Forgotten Land Girls of WW1
We know how women battled World War Two food shortages, now Caroline Scott reveals those who harvested the 1917-1918 ‘Victory Crop’
Land worker May Kemble addressed a recruiting rally of the Women’s Land Army in June 1918 and The Essex County Chronicle carried a report of her speech. “No girl who had experience of the health and freedom of the land would go back to the cooped-up city life,” May told the audience. There were discomforts, she admitted, but “women did not want ‘soft’ jobs while the men were risking their lives – (cheers) – and after seeing the pictures of the Somme battle there would be no more grousing about mud at home ‘for the duration’.” The Women’s Land Army was now receiving “more and more applications for women workers” from farmers, May added. Much had changed since the start of the war.
At the end of August 1914, three weeks after Britain entered the First World War, The Sketch magazine published some photographs of women harvest workers wearing picturesque but impractical white dresses – in Buckinghamshire. The paper reported: “Owing to the scarcity of male labour in many parts of the country, due to the calling up of Reservists for the War, women are now actively helping in getting in the harvest.”
As summer turned to autumn, those gaps in the ranks would become more apparent. So too would the crucial gaps in Britain’s food supply chain. Of all the major powers involved in the war, Britain was the most dependent on imported food. But shipping was being turned over to military transport, supply and support for the Navy. Domestic food production needed to be boosted – just as the agricultural labour force was declining.
By spring 1916, 250,000 men were estimated to have left agriculture and, following the introduction of conscription, a further 100,000 would soon be called up. With farm output at risk, the government
now sought to mobilise 400,000 women to work on the land. But women had been leaving agriculture for a long time, seeking work as domestic servants, dressmakers or shop girls. These alternative forms of employment were more remunerative and often regarded as more respectable, also offering greater variety and freedom. It would take much persuading to pull them back to the fields and farmyards – and much petitioning of farmers to have them back. In Lloyd George’s words, initial overtures to farmers were met with “a good deal of sluggish and bantering prejudice and opposition.” Every aspect of supposed feminine frailty was aired in their objections; women were weak, squeamish, ill-disciplined, or empty-headed. In Somerset, land worker Mary Lees found herself being tested by a farmer. Having been tasked with shearing a ewe that had been dead for several weeks, Mary asked the farmer for a spade so that she might bury the carcass. He expressed amazement that she had completed the challenge. “Gor,” he exclaimed. “You done it? I were testing you. Will you shake hands?’’ Ultimately a lot of farmers’ prejudices boiled down to resentment at government interference and the fear that their remaining male employees would be conscripted.
But the food situation was becoming more serious – and would worsen from February 1917 as Germany lifted its restrictions on submarine warfare. Within a month, nearly 500,000 tones of Allied merchant shipping had been lost. With food prices rising fast and shortages in many areas, unrest started to break out across the country. Responding to the pressing issue, the government announced plans to raise an ‘army’ of women land workers. Like soldiers, they would be uniformed, would be in it ‘for the duration’ and would be sent wherever they were needed.
Recruitment for the Women’s Land Army ( WLA) launched in March 1917. Notices placed in newspapers announced: “10,000 Women Wanted at Once to Grow and Harvest the Victory Crops.” Posters were printed, films were commissioned and rallies and demonstrations took the campaign out onto the streets. These often showcased women carrying out traditionally male agricultural tasks, like ploughing and manure spreading. These were not only occasions to recruit, but also to convince farmers of the potential of women’s work. It was a substantial recruiting campaign – and it needed to be, as land work had many disadvantages over the other forms of employment now open to women. In March 1917, Land Army members were offered a wage of 18s per week after training, when, by comparison, unskilled munitions workers were earning 25s. Hours were long and it was often hard, heavy, dirty work. But these very disadvantages were spun into virtues by the WLA. Yes, this work was gruelling, but it was also healthy and self-improving – and would have a direct impact on the outcome of the war, the propaganda claimed. The message hit its mark and by May 1917, 22,603 women had come forward. Volunteers were required to be aged over 18, healthy, physically capable and of the right character. They were looking for stable, robust girls with a good constitution and a positive attitude. Candidates had to pass a medical examination and their aptitude was then assessed at interview. A high percentage of applicants were rejected – and only around one in four of volunteers were actually accepted into the WLA.
Recruits were either trained by their employer-to-be, or on designated training farms. Beatrice Bennett’s diary, kept throughout her training during the winter of 1917, is preserved by the Imperial War Museum. Like many other WLA members, Beatrice was taught to milk on “a rubber cow full of water”. When she was eventually allowed to try a real cow her first pail “went west”. Aside from milking, Beatrice’s training involved stacking and sorting potatoes, harvesting cabbages, turnips, swedes and carrots, muck carting, and caring for horses and cattle. Everything that Beatrice did was muddy. “You cannot stick a pin on my nice velvet breeches for white mud an inch thick,” she wrote. But this was all taken in good spirits. “We laughed until tears came and all we could say was, ‘What would Mother say if she could see us now?’.”
In addition to those breeches, recruits were provided with a uniform of boots, gaiters and overalls. It gave them a collective identity and something to live up to. The WLA’s handbook stipulated: “You are doing a man’s
You are doing a man’s work and so you are dressed rather like a man
work and so you are dressed rather like a man; but remember just because you wear a smock and breeches you should take care to behave like an English girl who expects chivalry and respect from everyone she meets.” Dressing ‘ like a man’ could cause some consternation, though. Wearing breeches might be practical, but was it respectable? Helen Poulter, a 1918 recruit, recalled in an interview: “We knew we were being looked at, you know, and talked about.”
New recruits were promised: “In some cases the farm workers’ hostel may be a country mansion, in others a collection of cottages.” But, in practice, many farms were remote and workers’ cottages weren’t available in sufficient numbers. Dora Brazil moved into a cottage on a duke’s estate in Buckinghamshire. She was in sight of the country mansion, but a long way away from its comforts. It was “terrible”, she recalled. “Only the bare necessities s of life, and about ten yard ds from some abandoned pigsties – which housed a few hundred rats!”
In August 1918, a survey of 12,657 members of the WLA recorded their principal occupations: 5,734 were milkers, 3,971 field workers, 635 carters, 293 tractor drivers, 260 ploughmen, 84 thatchers, 21 shepherds, with the remaining 1,659 in mixed roles.
Rosa Freedman, in domestic service before the war, began her career in the WLA going from farm to farm as part of a threshing gang, but soon found herself doing a bit of everything. Rosa recalled fruit picking, flax pulling, haymaking, cleaning out pigsties, cow pens and stables, mucking out and mincing mangelwurzels for cow feed. She reflected: “The work was hard, but after the discipline and confinement of domestic service I found the work liberating and rewarding... it was a job we set out to do and I hope I did my best.” The WLA constantly reminded its members tthat their contribution wwas vital to the war eeffort. Speaking to a rrally in Hereford, Edith LLyttelton, deputy ddirector of the WLA, “gave the girls a recipe for the moments in early mmorning when they feel thhey cannot get up, or at mmidday when their backs acche, or at night when evvenings seem so long annd dull.” She advised thhem: “Shut your eyes annd imagine yourselves in Fllanders or Italy or MMesopotamia; think of ththe mud and the cold there; think of the men without any fireside to come back to facing danger and anguish and death every day.” Their lot, then, was better than a soldier’s, but it too was war-winning work. More recruits were needed to attain
victory. The German Army launched its spring offensive in March 1918 and soon the Allies were retreating and in urgent need of reinforcements. Appealing for another 30,000 volunteers, the April 1918 issue of
The Landswoman, the WLA magazine urged, “Let us all be full of flaming enthusiasm! Let us set fire to such a blaze of endeavour throughout England that not the smallest demand for labour on the land shall be left unsatisfied, and that every want shall be filled and well filled by women.” There were recruiting rallies all over the country in May with banners displaying the legends: “Hold the Home Front”, “England Must be Fed”, and “Men on the Battlefield; Women in the Cornfield”.
The 1918 harvest was brought in by a novel mixture of hands: 72,246 men from the Agricultural Companies of the Labour Corps found themselves in the fields, plus 30,405 prisoners of war and 15,000 public school boys. Meanwhile, Rowland Prothero, President of the Board of Agriculture, estimated that there were 300,000 local women workers plus 16,000 members of the Land Army.
The WLA formed a small part of the whole female labour force, but their significance, in encouraging other women onto the land, and winning farmers’ acceptance, was far greater.
The WLA disbanded in November 1919. the organisation’s director, Meriel Talbot, penned a farewell message to WLA members: “While we are sad at the breakup of the Land Army we are grateful, deeply grateful, for the opportunity for service it has given us, for the manifold experience gained, and for the door opened to women to take their place in the agricultural life of the country.” At least three-quarters of remaining WLA members indicated that they hoped to continue working on farms after the war.
The WLA was re-formed on 1 June 1939, and women were already helping to bring in tthe harvest before war wwas officially declared on 3 September. For all of tthe doubts about women wworkers in 1917, when it llooked like Britain’s ffood supply might again be threatened, the government instantly resorted back to this successful model and wwomen once again responded in droves.
“You can take the girls out of the Land Army, but you’ll never take the Land Army out of the girl,” Second World War veteran Iris Newbold told the BBC recently. And that’s true of the women who served in the First World War too. For many this had been a period of liberation – living away from home for the first time – and self-discovery. Members of the WLA experienced a shift in mind-set, expanded aspirations, and were left with an enduring interest in the land.
Caroline Scott is the author of Holding the Home Front: The Women’s Land Army in the First World War, on sale January 2017
Life in the Women’s Land Army was portrayed as healthy and self-improving. This photo was taken in 1918
A woman learns how to steer a motor plough
Land girls training on a farm in March 1918. Work was often dirty and exhausting
Women were urged to join the war effort in nationwide recruitment drives
A member of the Women’s Forestry Corps hard at work circa 1918
Land girls feeding lambs during a recruitment march through London
The Landswoman was the monthly magazine of the WLA