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The Great War Centenary - 1917

From Front Line to White Lund

White Lund Disaster
The personal experiences of Haworth Nuttal

The personal experiences of Haworth Nuttall, of Number 13, National Filling Factory, Morecambe, where he seems to have been a manager’s assistant.

Some facts and figures about Number 13 National Filling Factory, White Lund, Morecambe


Situation up to 1st October 1917

Commenced erection 2nd December 1915
First Shell Filled 18th July 1916
Shells to date 2 Million
Amount of Amatol 10,000 tons
Sizes of Shell Filled 60 pdr. 6” 8” 9.2” 12”
Area of works 400 acres
Area cultivated 100 acres
Railways 12 miles
Runways 4 miles
Piping 30 miles
Floor Area 1,100,000 sq ft
Weekly traffic 12,000 tons
Number of buildings 200
Employees 3,000 girls
1,500 men
Wages £8,000
Output per week 105,000 shells
Factory destroyed First week of October 1917


Chapter 1

“Coming Events Cast Their Shadow Before”

A beautiful Autumn evening, date 1st October 1917; just on the edge of twilight – the sun having half an hour previously dipped down behind the Cumberland Hills, time 6.15 p.m., I left my Morecambe home, 24 Albert Road, to take up duty for the night at the National Filling Factory No. 13.

Accompanying me was my friend, John Crowther, and on this particular night his wife followed us a little way up the street, jokingly saying she would ascertain for herself as to whether we took up with any girls en route to work. Alas, poor woman, if only we had taken the invitation of two girls we met coming from work, Jack would, in all probability, have been now in the land of the living. These two particular girls said “Don’t go to work this lovely night, but come on with us to the Tower”. Jack touched on of them under the chin, and said, using his blunt Lancashire dialect, “Till see you on Saturday Love.”

As we were passing through the cornfield we noticed shooting through the sky a Ball of Fire, practically in every appearance a Comet. Seemingly as it reached the Factory it burst and dropped to the ground. I felt a little nerved and turned to Crowther saying, “Yon’s no Star, as there’s none yet out”. He replied, “Then what’s it sign of”, and poor lad, little did he then dream how soon he was to know.

Arriving at the Factory we parted, he going directly into the Danger Buildings, and I into the General Office to receive my instructions for the night.

I was seated in the Office with Mr Comyn, my Manager, going into various matters, when Mr Stokes, the General Manager entered, saying “Good night Comyn; Good night Nuttall”. It struck me then as being very unusual for Mr Stokes to do this, but it never entered by head how soon, and on what mission I should, that night, have to call him back to the Factory.

Amongst my instructions from Mr Comyn was that I had to go and see Crowther personally regarding the untidy condition the girls had left his Unit in the previous night. It appeared the Danger Building Officer had to stop production in this Unit during the day for fear it would catch fire.

After Mr Comyn left, Mr Hemsworth, the night manager, told me to give all assistance possible with the 12” shells, as the Ministry were desirous of us going in excess of our allocation if at all possible.

I went into the Factory about 8.30 p.m., walked through every section, and was satisfied that the manufacture of the implements of destruction was being carried out in a satisfactory and speedy manner. On seeing Crowther my message was delivered, and when leaving him he said he wanted to see me after supper; what for, I do not, nor shall I ever know. He actually said “Ta Ta”, which I afterwards realised was “Good bye on this earth, maybe we shall meet in some other world”.

On leaving Jack I went on to 6C Section, and in going through there I found it was close on 10 p.m., so wended by way down to the Canteen, and sat down to a supper I never finished.

Chapter 2

“With us when storm is sweeping o’er our pathway dark and drear waking hope within our bosoms; stilling every anxious fear.”

Readers, picture a clear starry night, still, with a beautiful full moon lighting up the country around. Then picture the writer, seated with the Foreman and Staff at supper. Go still further, and picture seeing a flare of light shoot high into the heavens, and imagine you were there, and knew that one of England’s largest explosives factories had taken fire; yes, taken fire, with the full knowledge that there was no chance of coping with it. You can only imagine these things – we lived them in reality.

Immediately on seeing the glare I went at headlong speed in the direction of same, and on arriving there found that the upstairs section of 6C Unit was one mass of flames. The room contained a large quantity of T.N.T. ready for going in the agitator for melting. The room underneath was crammed full of 12” shells, filled and partly filled, with an adjoining room which contained 6” filled shells, Amatol, Trotyl, and other high explosives.

I knew the place was doomed, and realised that an explosion would occur as soon as the flames reached the loaded shells. Providence however seemed to keep the flames away from these shells for fully 20 minutes, and I am sure it is due to this fact that the death roll was not much larger.

Suddenly it dawned upon me that the Night Manager was away home at Supper, and knowing that my duties would be at the main gates and general office I made my way there at once. In proceeding there I had to pass through the crowd of girls who had congregated round the office and gates. The moaning and screaming of these girls was terrible, and I afterwards learnt that their cries could be heard a matter of two miles away.

I gave the police instructions to open the gates at once, went and told the telephone operator to notify the General Manager, told him also to commandeer the Lancaster Fire Brigade, made my way to the Garage, brought out a car, and instructed a mechanical fitter to bring in Mr Stokes. Again I proceeded to the gates, and found that they had not as yet been opened; but when the car was approaching they were thrown open, and I was carried clean out with the half frantic girls. From the commencement of the fire to the girls getting out was only a matter of about ten minutes, but I vouch to say it appeared to the more like ten hours.

Outside the gate a temptation came over me to make myself as scarce as possible, and get to some safe cover, and then realised that life is not always the first thing to be thought of. Casting to one side this temptation I ran into the factory area, never again expecting to come out alive.

Making my way to the Fire Station the man in charge informed me that all instructions were being carried out, and therefore I could do nothing there.

I went towards the scene of the fire, going round the back of the factory to see what service I could be. A slight explosion occurred, but I wended my way on until I could see the firemen, foremen, over lookers etc., in their vain endeavour to fight the flames.

Suddenly an unwanted gleam of light shot up, lighting up the heavens for miles around, followed by a terrific, deafening explosion. I was lifted clean off my feet, and carried through the air – how far I cannot tell, but when I recovered I found myself in a ditch of water, my clothes torn to rags, covered with mud, wet to the skin, and my lip and nose bleeding. I had heard soldiers from France in relating their experience of being wounded state that they only knew of wounds received when they see the blood, and naturally at the moment I was under the impression I was really worse injured than happily I was.

This explosion cut off all electric lights, and telephonic communications, and another thing we have all to be thankful for is that there was a beautiful full moon to guide our steps.

I looked round, and the fire seemed to be dying out, and nothing but black suffocating smoke could be seen issuing from the building. Overjoyed at this I was about to get hold of a hose pipe to play on the ruins when my heart sank within me, for in every section I could put my eyes on ten to twenty small fires were springing up, all of which had been caused with burning projectiles thrown about with the explosion.

It was easy to ascertain what a terrible time was before us, and regaining my feet, off I bounded to take shelter behind one of the transit sheds. No sooner was I there than off went another bang, and the flames seemed to fly like lightening to the place that was affording me shelter. Off I made again, and explosion followed explosion like a huge bombardment.

Ultimately I reached the general office, and entered to procure my torch light. The inside of the offices were in a wrecked state, but crawling through this wreckage I was able to secure the object of my visit.

After ascertaining the further efforts to subdue the flames were useless I took it upon myself to withdraw to a place of safety.

Commencing to run in the direction of Bare village a terrible fright came over me, and then I realised what a precious thing life really was.

Buildings filled with live shells were being blown up, shrapnel was flying around me, and the field I passed through was literally strewn with lumps of steel.

At every explosion I went headlong into dykes and heard pieces of shell whistling over my head, and dropping, yards, sometimes a few feet away from me, with a dead like thud into the ground.

At least I reached Bare, and crouched under the sea wall, feeling then, for the first time, well out of the danger zone.

Chapter 3

“Other Refuge Have I None Hangs My Hapless Soul on Thee; Leave, Ah! Leave Me Not Alone Still Support and Comfort Me”

Here at Bare, seeking shelter under the sea wall, were hundreds of men, women and children, practically all clad in their night attire.

Realising that owing to the uncertainty regarding the distance to which fragments and debris may be projected I had no difficulty in persuading everyone in the vicinity to take cover at ever explosion.

Women were moaning for their husbands, relatives etc., who had that night been working at the factory, terror stricken children were crying, and men with anxious faces were doing their utmost to calm both. The few of us there who were au fait with the factory were praying that the flames would not reach the magazines. Fortunately they did not. If they had done, the result I cannot tell.

About 3 a.m. the most violent explosion occurred. The home of my mother ‘Clowbridge’ Burnley, is a matter of 45 miles distance from the factory, and situated amongst the hills, but the force of this, and the first explosion was plainly heard by my mother, sister, and in fact everyone in the neighbourhood. They tell me that the windows shook as though there was an earthquake, and everyone rose from their beds fearing that the Zepps. Were about. I afterwards learnt that this explosion at 3 a.m. was No. 4 Melt, in which was a large quantity of filled 8” and 12” Russian shells, all filled with pure T.N.T. and the most deadly weapons produced in the factory.

After this I ventured along the promenade to the West End of the town, on arriving at the home of a particular friend was overjoyed to learn that this friend was safe. Here I stayed for a matter of about 1 hour, and then wended my may in the direction of 24 Albert Road.

Chapter 4

“Heaven’s Morning Breaks, and Earth’s Van Shadows Flee; In Life, In Death, O Lord Abide with Me”.

With aching heart, and uncertain step I arrived at 24, Albert Road, and was immediately confronted with the question, “Where is Jack?” The expression that came over my face must have told them its own sorrow tale, for Allan, his son, and Susannah, his wife, immediately broke down. As best I could I told them that I thought he would be alright, as, as far as I knew there was no one killed, but a few injured, and Jack might be amongst the injured, and been taken to the hospital. At the time I had my doubts that Jack would never again come across the threshold of 24, Albert Road, as he had gone:-

“Through a hell of fire to hero’s end!
What nobler death could fortune send?”

About 8 a.m. along with Mr Hemsworth I made my way to the factory, just to see how matters were there. We had got to within about 200 yards of the place when No. 2 Unit caught fire, and immediately another terrible explosion occurred. Large pieces of shrapnel were thrown all around us, and the only shelter we could find was a stone gate post. This gate post we clung to until the danger had passed. We ultimately reached the factory, and after being there a few minutes were compelled to withdraw owing to the continual explosion of individual shell.

Again I arrived at 24, Albert Road, changed from my rags, had a good bath, proceeded to the Headquarters in Morecambe, the West View Hotel, and was soon busy taking down the evidence of the men who had made a vain endeavour to fight the fire.

Tuesday night arrived, but with no Jack. His poor wife kept continually asking me if I thought here was any chance for him, and if I thought he had been hurt and taken to the hospital, but I knew there was no hope, as I had phoned all the hospitals in the neighbourhood, and been informed by them that he was not there. When I told her this she weepingly said she would not care if they only found part of him so that she could take him home to bury, and her wish was granted, particulars of which I will give in my next chapter.

Chapter 5

“The Lord Gave, And the Lord Hath Taken Away.”

On the Wednesday morning about 3 a.m. I was awakened from my slumber by another rather heavy explosion, and in the dreary dark stillness that followed, everything that had happened sprung up so vividly before me. My nerves felt unstrung, and I was terror stricken. I lay there, and ultimately, with thankful heart, saw the dawn of a new day.

Arising, I partook of a light breakfast, (my first meal since the half finished supper) attended to my correspondence, which mainly consisted of enquiries as to my safety, then made my way again to the Headquarters, the West View Hotel.

On arrival I was informed, that a body, supposed to be that of Crowther had been found, and at the request of on factory officials I proceeded down to the factory for the purpose of identifying this body, and as many of the others as possible.

Reaching the factory I was ushered into the hospital, and there laid out on the cold bare floor were the bodies of six dead heroes. Yes, when men’s souls are tried they are not often found wanting. Most men are of heroic stuff, but few men know it. A catastrophe like this at Morecambe brings out the noblest qualities. It took every ounce of self denial to go back into that burning factory, and stand by duty. The call for self preservation was unheard by those men when duty raised her voice.

Reverently the sheets were taken from the bodies one after the other, and I found no difficulty in identifying Jack. Had I not been so familiar with his clothes, however, I fear my task would have been practically hopeless. God forbid me ever telling anyone who knew him with his happy smile the condition his features then bore. In my imagination I can now see him, yes, with his happy smile, and with ghastly appearance he then had, and always shall I regret having seen him then like he was.

As surmised he would, in all probability, be killed in one of the first explosions. He was found where I saw them playing on the fire; his feet entangled in piping, and his head resting on the ground. The following day his watch was found in the same place, burnt and broken, but we could plainly see that it had stopped at 12.45. Maybe that it had run down at this time the following day, else it had stopped with the concussion of one of the explosions.

On reaching 24, Albert Road, to notify his wife I found that she had already heard. What inward grief and pain we all know a woman suffers when sorrows brings no tear to the eye.

“Thank God – Bless God – all ye who suffer not
More grief than ye can weep for.”

She had already shed so many tears that she could cry no more. The only consolation I could offer her was that Jack had died as a great hero and martyr as anyone on the Field of Flanders. The reply she gave me was “Thank God you are saved Haworth”, and at that I completely broke down.

Chapter 6

The car then called for me and I was driven to the County Hotel, Lancaster, the new headquarters for the purpose of giving the officials from Vickers, Barrow in Furness, and the officials from the Ministry of Munitions, London, as much information as I possibly could regarding the sad calamity that had befallen the factory.

That day Jack’s body along with the others was conveyed to the Morecambe Mortuary, and his wife, along with his two sisters, who had made the way to Morecambe immediately on receiving notification that Jack was missing, were allowed to go and view him, but only from the knees downwards. May be they would have liked to see his face, but I am sure it was for the best that this privilege was not acceded to.

On arriving home from Lancaster they notified me that I was wanted at the police station. I went there right away, and was summoned to attend the inquest on the unfortunate victims the following day.

Along with Mrs Crowther I attended the inquest, which was held in the town hall, Morecambe. This was the first I had ever attended in my life, and I trust to God it will be the last.

One thing occurred just previous to the commencement of the inquest that struck me rather forcibly, and made me wonder did even death bring forgiveness to some mothers in law. The occurrence was two women, one the wife of one of the victims, and the other the mother having a ‘barn’ as to where this poor lad’s remains should be laid to rest.

The jury in passing a word of sympathy on to the bereaved stated that the only verdict they could arrive at was that these brave men had lost their lives accidentally, whilst attending to duty. Aye, when duty gave one big call they were not found wanting.

Chapter 7

“Change and Decay in all around I see: O thou, who changest not, abide with me.”

The first thing one notices on entering Morecambe, Lancaster and the villages in the immediate vicinity, is that practically all, the window frames are minus the panes, and on getting nearer to the factory one sees an occasional building minus the roof. The fields around have already been practically cleared of shrapnel by people bent on possessing warlike souvenirs of the greatest explosions known to have occurred in England.

On arriving at the factory on the Friday morning I found no difficulty in obtaining the necessary permission to escort a friend over the ruins. Several times since the explosion had I traversed the grounds, but her I will give you an insight into prevailing conditions as we found them this day.

Passing in at the main gates we noticed that the General Offices, and Motor Garages are burnt to the ground, with the adjoining building, known as the canteen, practically in an undamaged state.

We now get a full view of the havoc wrought to what are termed the danger buildings. These buildings consisted of charge houses, discharge houses, incorporating houses, stemming rooms, press houses, finishing rooms, transit sheds, offices and stores, all connected one building with the other by wooden runways, the length of these runways being four miles. On Monday night at 10 p.m. they were equipped with the most modern machinery for shell filling: today they lie one mass of ruins, and in them, well a fortune for a scrap iron dealer.

The power house, paint shop, bond store (with the exception of about six) magazines, and hospital, all stood the effects of the explosion magnificently, and with the exception of broken windows, and a few shrapnel holes in roof came out with, a severe shock.

Gathering up a few souvenirs we made our way again to the main gate, and on reaching there I was not informed that I could that day go home on the 3 o’clock train to enable to me to pay a last homage to my lost friend Jack Crowther. It had been arranged that Jack should be interred at the United Methodist Free Church, Loveclough, near Rawtenstall, (one miles from where he spent his childhood’s happy days), on the Saturday afternoon.

Mrs Crowther, Mr Watson, Mr and Mrs Scaum, and myself all travelled along together by this train. The remains of Jack followed in a later train.

En-route to Burnley the main topic of conversation by people in the carriage was ‘the big explosion at Morecambe’. Little they knew how near home this explosion had been brought to a least one of our number. Actually some of them said they knew for certain no one was killed, whilst others said they had heard hundreds were killed. We kept a silent tongue, as we knew full well the actual circumstances of just what had taken place.

Chapter 8

“Be it ever so humble, There’s no place like home.”

Burnley was reached about 6 p.m. A cold North wind was blowing, and the rain was falling in torrents. Mr Watson kindly gave me an invitation up to his home, but I refused, as I was so anxious to get to my own home; knowing full well what a welcome would be waiting me from my mother the only person who knows the best and worst, and still loves me in spite of all my faults.

After a three miles walk through the country I reached Clowbridge, and immediately my mother saw me she burst into tears, and naturally I followed suit.

She told me how Sister Maggie and herself had been awakened out of their sleep by a terrible explosion, how my Aunt had jokingly said “What about your Howarth if the Zepps are at Morecambe/”, how they listened terror stricken to explosion after explosion, how she received the news the following day that Morecambe factory had “gone up”, she knowing full well that I was on night duty, and how she felt when she heard the rumour that I was missing, (I might here state that a rumour was circulated in the district that I was amongst the missing), and what a burden it took from her when she knew that I was safe.

I related by experience to her, and then went to see my relatives and friends, also Crowther’s mother, but dwelt on details of the explosion as little as possible.

Jack’s body arrived at his mother’s home, 200 yards from our house, at midnight that night.

Chapter 9

“Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was,
and the spirit shall return to god who gave it.”

On Saturday afternoon 6th October, 1917, John Crowther was laid to his last resting place just about ten yards from the grave of my father. When the bier bearing the corpse passed by father’s grave I then realised what a miracle it was that this grave was not open to take a corpse as well.

Hundreds of people had gathered off the neighbouring hills and dales to pay a final tribute to the dead hero.

On the coffin itself a few handfuls of dirt were thrown as the ominous words of the dreaded ritual sounded in the gathering gloom, “Ashes to ashes, Dust to dust.”

His heartbroken wife and son had to be assisted from the grave side, leaving behind that shell of all they had loved and worshipped to the chill of Earth’s desolate embrace.

As I look one lingering look at the coffin, a piece of prose, which I had often recited in the presence of Jack and all at 24, Albert Road, Morecambe, flashed across my mind. That prose was:-

“Yours is the happier lot; you are freed
For ever from the grim unloveliness
Of these damned days; from all the beastliness
That hems us like a gaol – the sorrow greed
Of fame and guerdon never satisfied; you need
No more to brood into fresh wakefulness
The tired Spirit; you have forgetfulness
Of all mean things; pain no longer heed.

So, then, I cannot, as me thought I should,
Grieve over this severance of brotherhood;
But must rejoice always that you should aim
So high in life, by sacrifice have gained
The highest, and in the rude stone cross
Must see a triumph that outweighs all loss.”

We left, after seeing the grave partly covered, and then, I returned when the dusk of the evening had come on, and not a sound disturbed the sacred stillness of the place – when the bright moon poured her light on tomb and monument, on pillar, wall, and arch, and most of it (it seemed to me) on his quiet grave in that calm time when outward things and inward thoughts teem with assurance of immortality, and worldly hopes and fears are humbled in dust – then with tranquil and submissive heart I turned away, and left him with God.

Farewell John! Farewell, my more than brother! It is but for a little while.

Chapter 10

“Lead, kindly light, amid th’ encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead thou me on;
Keep thou my feet; I would not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.”

On the Sunday afternoon I returned to Morecambe, and after assisting there in the squaring up of matters was ultimately transferred to the Scottish Filling Factory, Georgetown, Paisley, Renfrewshire, Scotland.

The afternoon before I took my departure for Scotland I walked along the Morecambe sands, picturing in my memory the pleasant faces, and recalling joyous tones of the many whom I had known. Other people were about, but they all seemed strangers to me, and I to them; and as I marked how wave after wave rolled up the shore, with its murmur and its foam, each sweeping farther than the other, each effacing the traces of the last, I saw an emblem of the passing generations, and was content to find that my place knew me no more.

Maxwelton braes may be bonny; Loch Lomond at sunset may stand out as one of the finest scenes; but to me these places have no charms. In my loneliness life seems now to hold nothing, and yet I ought to be thankful and make use of the life that was spared me.

The lads on the battlefield are enduring practically every day similar experiences to what I had. God be with them.

Here as I conclude I pray that never again shall I have the experience I had the first week of the tenth month nineteen hundred and seventeen.



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