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Agenda: Role of working-class women in the war effort must not be forgotten

Millions of words are being written and spoken about the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

TV presenters including Dan Snow and Jeremy Paxman magnify the part played by men who attended public schools and made up the majority of officers.

Glaswegian Fred Farrell (1882-1935) did not write and was pre-TV but still made a contribution to understanding the war. Little is known about him. He studied civil engineering and gained a reputation as an untrained etcher and water colourist. Married in 1911, he lived in Uddingston. He enlisted in the army as a non-officer, a sapper, but was discharged due to a gastric ulcer. Glasgow Corporation commissioned him to do paintings at the front line and in Glasgow's munition factories.

In 1917 he spent three weeks in Flanders and in 1918 two months in France with Scottish troops. His pictures were last displayed in 1920. Glasgow Museums have put them on display at the People's Palace in an exhibition until November 23. His 50 paintings show three aspects of war at the front.

First, the battles and killings. In December, 1917 he depicted the diving and ducking as British planes send a German scouting plane spinning to the ground. In 1918, he catches Highland soldiers bravely fighting back against incessant machine gun fire.

Secondly, the horrors of war. Also in 1918, he revealed bareheaded Scottish soldiers visiting the graves of their comrades recently killed at Passchendale Ridge against a background shorn barren by bombs and shells. Perhaps most moving is a picture entitled Hung Up of a dead soldier, lit up by a passing flare, lying across barbed war. In another, a battle is just ending, leaving one arm of a statue of Christ sticking out of the ground while explosions are visible in the distance. Jo Meacock, of Glasgow Museums, reflects: "It suggests another side to Farrell, that he is questioning the war." He is prepared to depict the horrors, even the futility of war.

Thirdly, as the end approaches so hope survives. In Tommies' Ward, he focuses on nurses caring for badly wounded soldiers. At least they will not fight again and will soon be back in Britain. In December, 1918, after the war, he is in a village in France where a single Scottish guard stands outside a German sentry box as residents return to claim their homes. There is a future.

Unusually, he also painted working-class women who engaged in the war effort as they laboured in munition factories. His knowledge of engineering enabled him to produce detailed drawings of machinery that somehow convey the buzz and noise of the centres. At Beardmore's Parkhead factory, men and women share the heavy work. Several drawings of The Projectol factory in Cardonald, which still stands in Barfillan Drive, now occupied by Howden Compessors, show women undertaking skilled jobs previously reserved for men.

There were munition factories all over Britain. The women worked long hours in dangerous situations. Making weapons involved explosives and toxic fumes. The number who died due to explosions and inhaling poison is put at more than 300. This does not take account of those who subsequently died from inhaling the fumes. Those who suffered illnesses for much of their lives received no pension or compensation. After the war, output declined while men returning home replaced the women. None was honoured. During the war, middle class women appeared on government posters urging their men to enlist. Working-class women, who played a vital role enabling weapons and ammunition to be sent to the troops, never appeared.

The official commemoration of the war will include large gatherings rightly remembering and praising those who died. Cathedrals will rise for uniformed and bemedalled top officers. Clergy will parade in their robes. But war is more than glorious.

The gatherings would do well to follow Farrell, who also revealed war's horrors, sorrows and unnecessary suffering. The war was not just about men. Many women contributed an important part and they too should be remembered.

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