Caroline Rennles, munitions worker at Slade Green and Woolwich Arsenal, London 1914-1918
Caroline Rennles was 15 when the First World War began. Three brothers and her boyfriend went to fight – and she was determined to make her own contribution to the war effort.
She had been working in a factory making ladies underwear but soon she was a munitions worker filling shells at the Slade Green factory in South London.
Caroline discovered she was quick at her work and could earn the five shilling bonus offered if you could fill 60 shells a day. Sometimes, she’d help other girls who were a bit slower so that they too could claim a bonus.
In the early days of the conflict, patriotic enthusiasm for the war was high.
‘If you saw a chappie in the street, you’d say ‘why aren’t you in the army?’ - we thought it was marvellous to go to war.’
Working with explosives and chemicals had physical effects on the women, who picked up the nickname ‘canaries’– faces went ‘bright yellow’ and hair that escaped being tucked under their caps ‘went ginger’.
At the end of a shift and facing a long train journey home, the workers were sometimes greeted with kindness – but not always.
‘Of course, the porters like, knew we were all munitions kids and they used to go ‘go on girl, hop in there’ and they used to open the first class carriages, you know. And there’d be all the officers sitting there and you know, some of them used to look us as though we were insects, know what I mean? And others used to be ‘they’re doing their bits’.’
Caroline believed being so young meant she and the other girls ‘didn’t realise the danger’ of the work they were doing. But they were ready with an answer when people questioned them.
‘These old conductors used to say on the tram, ‘you’ll die in two years, cock’, that’s what they used to say to us. So we used to say, ‘we don’t mind dying for our country’.’
The work was hard and she had to travel long distances to get there and back. On her days off, she would try to sleep and do laundry. But she found time to carry out her own acts of kindness for those on the front lines.
‘I used to send ever such a lot of parcels out to different boys I knew, each parcel more or less used to cost me a pound. We used to get a big block of chocolate for five shillings. And then there used to be a tin of cigarettes, for five shillings. And then a big pack of Wrigley’s spearmints for 5 shillings….’
In 1917, Caroline went to work at Woolwich Arsenal where she made bullets.
She worked 13 days out of 14 and shifts were 12 hours a day – either 7am to 7pm or 7pm to 7am.
'The head one there was Lillian Barker …she was strict but she was a good woman. She was a proper leader you know.'
She remembered Miss Barker trying to help girls who became pregnant while working at the Arsenal by raising money to help support them. But as Caroline remembered, the attitudes of the time meant that many were reluctant to support what they viewed as immoral behaviour.
Although her job at the factory didn’t expose to her the same chemicals as she had worked with at Slade Green, Woolwich was still a munitions factory and people were sometimes severely injured.
Caroline remembered one girl had both her eyes blown out in an accident.
Despite the hardships and dangers, Caroline and many of her colleagues were young women who also wanted to have fun.
They used to write messages and short notes to the soldiers who would be receiving the boxes of ammunition being sent out from the factory.
‘I was a bit la-di-dah – I used to write ‘God bless’ but never put name and address down but a few of the girls did and used to get replies back,’ she remembered.
Occasionally, the girls would go to places where soldiers on leave or awaiting orders would gather. ‘Us in our khaki, we was the centre of attraction you can bet your life….we used to toss our old head up and think we were the cats whiskers.’
‘We used to have a really good time. I never saw anything wrong….us kids used to stick together…I suppose there was plenty that went on.’
Caroline had broken up with her pre-war boyfriend after a misunderstanding but had met Peter, an American soldier from Buffalo, New York, before he was sent to France.
‘I ran in one morning with a letter. I said ‘gather round girls I’ve just heard from Peter…and he’d put in it ‘I love you, I love, I love you, you are the most beautiful girl in the world.’’
‘They said – ‘what’s the matter with his eyesight?’’.
She and her colleagues were aware that the bullets they were making in the spring of 1918 were being sent to the front where they would be used to counter the German spring offensive.
'I know we was killing people but there you are…you go for your own side don’t you?'
When peace came, it was a surprise to Caroline.
'I didn't know nothing about the Armistice see...'
‘Tell you the truth, my dad died two days before the Armistice darling, and I loved my dad you know, and he died with that terrible flu,that was a shocking thing you know. On the Armistice Day my mum had gone to register his death, ‘cos they used to keep the bodies in the house then you know, my dad was laying in the front room in his coffin. And actually my mum had just had a little baby. I didn’t know nothing about the Armistice see, ‘cos we’d been up night and day with my dad with this terrific flu, and course when I heard the maroons go I thought it was another air raid.’
The end of the war meant the end of Caroline’s job – ‘they threw us all out on the slag heap’ she remembered.
In 1919, she met her pre-war boyfriend in the street – although she was going out with a ‘smashing man with plenty of money’, the old feelings were still there and she reunited with her childhood sweetheart.
Times were tough - ‘There was no work, thank God I had a good mother who could lend me half a crown’ – but Caroline and her husband built a life and had children.
When the Second World War came, she left London to stay with her sister-in-law and worked at Cranwell Aerodrome.
‘I was very patriotic in the first war…in the second one, darling I ran away with the kids when the bombs come, I don’t mind telling you.’
‘Every time the bombs come down I used to say to [my husband] ‘don’t let me babies die’. I could always see them being blown to bits.’
Speaking to the Imperial War Museum in 1975, Caroline reflected on the First World War
'Don’t you think it’s stupid, war? Don’t you think so? Where are we now? All those lovely boys have been killed haven’t they and we’re worst off than we’ve ever been….What’s the good of war love? They were only boys….’
Caroline Rennles died in 1985. You can hear her voice in I Was There: Room of Voices, an immersive sound installation at IWM London.