A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Blood and gutsy fortitude on the factory floor

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I found work in a factory one hour away from Cologne. When I entered the factory floor, the following day, heavy air enveloped me. For a moment I felt myself sway on my feet so that I had to sit down.


“It’s the ether,” said an elderly worker. “You’ll get used to it. Tomorrow you won’t even notice it!” And, indeed, I quickly got accustomed to the smell. They say that it makes you ill, but I was sure I could cope. Only sometimes, after midnight, I was seized by a paralysing weariness. My eyelids felt like lead and I began to see double.


This was dangerous because, even though the work was less strenuous than what I’d been used to, here too I had to operate a machine which demanded accurate handling. I was working with gunpowder which had to be filled into missiles. The machine cut it to the right shape. It was my job to reach past razor-sharp blades, grab the neatly cut sticks of gunpowder and push them across the table where four pairs of hands were putting them into bundles and packing them into cases.


I had to operate the cutting machine at the right speed so that everyone at the table was kept busy. And there was plenty of work! It was imperative that one did not lose concentration for a single moment. Great speed was required when grabbing the sticks of powder, and our working rhythm tended to get faster and faster. The nightshift was particularly dangerous. All of us had other duties at home. Indeed, many women took on night shifts so that, during the day, they could take care of their children. There was little time for sleep. It was at night that weariness crept into the limbs, especially around midnight, before the big break, when the air in the room had become dense and sticky.


I had been standing in my place at the table for about a week when it happened. A scream, as if from many mouths and yet just one single scream, rose through the room. A spirited young girl immediately rallied round and put a makeshift tourniquet on the arm of the injured woman. The machine had severed half her hand…. She simply had not been quick enough. The accident had caused her to faint and she only came to after the men from the fire brigade had given her first aid.


“I don’t want to go on a stretcher. Not on a stretcher!” she screamed. “And, anyway, what’s wrong with my hand?” “Nothing to worry yourself about,” said one of the men. “But you do have to go to hospital.” “To hospital?” the woman repeated, horrified. “I have four children at home! Is it not enough that my husband lies wounded in some hospital already? You won’t get me there! No you won’t.” She felt for her injured hand and a smile crossed her deathly pale face. “‘Thank God, it’s only the left.” Supported on both sides, she left the room. She absolutely refused to lie down on a stretcher and only agreed to being driven to the hospital so as to get a proper bandage for her hand.


For a brief moment the machines had come to a halt. Now they began working again, just for another quarter of an hour, until it was time for the big midnight break. One minute before it started, the supervisor as usual called out: “Now, begin to gather up all remaining bits of powder!” A woman, so pale that it seemed that at any minute she too would need a stretcher, suddenly began to shout: “I want that blood on the floor cleaned up during the break! I don’t want to see it! I can’t work properly while there remains a single speck of blood on the floor!” Some workers tried to calm her down.

When, after an hour’s break in the canteen, we returned, the floor had been scrubbed clean.


And again the machines began to work. Again our hands moved swiftly among the blades grabbing at the sticks while agile fingers neatly wound spiralling ribbons around the still moist and clammy powder. Soldiers without cockades on their caps were busy carrying the filled cases into the drying rooms. With bayonets at the ready the guards kept an eye on working prisoners who whisperingly pleaded with us to slip them a cigarette.


“Let me go! Keep your hands off me!” a woman suddenly shouted. The officer in charge of the guards had been accusing her of having given a prisoner a cigarette. It was a charge she vehemently denied: “I’ve got work to do here! It’s a question of keeping one’s eyes open so that one doesn’t get one’s fingers chopped off. Keep away from me, you, Sir, with your fancy braids and so very far away from the fighting front!”


The officer looked questioningly at the supervisor who shrugged his shoulders. No one knew how the cigarette got on the table.


“It’s been one of those nights!” sighed the supervisor. “But at least everyone keeps awake when things go crazy.”


Käte Kestien was the pen name of the film-maker Marie M Harder (1898-1936). Translation by Agnès Cardinal first published in ‘Women’s Writing on the First World War’ (OUP, 1999)


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