A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When corpses fell from the Nottinghamshire sky

An explosion at Britain’s biggest munitions plant killed 134 workers, but news of the disaster was suppressed

Lottie Martin was not on shift that hot Monday evening. The window was open at her home in Greyhound Yard in Beeston, Nottingham, and the 19-year-old was doing the washing up. Suddenly the house moved. “I looked up to the window and a huge mushroom spiral of smoke rose into the air,” she later recalled.

Bert Smith, eight, was playing cricket after school when the blast nearly knocked him over. A plume of dust and debris hid the sky. “It seemed to be rolling and everybody was looking at it with their mouths wide open,” he said.

But no one was in any doubt as to the cause of the explosion. Heard 30 miles away, it was one of the deadliest of the war, claiming the lives of 134 munitions workers. That it occurred not on the battlefield but on the otherwise peaceful banks of the river Trent only added to the horror. The cause was never established – or, at least, never admitted. Despite accusations of sabotage – with everyone from German spies to anarchists and the IRA being blamed – lax safety and overheating were the most likely causes of the accident at the National Shell Filling Factory No 6.

The vast munitions plant had sprung up across the once open fields of the village of Chilwell three years earlier as Britain struggled to produce enough explosive power to break the long stalemate on the Western Front. Lottie Martin was one of the Canary Girls who toiled there, so called because exposure to toxic chemicals turned their skin yellow and their hair green. She understood instantly the devastating implications of the blast and ventured out into the street as the rescue effort – such as it was – got under way, continuing until after midnight. Carts laden with the dead and injured filled the streets. “Men, women and young people burnt, practically all their clothing burnt, torn and dishevelled. Their faces black and charred, some bleeding with limbs torn off, eyes and hair literally gone,” Lottie Martin was later to write.

 

Bert Smith, too, recalled a haunting scene. “This wagon was piled up with… half-naked, blackened bodies and the arms and legs were hanging over the side. There was blood trickling out of the back of the wagon. I felt like I had a nest of rats inside my belly… what I saw there I will never forget if I live to be as old as Methuselah.”

Other witnesses described corpses falling from the sky. But only a handful of bodies were recovered. The death toll was pieced together from shift rosters. Many of those who died were young women with male relatives fighting in France. Their remains were buried in three mass graves at St Mary’s Church at Attenborough. A further 250 people were injured.

Chilwell was vital to the war effort and the forthcoming summer offensive that was to yield Allied victory. It is estimated the plant would produce some 19 million shells – half of all those used by the British during the war.

Read more: The troops from around the world that served Britain in WW1

That may explain why news of the blast was suppressed: just a single paragraph was allowed to be published in the newspapers, announcing “60 feared dead in Midlands factory explosion”.

Despite their loss, all but 12 of the 7,000 surviving workers were back at the machines the following day. A month later, Chilwell claimed to set a new production record. Winston Churchill, then Minister of Munitions, sent a telegram commending the “courage and spirit” of those who had died at their stations.

Later, there were calls for the factory to be awarded the Victoria Cross, but official recognition was withheld, The Chilwell explosion has never been forgotten locally. But the official report into the disaster was never published.

Tomorrow: Burying the dead at Chateau-Thierry

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

News
people
News
people
Voices
Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice
voices

By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site this morning

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes