Dilution, it seems to me, is breaking down a number of labour conventions which no longer answer to the real conditions of the engineering trades. The pressure of the war is doing a real service to both employers and employed by the simplification and overhauling it is everywhere bringing about.
As to the problem of what is to be done with the women after the war, one may safely leave it to the future. It is probably bound up with that other problem of the great new workshops springing up everywhere, and the huge new plants laid down. One thinks of the rapid recovery of French trade after the war of 1870, and of the far more rapid rate—after forty years of machine and transport development, at which the industry of the Allied countries may possibly recover the ravages of the present war, when once peace is signed. In that recovery, how great a part may yet be played by these war workshops!—transformed to the uses of peace; by their crowds of work-people, and by the hitherto unused intelligence they are everywhere evoking and training among both men and women.
As for the following day, my impressions, looking back, seem to be all a variant on a well-known Greek chorus, which hymns the amazing—the “terrible”—cleverness of Man! Seafaring, tillage, house-building, horse-taming, so muses Sophocles, two thousand three hundred years ago; how did man ever find them out? “Wonders are many, but the most wonderful thing is man! Only against death has he no resource.”
Intelligence—and death! They are written everywhere in these endless workshops, devoted to the fiercest purposes of war. First of all, we visit the “danger buildings” in the fuse factory, where mostly women are employed. About 500 women are at work here, on different processes connected with the delicate mechanism and filling of the fuse and gaine, some of which are dangerous. Detonator work, for instance. The Lady Superintendent selects for it specially steady and careful women or girls, who are paid at time-and-a-quarter rate. Only about eight girls are allowed in each room. The girls here all wear—for protection—green muslin veils and gloves. It gives them a curious, ghastly look, that fits the occupation. For they are making small pellets for the charging of shells, out of a high-explosive powder. Each girl uses a small copper ladle to take the powder out of a box before her, and puts it into a press which stamps it into a tiny block, looking like ivory. She holds her hand over a little tray of water lest any of the powder should escape. What the explosive and death-dealing power of it is, it does not do to think about.
In another room a fresh group of girls are handling a black powder for another part of the detonator, and because of the irritant nature of the powder, are wearing white bandages round the nose and mouth. There is great competition for these rooms, the Superintendent says! The girls in them work on two shifts of ten and one-half hours each, and would resent a change to a shorter shift. They have one hour for dinner, half an hour for tea, a cup of tea in the middle of the morning—and the whole of Saturdays free. To the eye of the ordinary visitor they show few signs of fatigue.