Many engineers were not allowed to sign up to the forces as they were deemed indispensable and instead they supported the war from home. The increased need for munitions and related items meant a new workforce was needed, both to meet demand and because many men had gone to war; women formed the core of this.

Home Forces

Harry Stephenson Ellis served with No. 3 Signals Section of the Durham Royal Engineers Volunteer Home Force. However, he had originally requested foreign service. Ellis wrote to Lieutenant Colonel Walsh to request leave from his position as Borough Electrical Engineer in South Shields to join the Royal Engineers. The request was refused as Ellis’s work as a skilled electrical engineer at home was recognised as being of more use to the war effort than joining the ranks of the Royal Engineers:

“…I have come to the conclusion that you really have absolutely no business or right to leave the important post which you are now holding".

To dissuade him from joining the Royal Engineers in France, Walsh then suggested he enrol in the Volunteer Corps. Ellis did not give up easily and applied in 1916 for a commission in the Royal Flying Corps. Although not yet on active service, Major General Shaw (Home Forces) described in May 1916 how Ellis’s method of painting street lamps was favourably received by the Field Marshall; he sent drawings on how to minimise white light on the ground produced by arc lamps. By April 1917 Ellis had finally offered his services as a National Service Volunteer:

“Your offer has been recorded, but in view of the nature of your occupation it can only be considered after dealing with the offers of men engaged in work of less essential importance.”

Ellis did not give up; such was his patriotism and desire to enlist, even though he now accepted this would be on the home front and November 1917 Ellis had succeeded to join the war effort. He was accepted as a Lieutenant in the Volunteer Force, County of Durham Volunteer Engineers, exactly two years after his initial request. He was the commanding officer for No.3 Signals Section of the Durham Royal Engineers Volunteer Corps. In May 1919, he received orders for the disbandment of the Volunteer Force and the re-opening of the Territorial Force. He was in command of checking all remaining stores and the accommodation at the Drill Hall.

“I am commanded by the Army Council to inform you that in recognition of your services as an officer of the Volunteer Force in the Durham Royal Engineers (V.) you have been granted the Honorary Rank of Lieutenant…I am to take this opportunity of conveying the thanks of the Army council for your services to the Country during the Great War, and for the excellent work you have done.”

Ellis left Durham in 1919 to take up employment as Borough Electrical Engineer in Southampton. His story highlights how engineers who remained on the home front, continuing their work, helped the war effort. Despite pressure to fight many had to remain in post at home as their occupation was so skilled it could not be replicated by another. It was also important that their expertise was used to remain ahead of the enemy and not to give them the advantage in warfare.

NAEST 155 03 114 Photograph of Lt Ellis
Photograph of Ellis in the Royal Engineer Signals. Read his biography in Resources.

NAEST 155 03 06 Volunteer Force certificate
Printed certificate for appointment to Volunteer Force.


War brought with it a huge increase in demand for munitions, at the same time the workforce was reduced by men signing up. By 1918, almost a million women were employed in munitions and engineering works, with 80% of shells being made by women by 1917: in the decade before only 212,000 had been employed in these areas. A government policy was introduced to ensure their training, ‘Dilution’.

Olive Monkhouse, Chief Woman Dilution Officer, Ministry of Munitions gave a paper on this at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, a debate followed. It was accepted that when properly trained the women were in fact as good as, if not better, than the men. Men are in part credited with the programme’s success "The successful employment …in an almost equal degree to the skilled man, and the employer": the employer in selecting tasks and the man ‘using all their brains and skill’ to train, and socialise the work environment. Concerns for the women’s capabilities were very real, they had to be properly trained as soldiers lives could literally depend on it. Concerns about the reaction of the existing workforce and management were also paramount as some managers refused to believe women were capable of being fitters, tool-turners etc. Monkhouse also notes that the women "face[d] obstacles both necessary and  unnecessary"; some male staff members would tease, or even sexually harass, the women and thus their safety was a real issue; welfare also affected production and a Health of Munition Workers' Committee was formed. Practical problems such as a lack of facilities also had to be overcome, as was the fact that most of the women were not used to factory work, organisation or associated environments.

Concerns were real and practical: this was a new realm for most of the women and the concern for their welfare was uppermost. Discussion followed Monkhouse's paper, on whether these women might remain in engineering after the war and what the effects on the ‘comfort and happiness’ of their homes might be.

Michael Longridge, the President, acknowledged that Monkhouse got top billing and that she was something of a sensation and summed up the situation of women in factories as "a sign of the times".  We are told several women were in the audience and Longridge was keen for them to speak but they would not. Monkhouse was the first women to give a paper.

  • Heaton works lathe operator c1917
  • Napier laboratory 1915
  • Boring a Lion cylinder 1915
  • Making the Napier Aero engine in 1915
  • Women workers at the National Shell Filling Factory, Chilwell
  • Press photograph of engineering workshop during WW1
  • Members of the Women’s Forestry Corps in Sussex
  • Press photograph of a women undertaking skilled work during WW1
  • Press photograph of women factory workers during WW1
The photographs show just how varied the work that women undertook was: and the variety of new skills that therefore had to the taught and obtained. This new workforce, alongside the remaining male workers, not only delivered munitions but also worked on other weapons and in back offices and research roles. Both at home and on the Continent women worked in forestry, medicine and as drivers.

Click here to read the full paper and discussions. Or here to read about the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield.

Views from the Home Front

Oliver Heaviside, seen here, became a telegraph clerk for the Anglo-Danish Telegraph Company, later the Great Northern Telegraph Company, in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1868. After 1874, he began work on a series of problems in telegraphy and signal transmission using experimentation, mathematics and vector analysis. He had long and famous disagreements with Sir William Henry Preece over the introduction of inductance to long distance communication cables to improve the transmission of signals, amongst others and was an active letter writer. Heaviside continued his correspondence with leading engineers and scientists throughout the war. They contain commentary on the war, including personal views.

Poisonous gases were one area of debate, between Heaviside and the Oxford University lecturer Dr CV Burton. In 1915 Burton went to work in the Royal Aircraft Factory, Department H (Physics) at Farnborough; he was killed in an explosion there in 1917. His views on the use of poisonous gases offer a window into how people at home felt about aggressive methods at the front:

“If it is merely a question of dirty tricks played on occasion, like white flag treachery, we needn’t follow the methods of the enemy; but when methods are resorted to which give an advantage to the user and may be or paramount military importance, we can’t afford to fight such a one-sided battle, whatever degree of barbarity may be involved. Don’t you agree? One needn’t be vindictive enough to choose a specially painful way when more humane means are available, but I’m afraid any gases which can be used in sufficient quantities to be effective will cause fearful suffering. We can’t help that: the alternative is to let ourselves to be beaten, because we are too considerate to fight the enemy with his own weapons; which would mean that the chlorine-fiends would rule the earth”.

Ironically it was phosgene (used as a chemical weapon) which killed him. Burton would also share anecdotes of his wartime work and experiences:

“One of our pilots had a thrilling adventure the other day. He started from Farnborough to take a new type of machine to the front: it is about 1 ½ hours flight. As he was nearing the French coast, in driving rain, the engine suddenly seized, the propeller smashed with the sudden stoppage, & bits of the engine flew about, some of them penetrating the wings. He could see no land, and took off his coat and waistcoat in readiness for a plunge into the foaming sea (it was very rough). Then he caught sight of a blacking object that looked like Boulogne pier & made for it;... say 120 m.p.h. The ambulance people rushed out to his assistance, but he had managed to turn up-wind, and alight in a field without further mishap.”

Another correspondent was George Frederick Charles Searle, he informed Heaviside how Burton died:

“Burton was killed about 15 or 16 months ago at the Royal Aircraft ’Establishment’ (late ‘Factory’). He was doing something with Phosgene, a very poisonous gas. This is easily liquefied and he had a ‘syphon’ (like a soda water syphon) of the liquid. The bottle burst (it was not at high pressure). Burton got the stuff all over him. He seemed at first as if he had just recovered but a few hours later died.” Tragically, Searle goes on to say, ‘Mrs Burton a day or two later took poison and died also.”

Through letters we get a glimpse of how people, indirectly, involved in the war felt and saw the conflict: Burton offers a pragmatic view which may seem shocking in today's context; he also though offers a 'fun' boys own adventure story, which suggests an element of enthusiasm for the excitement of war.

Oliver Heaviside (1850-1925). Read his biography in Resources.

Burton’s last letter to Heaviside (he died 4 weeks later) dated 30 December 1916
Burton’s last letter to Heaviside (he died 4 weeks later) dated 30 Dec 1916.

Ellis papers and image,
NAEST 155/3 IET Archives.


Factory workers, IMechE Archive except for the following used with thanks to Tyne and Wear Archive for image A7774/2 Lathe operator at Heaton Works, 1914-1918 (first in gallery) and to Imperial War Museum for images Q 30040 Women workers at the National Shell Filling Factory, Chilwell and Q106565 Members of the Women’s Forestry Corps in Sussex.

Heaverside portrait and letter excerpt, IET Archive.