In a year commemorating not only the centenary of women’s enfranchisement, but also the end of the First World War, the achievements of women in wartime deserves recognition, not least the efforts of the women who worked on the land through two world wars. A decade ago, in January 2008, it was announced that former members of the Women’s Land Army (WLA) and Women’s Timber Corps (WTC) were to be awarded a medal commemorating their vital contribution to the war effort during two World Wars. The badge, bearing the Royal Crown and showing a gold wheat sheaf on a white background was surrounded by a circlet of pine branches and pine cones to indicate the work of both the ‘Land Girls’ and the ‘Lumber Jills’. It was long overdue (sixty years overdue, sniffed the Daily Mail at the time), but it was, at last, official recognition for a cohort of women who had thrown their backs, and their hearts into providing the nation with food and timber during World War II.
By early 1917, and with an estimated three weeks’ food supply left in the country, it was clear that drastic action was needed. Ronald Protheroe, President of the Board of Agriculture engaged the services of (Dame) Meriel Talbot, a leading light of the Women’s Farm and Garden Association, who became director of the first Women’s Land Army. She set about immediately implementing an intensive recruitment drive.
Through both World Wars, the WLA struggled with an image problem. Other, comparatively more glamorous women’s services such as the Women’s Air Force (WAAF) or the Women’s Royal Naval Services (WRNS) were formed around the same time and offered not only more conducive working hours but an elegant uniform in comparison to the smock and breeches ensemble worn by land girls. Munitions workers of course, earned far more. Farm work meant long hours, physical toil and low wages. Furthermore, many land girls who arrived at farms full of optimism and enthusiasm, found their male employers sceptical about their abilities. The recruiters appealed to the patriotism of the nation’s women, and peppered that with promises of a healthy, wholesome rural idyll. Prime Minister David Lloyd George, quoted in The Landswoman (a magazine launched in January 1918 expressly for WLA members), added his voice to the appeal in June 1918; “…the harvest is in danger…once again therefore…I appeal to women to come forward and help. They have never failed this country yet.” A Times article, reporting on a the 130 land girls who visited London and then Buckingham Palace for a recruitment campaign in March of that year commented enthusiastically on, “the health and happiness, clear skins and bright eyes” of the land girls.
The Women’s Land Army of the Great War, which had recruited approximately 23,000 women to its ranks, was disbanded in 1919 but within twenty years, it would be needed again. Having proved to many doubters in 1918 that women were more than capable of physically taxing work in the fields and forests, the next generation of land girls found themselves facing similar prejudices.
The new WLA reformed in 1939, with Lady Gertrude Denman at its head. Its headquarters were based at her own magnificent country home, Balcombe Park in Sussex where the bedrooms were turned into offices and the stables and squash court transformed into warehouses for storing the thousands of uniforms to be issued to recruits. From here, the Land Girl, a monthly magazine under the editorship of birth control pioneer, Margaret Pyke was produced reaching a circulation of 21,000. Lady Denman was a tireless representative of the WLA. She toured the country, making personal visits to county and regional officers as well as speaking to land girls themselves and was firmly committed to raising the profile and improving conditions for the women under her wing. In 1941, she approached Buckingham Palace to invite Queen Elizabeth to become the WLA patron. The Queen accepted and from then on, took an active interest in the Land Army, attending reviews, subscribing to the WLA Benevolent Fund and throwing an anniversary party for over 300 land girls at Buckingham Palace in 1943.
The WLA’s recruiting slogan was, ‘For a healthy, happy job, join the Women’s Land Army’. Its most famous poster depicted a glowing young woman, pitchfork poised, in WLA uniform surveying with a satisfied gaze, a large, sun-kissed field stretching out to the horizon. For some, it was an alluring prospect. Indeed, in the months leading up to WWII, when the WLA was already beginning to recruit as the storm clouds of war gathered, the fortnight of training given to Land Girls was regularly described as akin to a holiday. The Hastings Observer, writing in July 1939, suggested, “Land Army work is something which girls and women of all types and ages will find interesting and health-giving…The period of training is only a fortnight, and those who would find a country holiday attractive and are prepared to pay £1 for their board should find the training period as enjoyable as it is instructive.”
The bucolic idyll promoted by posters and newspaper editorial rarely lived up to expectations. For most girls, some of whom came from cities and were entirely unused to country life let alone physical work, the reality involved endless weeks of strenuous, back-breaking effort. Jobs could be by turns filthy, dangerous, repetitive, or all three. Nevertheless, by 1943, over 80,000 women had gamely turned their hand to baling, ploughing, weeding, ditching, chaffing, milking, mucking out, plucking chickens, picking potatoes, cutting sugar beet and even rat-catching! One former land girl, Dorothy Wheeler, sent to work on farms in North Wales, recalled the field work she was faced with on her very first day – sorting through clamps of potatoes, separating them into one heap for pigs and another for humans. “Oh, it was horrible sometimes, like custard.” Another girl, Hilda Billings from Salford left her job in the Rennies indigestion tablet factory to join the land army and described her typical working week in the Shropshire countryside as, “getting up to bring in the cows at six, washing their udders with icy-cold water, drying and then milking them. Then breakfast and lots of other work until six. Haymaking time, you’d go back after tea and work till it went really dark.” For a forty-eight hour working week, payment was the underwhelming sum of £1 2 s. 6d., and was considerably lower for girls under the age of eighteen. Promotion to a supervisor was, at least, a chance to improve earning power.
Members of the Women’s Timber Corps found themselves in an even more masculine world than their land girl counterparts. With timber imports badly hit by submarine attacks on Allied ships, and the need for a specialisation in this kind of work, the WTA was set up as an offshoot of the WLA in March 1942. Recruits, who had four weeks of training, earned more than land girls with the result that, at one point, women were volunteering at a rate of 250 per week. The Lumber Jills carried out an enormous range of forestry jobs from working in sawmills to labouring in forests, felling trees and lopping branches. They would also take on the heavy work of haulage and transportation. A key aspect of their job was acquisition work, where WTC members would walk for miles daily, assessing, measuring and selecting trees suitable for war production, whether as telegraph poles, as pit props or for wood that would be laid in front of tanks on beach landings.
Most girls were billeted either at farms, or often in hostels where facilities could be spartan, though the camaraderie of communal living was often preferred to the isolation of living alone with a family in a remote area. Nevertheless, home comforts were thin on the ground. Helen Collett, who worked in Buckinghamshire remembered coming back from the fields after a day knee deep in mud and having to share just four inches of bath water with six other girls. The familiar uniform issued to the Land Girls and Lumber Jills consisted of brown, corduroy breeches (an extra pair was allocated to WTC girls), fawn knee-length woollen socks, fawn Aertex shirt, green pullover and green tie. To top it off was a brown felt ‘slouch’ hat, worn at a jaunty angle by the more sassy girls to avoid looking overly quaint. The green beret that set the Lumberjills apart was infinitely more rakish. For many, this uniform was kept for ‘best’ and daily work was carried out in baggy, brown dungarees with a matching jacket.
Despite the disadvantages of an unflattering uniform, the land girls still had their fair share of admirers. Those close to RAF or Army bases would cycle (sometimes bicycles were provided) to dances where they jitterbugged with GIs or British airmen. Some went on to marry the servicemen they met while in the WLA. They caught the eye of others too. Many prisoners of war were put to work in the fields and one land girl recalled that while the German POWs were surly yet hard workers, the Italians, unable to subdue their natural flirtatiousness, would spend more time whistling at girls or calling, ‘Bella, bella’.
Most of the Land Girls and Lumber Jills are now in their eighties but still remember their time with the Women’s Land Army fondly – “good years with good friends” as one put it. Peg Francis from Grimsby, speaking in 2010 explained the firm friendships forged out of a shared experience. “I was very young and had never been away from home. I was frightened of cows, but had no fear of hard work. The people I met during those four and half years were full of kindness and generosity and I’m still in touch with some of the girls now.”
Incredibly, it was not until 2000, that the Women’s Land Army was finally invited to march past the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday – in honour of the work they did for their country. Since then, a memorial sculpture to the WTC was unveiled in the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park near Aberfoyle in Stirling in October 2007, a fitting tribute to the so-called ‘Forgotten Corps’. In 2014, finally, after a fundraising campaign, a memorial to the Women’s Land Army was unveiled by the Countess of Wessex at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. The figures, by sculptor Denise Dutton, were inspired by those in one of the original WLA recruitment posters. As the original Land Girls become fewer in number, the focus on women’s contribution to the past becomes magnified, and it seems that finally, their voices are beginning to be heard.