Stanhope Alexander Forbes was an influential British artist whose works were well received during his lifetime. He was often called “the father of the Newlyn School”. In my search for something interesting to write about for this series I came across his famous oil painting The Munitions Girls. It was one of the more interesting paintings in his body of work for an artist who generally painted outdoor landscapes.
While I’m not entirely certain we can call this a history painting, I wondered why Forbes would choose to paint this scene. He was 53 years of age when the First World War broke, too old to serve, but his direct link to the war came by way of his son Alec, who served in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. Forbes painted a wonderful portrait of his son in profile in his uniform. I believe it was painted in 1916. Whether it was painted prior to Alec’s departure for France is unclear. His son was killed in action in the early autumn of 1916.
It is surprising to me that Forbes didn’t paint more genre paintings related to the war. They really are few and far between. In 1918 he painted a trio of women sail-making onboard HMS Essex at Devonport. This painting is in the Imperial War Museum, London. In the same year, he also embarked on a painting which featured women workers at a steelworks. In fact these are the women of the Kilnhurst Steelworks (as seen above), which was converted to make shells and ammunition.
How did we get here? Many steelworks across Great Britain were converted into armaments factories following a shortage of shells on the front line in 1915. Sir John French, commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force, in particular, angrily complained to a war correspondent of The Times about the lack of shells available to his artillery at Battle of Aubers Ridge on 9 May 1915. Here the British suffered casualties upwards of 23,000 men. It was an out-and-out disaster. Eventually when news reports made their way home about what had happened, the “shell crisis” became a national scandal which eventually saw the creation of a new Ministry of Munitions. It became their job to increase shell production. But how were they going to find a new workforce to make these shells with large numbers of men still enlisting into the British Army? The answer was simple. Women were already branching out into the workforce in Britain, especially industry and farming at the time and it was a no brainer to enlist the “munitionettes” into new armaments factories.
Stanhope Forbes’ The Munitions Girls is a wonderful example of what employment in this factories was like for munitions workers. While things seem orderly, work was dangerous, tiresome, repetitive, hours were long and pay was poor compared to men. Those who became shell-fillers risked their health often suffering from TNT poisoning. Their skin turned yellow and they were commonly known as ‘canaries’. Forbes painting also shows us the different types of work munitions workers engaged in. For instance, in the foreground, two women are stacking shells, while others in the background are operating machinery, weighing powder, filling shells and cleaning. In short, it’s fair to say these types of jobs transformed women’s lives during the First World War.