It was one of the worst wartime disasters in British history, as well as the country’s biggest involving an explosion. The month marks the 102nd anniversary of the Chilwell Catastrophe, in which a World War One ammunition factory exploded, killing 134 Nottingham workers and injuring dozens more.
There’s a reason World War One is still referred to as the Great War, as never before in the field of human conflict had warfare been enacted on such a large scale. Less than a century after Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo, warfare had moved on to such an extent that the ordinary soldier, though still important, had been sidelined by the rapidly evolving nature of technological warfare. Artillery was nothing new on the battlefield – General Han Shizhong used it to capture the city of Fujian in 1132 – but the sheer scale, accuracy and impact of artillery had been revolutionised. The total number of shells fired during the war is estimated to be in the high hundreds of millions, if not billions, with the German army alone being said to have fired over 350 million rounds during the four-year conflict, and shell explosions estimated to have accounted for around 60% of deaths on the battlefield, as some artillery could hit targets up to 80 miles away.
The staggering demand for artillery shells posed a problem for a British army that was hopelessly ill-equipped at the war’s commencement. Woolwich arsenal could not match the demand, leading to such a shortfall of shells that, over a year into the war in 1915, artillery units were still having to heavily ration the amount of shells they could fire in a day.
Once news of the scandal reached the breakfast tables of the British public, then Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George persuaded the Prime Minister that there was a desperate need to create a Ministry solely tasked with munitions production. Determined to find men of “push and go” George tasked Viscount Chetwynd with finding a site suitable to host a factory large enough to meet the demand for explosive shells, as well as investigating the most efficient method of producing them. Time was of the essence.
Chetwynd had no experience in either explosives or shell production, but understood the importance of efficiency and endeavor. He settled on Chilwell as the site, and soon established an experimental unit – named the National Shell Filling Factory – in which, over the next three years, the majority of British artillery rounds fired during World War One would be produced. The site was on flat ground, with good road and rail links, but also placed in enough of a dip that, should an explosion occur, surrounding areas would be shielded.
Some have speculated that disaffected electricians sabotaged the plant, whereas others have rumoured of IRA or fifth columnist involvement
His next problem came with finding workers. The heart of Britain’s engineering workforce had been ripped out, equipped for war and sent to the Western Front, and older workers proved too difficult to retrain – even those that could adapt were far too few in number. The answer? Britain’s great untapped workforce: women.
Prior to World War One, women played little part in manufacturing, save for some light and often poorly paid work. Suffragettes had been campaigning for the vote for half a century, and carried that battle into the War with the demand to work and support the effort. Emmeline Pankhurst met with Lloyd George and arguments raged as valuable time was wasted, but eventually women were permitted to work in the factory. This brought with it a range of new changes to the factory, including the building of new toilets and the provision of canteens, as a large number of them were severely malnourished.
Often overlooked as an integral cog in Britain’s war machine at the time, female workers often out-performed their male counterparts, quickly proving themselves more than able, and making a mockery of the debate that had raged to keep them out of the workplace. Smaller hands and more nimble fingers made them adept at performing the more delicate tasks involved with shell production and by 1916 the Chilwell factory had produced over a million shells, 25,000 mines and 2,500 large bombs for the RAF, all less than nine months since production began. Employing 4,000 women (around 40% of the total workforce) who routinely worked 12-hour shifts, the National Shell Filling Factory would go on to produce over 60% of the total shells used by Britain during the war. At its peak in June 1918, the factory produced 46,725 shells in a single 24-hour period, setting a national record.
The work was not without its dangers, however. The workers at Chilwell were the first to exhibit the yellowed skin and green hair that came as a nasty side effect to handling TNT, and chest pains, nausea and skin irritations were a constant complaint. Many became ill, some died, but work continued, as human safety was but a minor distraction in the grand scheme of efficient productivity. The nature of the work led to two more constant safety concerns: explosion and sabotage. The first seems like a natural byproduct of creating such a large number of explosive materials every day, and the latter also has an air of inevitability about it, considering the integral role the Chilwell factory was playing in Britain’s war effort.
Then, in July 1918, just four months before the end of the war, a devastating explosion tore through the factory. It’s hard to comprehend the sheer scale of the destruction it caused, but the blast was heard for over 30 miles, even shattering windows two miles away in Long Eaton. Body parts were blown into the air, scattering bloody red ribbons around the land of neighboring farms, and early reports of sixty deaths were sadly optimistic. In total, the blast killed 134, severely injuring another 250 as Chilwell became the biggest explosive disaster in Britain’s history. So brutal was the impact, that the majority of the victims could not be identified, and what remains could be recovered were buried unnamed in a mass grave in Attenborough village.
The blast was heard for over 30 miles, even shattering windows two miles away in Long Eaton
No true explanation for the incident has ever been found. Smaller explosions had occurred at the factory before, but nothing remotely close to this scale. Some have speculated that disaffected electricians sabotaged the plant, whereas others have rumoured IRA or fifth columnist involvement. Sabotage had long been suspected within munitions production factories, as a disproportionate number of shells failed to explode during battle.
Over a century later, those unexploded shells are still being discovered in Flanders Fields, averaging at least one fatality a year, including two as recently as 2014. The extent of the problem – which has become known as the ‘Iron Harvest’ – is such that there remains a dedicated Belgian army squad, DOVO, which deals with the collection and destruction of the dormant shells, which unearths around 100 tons of munitions every year, many of which would have been manufactured right here in Nottingham.
Scotland Yard launched an investigation into the Chilwell explosion, and Lord Chetwynd was convinced his factory had been sabotaged, even going as far as to name who he suspected to be the culprit. However, the event remains shrouded in mystery as the report was never published, and Chetwynd would never learn of its findings.
Today, a small obelisk to memory of the victims stands on the site of the explosion, inscribed with a bizarrely statistical memorial:
“Erected to the memory of those men and women who lost their lives by explosions at the National Shell Filling Factory Chilwell 1916–1918. Principal historical facts of the factory. First sod turned 13 September 1915. First shell filled 8 January 1916. Number of shells filled within one year of cutting the first sod 1,260,000. Total shells filled 19,359,000 representing 50.8% of the total output of high-explosive shells both lyddite and amatol 60pd to 15inch produced in Great Britain during the war. Total tonnage of explosive used 121,360 tons. Total weight of filled shell 1,100,000 tons.” Even in death, the workers lost to the explosion are remembered only for their productivity.
It’s incredulous that Britain's largest loss of life during a single explosion during the Great War came not on the battlefields of France and Belgium, but in a factory in Chilwell. More incredulous still is the fact that those 134 victims, many of whom remain unknown, continue to rest without justice.