Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Night in a German Munitions Factory

The role of women in industry during World War I was pivotal, no matter which side of the battle they were on.  Kate Kestian's passage from her book, "When Our Men Lay in the Trenches" described the frightening, unsafe conditions that women faced while working in a munitions factory for the German side, while their husbands were fighting on the front lines. 

Kestian described how the smell of ether overtook her that first day in the factory.  "You'll get used to it," promised an elderly worker.  "Tomorrow you won't even notice it!"  Only sometimes, Kestian explains, is she seized by a "paralysing weariness" that makes her "eyelids feel like lead" and gives her double vision. 

Women that did the same job as Kestian used a cutting machine with razor sharp blades that would cut sticks of gun powder to be put in missiles.  Other women then grabbed the sticks and bundled and packed them.  These jobs required absolute concentration and accuracy at all times.

Many women, however, were forced to take night shifts so that they could tend to their children during the day and had little, if any, sleep.   Exhaustion, coupled with dangerous equipment and the effects of the ether, made their work a ticking time bomb.

"I had been standing in my place at the table for about a week when it happened.  A scream, as if from many mouths and yet just one single scream, rose through the room."

A woman's hand had been severed in half.   She was a mother with four children at home--whose husband was already wounded in the war-- and was horrified at the prospect  of having to go to the hospital herself.    Although in shock, she knew she had to support her children.

"She felt for her injured hand and a smile crossed her deathly pale face. 'Thank God, it's only the left.' "

After the blood had been cleaned up, and they had a break, the women returned to their work.

"It's been one of those nights!" stated a supervisor.  "But at least everyone keeps awake when things go crazy."

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