Devil's Porridge: How world's largest factory helped win The Great War

THE FLATLANDS of Scotland's south, where fields meet the Solway Firth estuaries, are largely unremarkable. Some villages pepper what is, for the most part, miles and miles of open farmland and peat bog, whilst a few chimney stacks and the remains of old foundations are the only suggestions of any industrial heritage.

There's certainly little to suggest that these parts once contained the biggest factory in the world, code-named Moorside. It stretched nine miles long and two miles wide, and at its height employed many thousands of people and undoubtedly changed the course of history. It's a story that's seldom heard.

"The whole Moorside project was a forgotten event for many years," says Gordon Routledge, local historian and author of Gretna's Secret War. "When I first began working in the area in the 1970s, there were these peculiar shaped ruins and locals used to talk of a factory being there, but nobody really understood how big it was or the effect it had on winning the First World War."

In 1914, Britain was suffering huge losses on the battlefield. A severe munitions crisis meant that thousands of soldiers were killed or wounded by German firepower. The problem for the UK lay not with the nature of the artillery, but with the quantity – there simply wasn't enough of the stuff. "Men died in heaps upon the Aubers Ridge because the field guns were short of high explosive shells," the Times reported in 1915. David Lloyd George, the UK's first minister of munitions and a former Prime Minister, had to find a swift solution.

The search began for a suitable site for a large-scale munitions factory and the chosen location was an area near the small village of Gretna in south-west Scotland. It was sparsely populated yet had excellent transport links, being on both the Caledonian and North British railway lines. Coal from nearby Sanquhar and Canonbie and iron ore from the foundries of England provided a supply of raw materials, and the nearby estuaries offered a convenient solution to the considerable waste. It was far enough north to be out of the immediate range of the Luftwaffe and far enough west to scupper a Zeppelin approach from the east. It was also bordered by low hills - the Cheviots, Pennines and Cumbrian Mountains - ensuring the area was often shrouded in mist or cloud and thus difficult to spot from the air.

The secrecy surrounding the project reflected the importance of the material it was producing. It was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who dubbed the factory site "perhaps the most remarkable place in the World" in an article in 1918 and who also provided the moniker for the end product, cordite RDB, a combination of nitroglycerin and collodion (gun-cotton in ether or acetone).

"The nitroglycerin on the one side and the gun-cotton on the other are kneaded into a sort of a devil's porridge," he wrote. The resulting substance was the active ingredient in both shells and bullets, and by 1917, the factory was producing 800 tonnes of the ammunition each week.

As can be imagined, most substances found in munitions factories were highly volatile, so the site was built in accordance with the dispersal principle, whereby the space between adjacent buildings was large enough to ensure that any accidents remained self-contained. The factory stretched for nine miles, from Eastriggs to Longtown in England.

The factory boasted 100 miles of water mains, 130 miles of internal railway, 30 miles of road and contained two towns, Eastriggs and Gretna, to house the employees. It also incorporated the Solway viaduct, since demolished but which spanned the border and was frequently used by workers, who would walk along the precarious structure for an extra hour of drinking time in England.

By all accounts, an extra drink before bedtime may have been necessary, as life on the factory was hard. Accommodation for the 20,000 workers was comfortable but simple. They went without heat and during the notoriously cold winter of 1917 workers often found their milk bottles frozen overnight.

"The workers came from all over UK, Ireland and from throughout the Commonwealth," Routledge says. "Many of them had left the UK originally to work in the munitions industry in South Africa and other places, so a lot of them were returning to their roots."

During the peak of construction, 30,000 people were employed on site, and before the new towns were built, the limited accommodation in nearby Carlisle saw three men to a bed in sequenced eight-hour shifts. The relatively high wages were often spent in the local pubs, and the era earned a reputation as one of extreme revelry, giving rise to the legend of the "night of a thousand whiskies" in a local pub.

"Moorside really mobilised industry in the UK and was the first real instance of ammunition contracts being released to civilian firms," notes Routledge. "There's every reason to believe that without the factory, history would have turned out very differently. That's the real legacy of the project."

The factory was dismantled after the First World War. For the most part however, save for a few unusually shaped ruins and the stories passed on by former employees about the largest factory the world has ever seen, as swiftly as the communities Conan Doyle dubbed "the miracle towns" emerged, they disappeared back into the desolate countryside.

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