HM Factory Gretna
HM Factory, Gretna (His Majesty's Factory), was a World War I munitions factory located in Southern Scotland next to the Solway Firth, Dumfries and Galloway. Described as "the biggest factory in the world", it was 9 miles long, 2 miles wide, and stretched from Eastriggs in the west, past Gretna and across the Scottish/English border to Longtown in the east.
The site was chosen for its remoteness from populated areas, but good access for services and supplies, which still holds true for a number of military facilities located in the surrounding area today. It would also prove difficult for the Luftwaffe to reach, and the area itself provided natural cover, with the sea air and mist from the surrounding hills combining to obscure the site from the air.
Codename Moorside, the factory was built to produce Cordite for the British Army in response to a shortage of shells on The Front. As early as 1915, British and Allied troops were reported to be suffering enormous losses as their artillery was starved of ammunition, while their adversaries had no such problems. Although the Allies had the artillery to support their operations, its Cordite propellant was in short supply, the reserves of acetone required for its production were simply not available. Acetone was produced by distillation from wood, itself a limited resource, and also in demand. The breakthrough came when a process for producing acetone by fermentation, previously considered to be of little value, was scaled up and used to replace the wood distillation process, allowing acetone to be produced from grain, an annual crop.
Production began with Cordite RDB (Research Department formula B), but was later switched to Cordite MD (MoDified) as wood-based acetone availability improved. The RDB variant was found to become unstable if stored for long periods.
Numbers associated with the factory were impressive: 800+ tons of ammunition produced per week; 30 miles of road; 100 miles of water main; 125 miles of railway track; 34 railway engines; water treatment plant handling 10 million gallons each day; power station for the factory and towns; telephone exchange handling 2.5 million calls; bakeries producing 14,000 meals and 13,000 loaves; laundry for 6,000 items per day. The factory employed 20,000 workers , a number which peaked at 30,000 during construction.
To accommodate the workers, the first government sponsored new town in Britain was created within the site, Gretna - the first such town to be sponsored in the 1900s, which was quickly followed by the smaller village of Eastriggs a few miles to the west. Until they were completed, the huge number of workers was accommodated in surrounding towns and villages, resulting in what would now be referred to as hot bed working. Familiar to workers on offshore oil platforms, this means organising working and sleeping into shifts, so that as one worker leaves their accommodation to start work, another is coming off shift to take their place, thereby maximising use of the available facilities.
After World War I ended, the factory was dismantled. Despite the huge size of the operation, almost nothing remains of its construction other than a few anonymous building remains and foundations. Although it covered a large area, the layout would have been relatively sparse, and construction lightweight. This would ensure sufficient distance between buildings to avoid a chain reaction if there should be an accident in one, and to minimise the effects of flying materials in the event of an explosion.
During the 1970s, a local historian discovered and resurrected much of the knowledge of this site, and a local exhibition dedicated to the factory has been developed to the west of the town.
Devil's Porridge was the name given to a mixture of nitroglycerin and gun-cotton used to produce cordite at the Factory.
The name was penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in a 1918 article following a visit to the factory, when he wrote "The nitroglycerin on the one side and the gun-cotton on the other are kneaded into a sort of a devil's porridge" a description which came to be associated with the material produced at Moorside. The actual material was Cordite RDB (Research Department formula B), a mixture devised when acetone supplies ran low during World War I, limiting production of the more usual Cordite MD (MoDified). A high explosive, cordite is used by the military as a smokeless propellant in guns and rockets. The name follows the final appearance of the material, which is extruded into rods, similar to uncooked spaghetti, and then bundled. By varying the material geometry, the burn rate for different applications is easily controlled.
World War One At Home Project
A short film summarises activities on the site as part of the World War One At Home project, a partnership between the BBC and Imperial War Museums. In it, Gerry Jackson explores the munitions workers who produced what was known as the Devil's Porridge.
Devil's Porridge Museum
The museum relocated to new custom built premises in 2014.
The following information comes from their 2014 web site (check if travelling after this date in case there have been changes!) Opening Times
1 March to 31 November
Monday to Saturday 10am-5pm; Sundays 10am-4pm
1 December to 28 February
As above but closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays
Closed 22 December to 19 January inclusive
Concessions (Over 60s, children aged 5-16)- £4.00
Family Ticket ( 2 adults and up to 3 children)- £12.50
The Devil’s Porridge Museum, Near Stanfield Farm, Annan Road, EASTRIGGS, DG12 6TF.
Telephone: 01461 700021
E-mail: [email protected]
Although not produced at Gretna, it is worth noting that another substitute (and its subterfuge) for the standard production method was derived from maize.
Chaim Weizmann, a research chemist at the University of Manchester discovered a bacterium that could produce acetone from maize. Introduced to Winston Churchill in April 1915, his process was tested at a London pilot plant, after which he was ordered to build a full-scale factory to manufacture maize-derived acetone, establishing the Royal Naval Cordite Factory, Holton Heath, Dorset. After the war, Weizmann went on to become president of Israel,
However, one security issue remained: German U-boats threatened the ships that carried the maize needed for the fermentation process. Therefore a new source of starch was required.
In the autumn of 1917, schoolchildren and Scouts were asked to collect horse chestnuts and acorns, specifically 'without the green husks'. It was never explained to them exactly why this national campaign was required, but for their efforts, children earned 7s 6d for every hundred weight (roughly 50kg) of conkers they handed in. Acetone was produced from this, though problems with shell removal made the wider use of conkers as a starch impractical.
3 ⇑ Did conkers help to win the First World War? | English Heritage Retrieved 05/05/2014.
- Scotsman article, Oct 14, 2005
- Local newspaper summary Dead link - 2011
- Beith historians visit
- The Shell Scandal, 1915
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