Gretna Green in Dumfries and Galloway is at the gateway to Scotland and is well known Worldwide for runaway marriages being formerly carried out over the Anvil by the local Blacksmith. That therefore cannot be one of Galloway’s secrets. The adjoining township of Gretna hit the sport’s headlines this year because their football team, who had only been in senior football for three years, climbed three divisions up the Scottish Football League, reached the Scottish Cup Final and qualified for European football next season. Neither can that be one of Galloway’s secrets. Is there therefore another secret lurking around Gretna? Indeed there is and it has been hidden to most for nearly 100 years. In fact, it is “The Devil’s Porridge”. But what, you may ask, can be secret about porridge, which has been one of the most common oat based breakfast cereals in the country for many a century. And what relationship has porridge with Gretna since porridge has been consumed in Scotland for many centuries and Gretna has only existed since 1915! There lies the clue to this Sherlock Holmes type mystery. For it was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, when visiting Gretna and Eastriggs in 1918 as a War Correspondent who first used the phrase “Devil’s Porridge”. Let me explain further.
At the commencement of World War I, there was a great need for an enormous supply of guns and ammunition, in quantities far greater than anyone had previously thought possible. Since the start of hostilities Field Marshall Sir John French had made constant appeals to the War Office for more munitions. Finally, following the attack on the Aubers Ridge, which resulted in heavy losses, The Times newspaper printed a telegram from its correspondent in Northern France, saying that the attack failed because of the want of an unlimited supply of high explosives.
Anger broke out from the press and public, and demands were made for an increase in the production of munitions. Resulting from this crisis and other problems which the government encountered, the Prime Minister, Mr Asquith, invited the leaders of all political parties to unite with him in forming an coalition government to carry on the war, and so the Liberal Government come to an end.
Following the reconstruction of the government a new department of the War Office was created known as The Ministry of Munitions. It was to concentrate on the supply of arms and ammunition, and to speed up the war effort.
Lloyd George became the first Minister, and set the departments to work on the enormous task entrusted to it.
Production was divided between the great munitions firms, assisted by small manufacturers all over Britain. Near Woolwich, in London, a new town was built to house the extra employees at the Arsenal, and at Chilwell, near Nottingham, arose a factory for filling shells. The greatest factory of all, however, was constructed along the Solway at Gretna, and arrived almost as swiftly as her fast-flowing tide.
The site for this explosives plant was chosen with a number of important factors in mind. Firstly, it lay in the shadow of the Cheviots, the Pennines and the Cumbrian mountains. Those natural barriers lessened the danger of aerial attack in the days of the Zeppelin and it was also thought to be outwith the range of the aircraft then available to the Germans. Another essential requirement was a railway service provided by both the Caledonian and North British Railways, and the important link at Gretna Junction. It had to have raw materials readily available especially coal which was easily obtainable from Sanquhar and nearby Canonbie coalfields. It had to be isolated (for security reasons) with no other industrial developments in the vicinity and be capable of accommodating the enormous number of workers needed to operate such a huge concern. All those aspects were amply met by the Solway location. Gretna along with Eastriggs to the West and Mossband at Longtown on the English side of the Border to the East, comprised and became the biggest secret area of World War I. And this secret location was never attacked nor indeed, did the Germans know of its existence, for the duration of the war.
So how were all those development works accomplished? In the early months of 1915 when the first surveys were complete, orders were placed with private firms for the supply of vast amounts of building materials needed for the plant, where different stages of manufacture would be carried out. These stages for the greater part consisted of chemical processes such as acid-making, nitration of glycerine and cotton waste, and the distillation of alcohol and ether. The final product was “Cordite” or ”Propellant” as it was known, to feed the hungry guns in France.
“Cordite” was the name given to the smokeless propellant in use in the British army and navy. The material is produced in the form of cylindrical rods or strings of varying thicknesses by pressing the material, whilst in a soft and pasty state, through dies or perforations in a steel plate by hydraulic or screw pressure, hence the name cordite. The thickness or size of the rods varies from about I mm. diameter to 5 or more mm. according to the nature of the charge for which it is intended. The smallest diameter is used for revolver cartridge and the largest for heavy guns. When first devised by the Ordnance Committee, presided over by Sir Frederick Abel, in 1891, this explosive consisted of 58% of nitro-glycerin, 37 % of gun-cotton, and 5% of mineral jelly. This variety is now known as Cordite Mark I. At the present time a modification is made which contains gun-cotton 65%, nitro-glycerin 30%, and mineral jelly 5 %. This is known as Cordite M.D. The advantages of Cordite M.D. over Mark I are a slightly reduced rate of burning, higher velocities, more regular pressure in the gun, and lower temperature. Sir James Dewar, (1842-1923) was a chemist and physicist, best known for his work with the low-temperature phenomena. Dewar was born in Kincardine, Scotland, and educated at the University of Edinburgh. He was professor of experimental natural philosophy at the University of Cambridge, England, in 1875 and professor of chemistry at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in 1877, where he was appointed director of the Davy-Faraday Research Laboratory. Dewar developed structural formulas for benzene (1867). He studied the specific heat of hydrogen and was the first person to produce hydrogen in liquid form (1898) and to solidify it (1899). He constructed a machine for producing liquid oxygen in quantity (1891). He invented the Dewar flask or thermos (1892) and co-invented cordite (1889), the smokeless gunpowder referred to above, with Sir Frederick Abel. His discovery (1905) that cooled charcoal can be used to help create high vacuums later proved useful in atomic physics. Dewar was knighted in 1904. It will therefore be appreciated that he term “cordite” evolved from the fact that the propellant was made in long cords and later cut into short pieces.
By the beginning of 1916 the spadework was practically complete, and buildings were growing so fast that the progress was almost visible from day to day. Within these buildings the highly complex system of plant, furnaces, stills, storage tanks, mixing machinery, etc., with its intricate network of connecting pipe lines, was being rapidly assembled by an army of workers whose numbers at one time exceeded 30,000 When completed it was staffed by around 20,000 munitions workers, mainly female, augmented by chemists, doctors and various other specialists from far away places including South Africa, Australia, Canada and India. No money and no energy was spared. Materials were delivered to the site at a rate of 600 railway wagons per day. The site extended for 9 miles from Dornock in the West to near Longtown in the East and was generally one a half miles in width. Two townships, namely Gretna and Eastriggs, were constructed to house the army of munitions workers. These were complete with their own shops, hospitals, churches, dance halls, etc., as well as the hundred of hostels and huts which stretched out in every direction. Eastriggs even had its own court of law, while at Gretna were located the central offices, institute, laundry, bakery and cinema. The factory had its own railway network with 125 miles of track and with 34 railway engines. It also had its own large power station that provided electricity for the factory and the townships. A water treatment plant handling ten million gallons daily was provided and a telephone exchange which handled 2.5 million calls in 1918. The factory bakeries produced 14,000 meals and 13,000 loaves daily and the laundry could clean 6,000 items daily.
In August 1916, fifteen months after the workers started to build the plant, the first Cordite left Gretna for eventual consignment to the army in France. During the later months of that year, while the construction workers were completing their huge task, the operating staff, rapidly growing in numbers and efficiency, concentrated on increasing the output. All concerned realised clearly that their efforts were a direct contribution towards winning the war, and the result was that the production figure of 800 tons per week was reached early in 1917 which alone was higher than the production of cordite from the remainder of Britain.
The Defence of the Realm Act was introduced in 1916 and because of the excessive drinking mainly by construction workers, about half the public houses were closed down. It was claimed that it was necessary to cut down on the amount of absences and loss of working time due to drink. But the problem still persisted and The State Management Scheme was introduced in 1917 in the Gretna and Carlisle areas and this maintained until 1973 when all the hotels and public houses were eventually sold off. The locals were quite keen to retain the State Management Scheme since they always considered the beer, brewed in Carlisle, to be very good and generally much cheaper than normal. They always asserted that the scheme was introduced not for the reasons given but because of “careless talk” and the need for secrecy throughout the area.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visited the factory while it was in full swing. At that time a wartime correspondent, he referred to Gretna and Eastriggs as “The Miracle Towns”. In his article he called the factory