Explosive start for Oxfordshire's car-making industry

Dale Johnston with First World War shell casings

Dale Johnston with First World War shell casings Buy this photo

First published in News Banbury Cake: Photograph of the Author by , Reporter covering Headington and Marston. Call me on (01865) 425411

OXFORD car manufacturer William Morris had just got started when the outbreak of war threatened to derail his fledgling car business.

His first prototype had been announced just two years before when Britain joined the conflict in 1914.

He was not well poised to make a substantial contribution to the war effort. His cars were too small for the military, his men left to fight, his manufacturing capacity was limited and a mass market had yet to be found for the motor car.

After small orders for hand grenades and making bomb cases for massive howitzer guns his luck changed in 1916 as the battle of the seas raged.

He won a contract from the Ministry of Munitions for a mechanised mine sinker so the deadly bombs could be laid at the correct depth.

Sub-contractors made the parts and they were assembled at the Cowley factory, the same way his cars were being manufactured at the outbreak of war.

He made 250 sinkers a week – later rising to 2,000 – and Morris was appointed “Controller of Mine Sinker Assembly” and his first public honour, the OBE, in 1918.

Another existing industry found a way to help the war effort, wool manufacturers in Witney made thousands of blankets that were sent to soldiers and sailors.

Some skeletal remains are all that remain of a massive county operation to supply the frontline with munitions, south of the M40 at Banbury.

During the conflict the 132-acre site’s 1,500 workers filled about four million shells and mines with the explosive lyddite to feed the guns on the front line.

The story forms a new exhibition at Banbury Museum, called Feeding the Front Line: Banbury’s explosive role in the First World War.

Banbury Cake:

William Morris, later Lord Nuffield, left, at the wheel of a Bullnose Morris in 1913 

Curator Dale Johnston said: “I don’t think people realise what a significant role the filling factory played.

“People will drive across the site without realising it because the M40 cuts through the site today.

“But we hope the exhibition makes people aware of the history.”

In addition to the original artefacts from the factory, secondary school pupils will have guided tours of the factory site which is usually off limits to visitors.

Mr Johnston said: “Without the munitions factories then how might history have played out differently?

“It’s dangerous to speculate, but this was an all-encompassing war where production played a key role and each country was fighting to produce as much ammunition as they could.’’ The factory began production on April 25, 1916, after a public outcry the previous May about the lack of high explosive shells at the front known as the Shells Scandal.

It was one of a network of factories Britain’s Minister of Munitions David Lloyd George established to meet the increasing demand for shells at the front.

The majority of munitions produced were small calibre six, 12 and 18 pound high-explosive shells, but it also made larger 9.2-inch calibre and mustard gas shells.

Initially the factory was one unit designed to fill 100 tonnes of shells each week, but within a year a second unit open to the south.

By March 1917 the factory was filling 7,000, 9.2 inch shells, 10,000, 60 pound shells and 15,000 six-inch shells each week, according to Mr Johnston.

Two months later, British artillery commanders on the Italian Front gave the factory a glowing recommendation for the quality of the shells it produced.

The majority of filling factories were decommissioned after the war, raised to the ground as the Government attempted to make the sites safe.

But the filling factory at Banbury stayed open to decommission millions of unfired shells, it was not until 1924 when the plant was stripped of its machinery, though the ruins still remain.

In 2012 English Heritage designated the derelict factory as a Scheduled Monument giving it legal protection as an archaeological site.

Factory turned out gas shells for final offensive

ON the foggy morning of September 25, 1918, the Allies attacked the fortified German positions known as the Hindenburg Line.

It was a formidable obstacle protected by thick belts of barbed wire along the St Quentin Canal, where battalions of German troops were housed in bomb-proof shelters.

But under a fearsome bombardment of high-explosives and mustard gas shells from Banbury’s munitions factory British, Australian and American troops took the position.

Dale Johnston revealed the factory began making mustard gas shells from June 1918.

He said: “It’s a surprise that chemical weapons were being produced here in Banbury.

“Chemical weapons are still in the news today but people do not think of them being connected with their town. So there’s quite an important story that we are bringing out into the limelight.”

Mustard gas was a blister agent first used by the Germans in 1917.

The skin on troops affected by mustard gas would blister, their eyes swell and they could have internal bleeding.

It would take some victims up to five weeks to die after exposure to it.

Shell scandal that rocked Whitehall

Banbury Cake:

David Lloyd George

ON May 14, 1915, Britain was rocked by an article in The Times reporting that an attack at Aubers Ridge in France had faltered due to lack of munitions.

The article’s author, war correspondent Colonel Charles Repington, said there were not enough high-explosive shells to destroy the German positions.

The resulting ‘Shells Scandal’ nearly brought down the Government as it struggled to meet the demands of 20th century warfare on an industrial scale.

In the wake of the scandal the Munitions Ministry, headed by David Lloyd George, was set up tasked with building a network of factories across Britain, like National Filling Factory No.9 at Banbury.

Dale Johnston, curator of the exhibition Feeding the Frontline at the Banbury Museum, said artillery was the dominant weapon in the Great War.

He said: “Taken as a whole artillery caused more casualties than small arms.

“It was the biggest killer in the war so if we imagine the damage that each shell can do and then times that by four million you can think how much fire power was created at Banbury.

“People might be quite shocked if you imagine that as a desolate area of land.”

War proved watershed moment for Britain's women

Banbury Cake:

Women producing shells in a workshop at the National Filling Factory near Banbury

THE First World War saw women take a central role in Britain’s workforce.

The necessities of ‘total war’ meant every resource was mobilised for the war effort to give Britain the material edge needed for victory.

One aspect was the influx of women into the workplace, which for Banbury meant women working at National Filling Factory No.9.

The curator of the Banbury Museum exhibition Feeding the Frontline, Dale Johnston, said about a third of the factory’s 1,500 workers were women. He said: “When you look at photographs there’s the impression that it was about 95 per cent women but that is because photographers looked at what was unusual in the day.

“The First World War had a major impact on women in the workplace and filling factories like the one in Banbury were part of that.”

Mr Johnston added: “At its height the factory was the largest employer in Banbury.

“But it was hush-hush during war and there was no mention of it in the local press which was deliberate.”

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