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The Birtley Belgians

In the early stages of WW1, it was clear Britain was facing a munitions shortfall and more factories were needed to provide armaments; by the spring of 1915 the ‘shell scandal’ as it had become known reached crisis point and the British Government began to build these factories all over the country. However, as most men had gone off to war there was a severe labour shortage.

In July 1915 an agreement was made between the Government and Armstrong-Whitworth to build 2 factories at Birtley, one to produce shells and the other cartridge cases. Some of the firm’s existing workforce already employed at their Elswick works were to be recruited for Birtley, but this proved problematic so the Belgian government in exile was contacted.

The Belgian administration agreed to manage the factories and provide the necessary labour, and the British agreed to pay all expenses and provide materials. Armstrong-Whitworth would relinquish control of the shell production but retain control of the cartridge factory, which would be staffed in the main by young women from throughout the Northeast region.

The Belgian authorities withdrew men from the front with the necessary skills and expertise, and wounded soldiers who were not fit enough to return to the front were to be re-trained to work in the munitions factories. Houses were built for these workers next to the factory and so Elisabethville was born, named after the Queen of the Belgians. Known locally as ‘The Huts’ they formed a self-contained village, not only for single men but also for families as workers were reunited with their loved ones wherever possible. The village was cut off from the rest of Birtley by an iron fence and the main gate was guarded by both Belgian and British police. It was self sufficient with its own church and cemetery, food store, shops, post-office, hospital, laundries and baths, school, community dining halls, police station and prison all staffed and run by the Belgians. The streets were named after people and places of the time, and the accommodation had electric lights in every house, flushing toilets, and gardens front and back, luxuries many people in Birtley had never experienced.

The Belgian authorities insisted the workers were still regarded as soldiers and subject to military discipline and they wore their uniforms at work during the 12-hour shifts. Passes were needed to get in and out of Elisabethville, and the restrictions placed upon their movements and daily life saw the emergence of groups, clubs and societies in the settlement including sport, music, drama and a scout group.

In the summer of 1916, the shell factory started production and by January 1917 there were 3,521 Belgian soldiers employed, of which 1,140 had been withdrawn from the front and 2,381 were re-trained wounded men, making the factory one of the most productive in the country. With civilians and the arrival of women and children over time this brought the settlement numbers up to around 6,000.

At the end of the war in 1918 production came to a sudden end and the Belgians quickly returned home, the furniture and contents of ‘The Huts’ were sold at auction and local people moved into the now vacant properties. Several men had married into the local community, and while some chose to remain others returned to Belgium with their wives.

Sadly, some would not return home. The burials recorded in Birtley alone include 13 Belgian servicemen and a number of civilian interments in the Elisabethville Roman Catholic Cemetery, and 2 Belgian soldiers were also buried in St. Joseph’s churchyard in 1916 before the land was set aside for the cemetery. They remain testament to a unique collaboration resulting in the National Projectile Factory and the village of Elisabethville, Birtley.

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