The First World War was an industrial war. As it dragged on, countless quantities of munitions and supplies had to be produced to continuously feed the huge appetites of the war machines of the warring nations. As a major centre of the coal, iron and steel industries, Gwent was to play a major role.

Exiting factories quickly took up War Office contracts. The various works owned by Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds (GKN), a giant company with its origins in South Wales, were already producing materials vital to the war effort. As a result the company was brought under government control in 1915 and its total output dedicated to the war effort -steel and wire from its works in Newport and Rogerstone, nuts and bolts from its Cwmbran factory, coal from Cwmbran colliery, fire clay from Pontnewydd colliery, benzol (for making high explosives) from its Cwmbran coal by-products plant.

The Uskside Engineering Works in Newport, which had made cannons during the Crimean War, began producing twelve and fifteen inch shells within three months of the declaration of war, while C H Bailey’s Tyne Engineering Works made shell caps.

Adaptability was crucial. The giant Lysaght’s steelworks, which employed 3,000 people in Newport, soon adapted to rolling brass and zinc. Later in the war, steel sheets it rolled were used to make soldiers’ helmets.

Some factories needed more adapting than others. Lovell’s in Albany Street, Newport, famous for its ‘Toffee Rex’ and other confectionary, was not an obvious candidate for conversion. Yet in 1916, when its sugar supplies were cut by 75% and it was faced with making most of its 600 (mainly female) workers redundant, it turned to reapairing and converting ammunition boxes. It was found, for example, that machines for cutting circular toffees could be adapted to cutting holes in boxes in which to slot artillery shells. It was soon turning out 6000 ammunition boxes a week. The conversion was so successful that the factory took over additional premises in Adelaide Street, and Malpas Road. Later in the war it began to produce mine sinkers for the Admiralty and to machine parts for tanks.

New government owned ‘National’ factories were also established. In June 1915 Lloyd George, as Minister of Munitions, met with a number of leading Gwent businessmen, including Frederick Mills, Managing Director of the Ebbw Vale Company, Mr J P Whitehead of Whitehead’s Steel, Edward Steer of GKN and D A Thomas, the coalowner, at Newport Town Hall at which it was agreed to establish National Shell Factories at Ebbw Vale and Newport. Later in the year, work began on establishing the Newport factory by converting the new GWR Engine Sheds at Maesglas, although shortage of machinery meant that it was not until March 1916 that the conversion work really got moving. The first batch of 1000 shells was delivered for filling in July.

Once it was fully up and running it employed 1500 workers, over 80% of whom were women, and made an average of 5000 60 pounder shell cases per week. By the end of the war it had produced a total of 592,430 shell cases.

In 1916 a National Cartridge and Box Repair Factory was established in warehouses at Newport’s South Dock. Huge quantities of used and damaged shell cases and ammunition boxes were brought in by ship to be restored. It was a massive undertaking, employing between 2,000 and 3,000 workers, most of them women, and covering 13 acres. Used boxes and shell cases unloaded at the dock were transported by conveyor belts to the factory, where the workers used hammers, chisels and planes to put them back into shape.

In 1917 John Ford, Chief Wages Clerk at the factory became the ‘moving spirit’ behind a plan to open a ‘munitions creche’. A fund raising campaign was launched, with dances, whist drives and similar events. Women workers at the factory agreed to a levy of one penny a week. Newport businesswoman Mrs C H Bailey make significant donations and paid the salary of the matron. Premises were obtained at Pill Conservative Club in Alexandra Road and the crèche opened in November 1917.

The Ebbw Vale Steel Iron and Coal Company was well placed to make a major contribution to the war effort, having expanded and modernised its operations shortly before the war, including the building of a new steel plant with the help, ironically, of German technicians. It had also acquired iron mines in Northamptonshire, cutting dependence on vulnerable overseas supplies.

Its first order from the War Office was for light rails to construct the light railways built by the military for moving supplies in France. By 1916 it was producing 5000 tons of shell steel a week while also increasing its supply of pig-iron to other companies and producing benzene and other chemicals needed for making high explosives.

At first the shell steel was sent to other factories but Frederick Mills, the Managing Director, persuaded Lloyd George to allow the Company to manufacture its own shell cases in converted fitting shops at Victoria. The works was soon producing 5000 cases a week.

The YMCA built one of its wooden huts to provide canteen facilities for the expanded workforce, which included many women.

In recognition of the Company’s contribution to the war effort, the Prince of Wales visited in February 1918. He even went down one of the Company’s collieries, later renamed the Prince of Wales Colliery.

All these works depended heavily on coal, as did the trains that brought workers, raw materials and finished products in and out and the ships that took them overseas to the battle fronts.

Gwent’s war was fought against a backdrop of the rumbling of coal trains -up and down the Valleys, through the Severn Tunnel to Portsmouth and Southampton, from Pontymoile to the naval bases of Scotland in ‘Jellicoe Specials’.

While some munitions workers earned high wages, others felt they were trapped into low wages by government regulations under the Munitions Act which meant that from 1916 these workers could not leave their current employment without permission from their employers. At a Munitions Tribunal, set up under the Act to hear disputes, a worker at GKN Rogerstone complained that he was being paid about £1.10p for a 50 hour week –very much less than he could earn elsewhere. David Evans, a member of Ebbw Vale Trades Council, claimed, ‘Men were called upon to work 80 and 90 hours a week and then, because they refused to work further time, they were hauled up before the munitions tribunal in Newport and fined.’

At the end of the war, some concerns such as Lovell’s, found reverting to their peacetime roles relatively straightforward. For others it led to closures or contraction. By August 1918, female workers were already being laid off at the National Cartridge and Box Repair Factory.

The National Shell Factory closed almost immediately after the armistice. The ‘Maesglas girls’ were told that they were no longer needed from the day of the armistice. They would receive basic pay for the next three weeks after which they would, if seeking alternative work, be entitled to one pound a week unemployment pay for up to 26 weeks. The Employment Exchange, which had been set up in the Westgate Hotel, helped to find new work, but the alternatives offered to women –mainly laundry work or domestic service- were not popular, particularly with those women who had seen the war industries as an escape from their previous lives.