The first of two programmes about the First World War, presented by legendary BBC correspondent Kate Adie and filmed in the North East, is broadcast on Monday.
Kate, who grew up in Sunderland, visited BAE Systems Munitions’ new £75m plant in Washington and the site of its historic factory in Birtley when she returned to the region to film in March.
The Killing Factories is part of the BBC’s World War One At Home series and tells the story of the urgent construction in 1915 of munitions factories like Birtley in response to the so-called “Shell Scandal” – the public outcry, which brought down the government, at the shortage of ammunition.
With men away at war the new factories employed thousands of women and – in the North East wounded and exiled Belgian soldiers – to produce the millions of artillery shells needed for the front.
The programme focuses on an explosion at a munitions factory near Nottingham in 1918 which killed 140 people and, using present day military expertise, asks whether it was an accident or sabotage as was suspected at the time.
Kate, who is the author of a book about the role of women in The First World War, filmed at BAE Systems Washington to demonstrate how the safety and working conditions of modern munitions factories are unrecognisable from those built in 1915.
“It’s just impossible to consider it’s the same sort of process. You could eat your dinner off the floor here. It’s fantastically ordered. It’s not particularly noisy and there are shiny machines picking up all the heavy stuff,” she said.
Kate believes the deployment of women in munitions factories played a major step in changing society: “This was the first time, in 1914, that the whole of the country was – whether they liked it or not – involved in the war effort. In the North East there were women in their thousands on Tyneside and right through County Durham who streamed towards the munitions factories. They did all kinds of jobs that they had never done before.”
The second programme, to be broadcast later in the summer, looks in depth at the role of women in the First World War. Both programmes use material produced by Northumberland-based Newsmaker PR and Video Production Ltd which was commissioned by BAE Systems to make a film about the history of the Birtley factory which closed in 2012. A shortened version of that film, which features an interview with Kate Adie, has been given to all schools in the Birtley area.
BAE Systems Munitions Head of Communications Andy Mann said: “We were delighted to be able to assist the BBC and Kate Adie in the production of these programmes. The contribution that the munitions workers made – and still make – in support of our armed forces should never be overlooked.”
The Killing Factories is broadcast at 7.30pm on Monday 2 June on BBC One in the East Midlands. It will be shown on BBC Four later in the year.