In this little story Ashley Sterne provides a glimpse into the English munitions industry during The Great War.
Punch, v149, p. 256
September 22, 1915
Stooping to Conquer
I can't tell you where it was, because that is an official secret, and if I divulge an official secret the penalty is — well, that's an official secret too, I suppose. Anyhow, boiling oil is a fool compared with it.
I went up to a policeman whom I saw at the gates. "Good afternoon," I began, waving my blue paper about; "I've come to make high explo —
"Second on the right, third on the left, second on the left again, fourth on the right, first on the left, and keep straight on till you come to a —
"Thanks," I interposed. "That's about as much as I can remember for a first instalment. Second on the left, I think you said?"
"Second on the right, third on the left —"
He was still going on with his recitation when I passed out of earshot.
By dint of asking seven more policemen and brandishing my blue paper in a conspicuous manner, I at length reached the office of which I was in search. "Good afternoon," I said; "I 've come to make a high explo —"
Someone took my blue paper away from me as I was in the act of describing a peculiarly effective parabola with it, and summoned me up to a desk. "Sign the register, please, here and here," he said, thrusting the usual cross-nibbed Government pen into my hand and passing me a piece of that charming Government blotting-paper which blots in very truth. I did as he requested, and then he handed me a book of rules and a spade-guinea.
"No, really," I protested. "I couldn't dream of accepting —"
Then I found it was only a brass disc with a number on it. "That is your metal pass," the clerk explained. "It must not be taken home as a souvenir or worn on your watch-chain, but must be dropped into the box provided for it when you leave the works to-night. You will commence work in the Cartridge Factory this afternoon."
"Where's that?" I asked.
"Second on the right, third on the left —"
"Thanks; I know that piece," I remarked hurriedly and left the office. With the assistance of a friendly professional munitioner who didn't seem to know what to do with a trolley full of brass plates I at length found my shed and duly presented myself to the assistant-foreman. "Good afternoon," I said ; "I have come to" (and here I made a twiddling motion with thumb and forefinger) "roll cartridges."
The look of relief upon the man's face when he saw that the munitions problem had been solved at last was good to behold. He beckoned me to follow him, and, making our way amid a perfect maze of wheels and belts, and cylinders going up and cylinders coming down, and pistons making drives to the off and pistons making hooks to leg, we at last reached a machine that was half mangle and half copying-press. On a ledge in front of it was a boxful of brass thimbles. These were embryo cartridges, my companion explained, and my job was to (official secret) . . . and then to (official secret) . . . after which, I had to (official secret) . . . He also showed me how to switch the engine on and off, cautioning me at the same time not to put the thimbles in upside down or I should break the punch. He then started the machine and left me . . .
A noise like a salvo of artillery nearly startled me off my stool. My machine had stopped. It had "downed tools." I issued my first complete high explosive. "You've put one in upside down," chuckled a ribald youth on the next machine. "Your punch is broke."
I heaved a sigh of relief. From the noise I judged that I had broken the whole factory, and that I should have to go and explain to Mr. Lloyd George that in consequence the War couldn't go on, and that the Government had better see about obtaining the best Peace terms possible.
The assistant-foreman came up. I quite expected him and was consumed with curiosity to know which of my ears he would elect to box. However, he merely grinned, told me I had done nothing startlingly original, and put me on to another machine.
Then I got to work in earnest. For three hours-and-a-half I stuck to my job, and then the referee blew his whistle. My machine kindly stopped without any assistance from me, and I heard someone say "Tea." In two minutes we were all out in the yard burrowing in our tea-baskets.
I was in the middle of my eighth bloater-paste sandwich when I casually looked up and saw the only man of the V.M.B. I knew who was on the Saturday afternoon shift Peter Travers. We exchanged greetings. " Your costume," observed Peter, as he helped himself to my cake, " would put the shabbiest tramp juggler to shame."
"My oldest clothes," I said, "as per advice from headquarters. What, may I ask, are you doing in last week's tennis flannels and a blazer embroidered with the arms of the Thornton Heath Chess and Draughts Club?"
"I am sorry," said Peter, "but that is an official secret. If you read the Official Secrets Act of 1899 you will find that — By the by, what 's your job?"
I drew myself up proudly. "I am making cartridge-cases longer," I said.
"Good heavens!" exclaimed Peter. "My job is to make 'em shorter! We're merely undoing each other's work. Do you think Lloyd George is aware of this scandalous waste of energy? Let's go home."
We were still debating the matter when six o'clock arrived, and we followed the stream of workers back to our respective sheds. Two hours later, with several thousand others, we attempted to board a motor-bus that normally carried thirty passengers.
"It 's all right," said Peter, as we scrambled on top, "I'm a trimmer. I'm merely taking the rough edges off your slovenly work."
"Anyway," I answered, " whatever else I've been doing I've most certainly contracted permanent curvature of the spine in my country's cause."
"And my back aches infernally," said Peter. "I wonder if there 's such a disease as munitions-back — like tennis-elbow, you know?"
"We 're merely suffering," I said, "from a little unaccustomed strain upon our sinews of war."