbert Museum & Art Gallery in Coventry to see what remained of the original factory and local people remembered of it. From the archaeological perspective the visit was illuminating; what became clear was that Whitmore Park was much more than a factory. Despite continual use and change on the site, a return to munitions during the Second World War and becoming part of Jaguar and other automotive components manufacture, much of the layout remained the same. The site was served with railways, sidings into sheds and the shell filling buildings were constructed to minimise the risk of a chain reaction of explosions. The core buildings were off ‘Swallow Road’ and the munitions buildings, now demolished had become the home of Swallow Sidecars which became SS Cars, then Jaguar and later used by Dunlop Aviation Division.
We were delighted to be provided with more information from the site staff from their own recollections and maps. What became clear was that the site was much more than a factory; by 1918 there were 12,000 staff recruited from far and wide, the majority of who lived adjacent to the factory in dormitories and factory houses. This in turn required a vast infrastructure; cinema, shops, swimming baths and allotments. Scattered amongst the buildings, many being demolished, were several of these buildings, the baths and the bank; relics of the first factory on the site. The munitions workers had a factory magazine; The Limit. Foleshill Park and other areas around the factory had ‘munitions cottages’ that were used long after the War ended.
A day’s work provided only a few minutes commentary on the White and Poppe story, but made us both aware of the impact munitions had on the landscape and people of Coventry and its legacy.