War and the moral outdoors

30/05/2017 # War and the moral outdoorsDuring the First World War hundreds of thousands of factory workers laboured to produce all kinds of weapons. After the "shell crisis" of 1915 an increasing proportion of these factory workers were women, and by 1917 that proportion had become a clear majority with at least 700,000 "munitionettes" working in the United Kingdom.

How did their work affect them morally, when they reflected on their contribution to the horror and death of an industrialised war? And what did they do to cope? "War and the Moral Outdoors" asks this question, and the project location in Tyne and Wear reflects not only the enormous war output of the region, but also the survival of a locally written diary which discusses in superb detail what it was like to carry this emotional weight.

This diary was written by Ruth Dodds, who would later become a prominent local activist and politician. During the war she worked on a production line making thousands of artillery shells. For Ruth, the difficult question of the morality of her role was answered by the "moral" outdoors. She took lengthy walks through a variety of landscapes (often natural, but sometimes urban) in order to seek out examples of life from the landscapes around her that were worthy: ones that reflected moral principles such as decency and harmony that seemed cruelly absent in war-torn Europe. Ruth's diary is a starting point for this project: we aim to remember the effort it took not simply to work in the munitions factories of the First World War (where conditions were frequently gruelling), but the effort required to bear the emotional weight of being a munitionette.

Because Ruth chose walking and landscapes to help bear that weight, we want to use her writings as the basis for a walking route centred on Gateshead and Newcastle upon Tyne that visits the kind of places she went and explains both the munitionette's burden, and how Ruth and her colleagues dealt with it. Based at the McCord Centre for Landscape at Newcastle University, the principal investigators (Dr Paul Wright and Professor Sam Turner) will work with selected community groups to research Ruth's diaries and create an annotated route that follows and explains these little-known coping journeys.

Top Left: Picture of Ruth Dodds Diary.