The Women’s Land Army: how it fought and won the battle to feed the nation

Posted November 14, 2010

The Women’s Land Army: how it fought and won the battle to feed the nation

An old proverb states that, “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”. The woman who feeds him well, so the saying goes, will win his affections forever. But what if food is scarce and it’s not just one man but every man, woman and child in the country who is in danger of not being fed at all? It may sound far-fetched but this is the very real situation that Britain faced during World War Two.

German U-boats were successfully bombing ships carrying supplies from abroad. The country could no longer rely on imports and had to find a way to produce more home grown food. Every spare acre of land was to be converted to food growing but with the nation’s farmers away fighting this presented a huge problem. The solution lay with The Women’s Land Army, an organisation made up entirely by female volunteers, who took on all the jobs of running a farm. The ‘Land Girls’ as they were otherwise known milked the cows, dug ditches, operated heavy farm machinery, ploughed the land, sowed seeds and even brought in the harvest. They helped local farmers around Thaxted to plough up as much land as possible including common land at Cutlers Green and Bardfield End that had never been cultivated before.

Yet the women received little recognition for their work which was poorly paid and often a real slog. It was only in 2008 that the contribution made by this “forgotten army” was finally honoured by the government. Surviving members were presented with a special commemorative badge in ceremonies held throughout the country. This included twenty-eight women who were honoured at the District Council offices in Saffron Walden. Hilary Brown, the Environment Secretary at the time said, “It is absolutely right that we at last recognise the selfless efforts these women made to support the nation through the dark days of World War Two”. So who were these gutsy women and where did they come from?

Though the Women’s Land Army had the word “army” in its title it was, in fact, a civilian organisation. The women came from all backgrounds, united in their desire to help with the war effort and attracted by glossy recruitment posters showing smiling girls bathed in sunshine, surrounded by open fields. More than a third of the girls came from London and the industrial cities in the north and some were such “townies” that they had never even seen the countryside before. In reality, the work was much harder than the recruitment posters made it look and many of the younger girls grew homesick as they were separated from their families for the very first time. For others it offered independence as young women usually did not leave home until they married.

The Women’s Land Army was originally formed in World War One as an emergency response to the shortage of farm labour and the harvest failure of 1917 and was disbanded when the men returned home from the war. It was then reinstated in 1939 just before the outbreak of the Second World War and lasted until 1950. The Women’s Land Army was a slick operation that owed much of its success to the determination of its founder, Lady Denman. Her mission was clear: “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”. She used her home, Balcombe Place, as its headquarters and set up efficient systems for the recruitment, training, placement and welfare of the women. England and Wales were divided into seven regions all reporting to Balcombe Place and every county had its own organising secretary and local representative. It was the responsibility of the rep to ensure that all the girls within their area were being well treated.

Each Land Girl was issued with a distinctive uniform which consisted of brown laced brogue shoes, baggy corduroy breeches and fawn coloured knee length socks. A green V-necked sweater and tie was worn over an airtex shirt and on their heads they wore a brown cowboy- style hat. A three-quarter length waterproof overcoat finished off the outfit. The coat was warm, comfortable and hard wearing but wasn’t always handed out straight away. This was fine for the women who joined in the summer but not so good for those who started in the winter; they got cold! Work clothes were brown dungarees, a matching jacket and wellington boots. The boots didn’t always fit and volunteers sometimes had to stuff them with socks.

The Land Girls were placed in either private billets or hostels. Those in hostels lived and worked together as a community and made the experience as much fun as possible even though the conditions were far from luxurious. Girls would sleep six to a room on bunk beds. Working the land made them hungry but there was never much food to go round. They also had to share a bathroom and often there was no hot water to wash with. They started 5.30 in the morning and a normal working week consisted of five and a half days with Saturday afternoon and Sunday off.  Despite all the hard work and tough living conditions they really looked forward to the free time they were given. They enjoyed going to local dances in the village halls even if this sometimes meant they had to walk two or three miles to get there. There was a great sense of camaraderie amongst the girls and many stayed friends for life. 

At its peak in 1943 over 80,000 women were working in The Women’s Land Army and it is a testament to their contribution that nobody starved. Job done!

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