For­got­ten Land Girls of WW1

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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.

Tough con­di­tions

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

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