The Munitionettes


Assembling Fuses

 Mabel Lethbridge

In March 1915, at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, the British fired more shells in a single 35-minute bombardment than they had during the entire Boer War (1899-1902). This left the British Army with a severe shortage of shells, resulting in the creation of the Ministry of Munitions, whose function was to set up munitions factories across the country.

By this point, most men of working age were serving in the Army, and thus it fell to women “munitionettes” to perform the dangerous, difficult work of making shells in these munitions factories. Women were exposed to hazardous chemicals and explosives, and provided with little protection.

LETHBRIDGE Mabel Florencephoto

One of these “munittionettes” was former-Habsgirl, Mabel Lethbridge. She worked at one of the newly converted factories in Hayes, Middlesex, having lied about her age – she was only 17 years old – to be granted employment. After she had worked there for three weeks, she was assigned to ‘Shed 22,’ where she volunteered to work on the notoriously dangerous “monkey machine”, which filled shells with the toxic chemical Amatol.

Whilst working the machine during its last shift, she was involved in a devastating explosion, which led to the loss of her left leg and 13 further serious wounds. Luckily, after multiple rounds of intense surgery, she made a surprising recovery – even managing to regain her eyesight, which was thought to have been lost forever.

By way of gratitude, the British Empire awarded her the Medal of Honour. She is the youngest person to date to have received this medal. Eventually, she went on to start the ‘Cheyne Walk Estate Agency,’ and even to publish an autobiography, entitled ‘Fortune Grass,’ which documents the impact of WW1 on her incredible story.

“now a blinding flash and I felt my body being torn asunder”

“Fortune Grass” – Mabel Lethbridge