Over the last few weeks we’ve looked at the many vital roles youngsters and women played during World War Two.
And, in the women’s case, the war effort wasn’t the only struggle they faced. Despite the nation expecting Hitler to invade at any moment, women had to defy old fashioned Government attitudes to serve alongside men in the Home Guard.
That was in the 1940s, so you can imagine what problems their mothers and grandmothers faced during the Great War.
The 1914-18 conflict was the war that was supposed to end all wars. We remember the awful carnage of the Somme and Passchendaele, and the hell of trench warfare. But, we often forget that, as in World War Two, those not fighting overseas, also faced terror and hardship on the home front. And, just how close Britain came to starvation had it not been for the determination of the nation’s women.
When war broke out, there was a mass exodus of men from towns and villages across the land. The nation had never been self-sufficient when it came to food production. And, as the war progressed, the U-Boat menace brought us ever closer to starvation.
There was also an acute shortage of farm workers as men were needed for military service and horses commandeered by the forces.
To make matters worse, the 1917 harvest failed and the country was left with just three weeks’ reserve of food. Things were so bad that some members of the Government openly suggested pursuing American President Woodrow Wilson’s proposals, and discussing a cessation of hostilities with Germany.
On top of this, not only were we failing to feed ourselves, with much of France occupied by the enemy, we also had to send food aid across the Channel. Elsewhere, Russia was experiencing famine and sliding towards revolution. The German harvest had failed and there were rumbles of discontent there, too. At home, famine loomed and fear of civil unrest spurred the Government into action.
At the eleventh hour, the Government’s Food Production Department set up the Women’s Land Army (WLA), hoping to avoid catastrophe. Lady Trudie Denman, of the fledgling Women’s Institute, was appointed to organise the WLA, and by 1918, there were 23,000 Land Girls at work. Thousands of women were set to work milking, ploughing, herding and even thatching.
The precarious situation might have been avoided earlier in the war had it not been for traditional male prejudice from the nation’s farmers. In 1915, when the Board of Trade tried to persuade farmers to employ female labour – or “the lilac bonnet brigade” as they were derisively nicknamed – the prevailing attitude was that women could do the milking, make butter, tend the poultry, and even lend a hand with the haymaking. But to plough a field in winter, the very idea raised plenty of guffaws from British farmers.
As the farmers’ derision worsened, the patience of female farm workers snapped. In 1916, when a member of the Launceston Board of Guardians declared publicly that women could not do certain forms of work, the women’s anger was roused.
Subsequently, the inflammatory statement was challenged in the press, and eight women competitors performed a public demonstration of all the major skills required in farming. Later, a county demonstration was held in Truro, where 43 women competitors demonstrated their skills in harnessing and driving horses and wagons, ploughing, muck spreading and potato planting.
It was a competition designed to test the most experienced and toughest farm labourer. One of the judges wrote: “The work was very well done indeed. The manure spreading and planting were excellent; and the way several of the competitors handled the horses on the harrowing and in the wagons was a surprise to many of the spectators ... I should like to see some of the men who have been cheaply sneering at the ploughing to have a try themselves ...”
The rest is, as they say, history. Thanks to the determination of the women not to be put down, recruiting for the WLA began in 1917.
Recruits were offered a month’s free training at one of 600 farms where accommodation could be provided. They were also given an outfit and a minimum wage of 18 shillings a week - a princely sum since the average pre-war weekly male wage was 14 shillings.
By late 1918, the Women’s Land Army had become a model of efficiency, structured along the lines of a military reserve. So effective were the Land Girls that, when Britain faced a similar food crisis in 1939, the WLA was re-constituted immediately.
Once again, Lady Denman was at the helm, and this time round, two groups of Land Girls were trained before the outbreak of war in September 1939. Girls were interviewed, given a medical examination and enrolled if suitable. The official minimum age was 17, but many lied so they could join at 16, or even earlier.
In 1939, as in 1917, the Land Girl’s uniform became synonymous with healthy outdoor living. Usually, they wore brown laced brogues, baggy brown corduroy breeches and knee length fawn socks. They also wore a green aertex shirt, covered by a fawn, long sleeved, v-neck sweater. For formal occasions they had to wear a tie, and a brown felt pork-pie hat. And, for everyday work, they wore brown dungarees, matching jacket and wellies.
Their WLA sisters in World War One wore very similar uniforms, except for the addition of an overall worn over the breeches and shirt. A white overall indicated the girl was a dairy worker, whereas girls who did more general farm work wore beige overalls. First World War Land Girls also wore armbands.
Whichever conflict she served in, a Land Girl’s life took stamina and dedication. And, for girls from urban backgrounds, it could be a real culture shock. Hours were very long and the work physically demanding. Many young girls had never been away from home and were homesick. The life was a far cry from the glamorous image depicted on glossy recruitment posters.
In 1939, Lady Denman had said: “The Land Army fights in the fields. It is in the fields of Britain that the most critical battle of the war may well be fought and won.” In World War One, the WLA was called into being for that “critical battle”. And, in World War Two, more than 100,000 Land Girls answered the call, to prevent a similar food crisis. On both occasions, women had to put up with scorn from a farming community that believed working the land was “no job for a decent woman”.
In 1919 the Land Girls had proved them wrong. And, they did so again, in 1950, when the Women’s Land Army was disbanded. The irony, this time, however, was that the National Farmers’ Union, for so long critics of the Land Girls, now protested against their disbanding. An amazing turnaround!
l Did you help on the land during wartime? What were your memories. Email us on email@example.com, go to our website www.blackcountrybugle.co.uk or write to us at 41 High Street,?Cradley Heath, B64 5HL.