LATER this year the Government will finally recognise the selfless efforts of thousands of women who worked on the Home Front to provide food and timber during the 1939-45 war.
More than sixty years after the end of the war, surviving members of the Women's Land Army and Women's Timber Corps will be presented with a specially designed badge commemorating their service and acknowledging the debt that the country owes to them.
The Women's Land Army (WLA) was established in 1917 by Roland Prothero, the then Minister for Agriculture during the 1914-18 war. German U-boat attacks on shipping, bad harvests and food shortages had led to a desperate need to expand British agricultural production. If the population was to survive, two million extra acres would be needed, and with all able-bodied men needed to fight, women were needed to work on farms and in other jobs on the land. The WLA was designed to be a mobile female volunteer force able to go where and when it was most needed.
The WLA was disbanded when the war ended in 1919, and British agriculture declined during the 1920s and 1930s so that by the time war was imminent in 1939 up to 70 per cent of our food was being imported. To ensure that there wasn't a repeat of the shortages of 1914-18 a national plan was developed to put two million acres under the plough and on June 1 1939 the WLA was re-established with the formidable Lady Denman as honorary director. She had a longstanding interest in rural affairs and had also been closely linked with the founding of the original WLA.
Women were initially asked to volunteer for the WLA and the advertising slogan read, "For a healthy, happy job join The Women's Land Army". By the outbreak of war in September 1939 thousands of women were enrolled but the "Land Girls", as members of the organisation were dubbed, found that the hours were long work and the work was hard and dirty.
In the spring of 1941, the Minister for Labour and National Service, Ernest Bevin, announced that "One million wives were wanted for war work; inconvenience would have to be suffered and younger women would have to go where their services were required. It would be better to suffer temporarily than to be in perpetual slavery"
Later that year the National Service Act was passed, which allowed for the conscription of women into the armed forces or for vital war work. Single women between the ages of 20 and 30, and widows without children, were initially called up, but later the age limit was expanded to include women between 19 and 43. Women could choose to enter the armed forces or work in farming or industry. By August 1943, it is calculated that 87,000 women were working in the Land Army.
The WLA, which laid down basic conditions of employment, only acted as an agent between the employers and the Land Girls. They girls were most often employed by the county war agricultural executive committees ("War Ags"), who would organise gangs to work on farms. They were paid according to set rates determined by the Board of Agriculture, averaging £1 2s 6d (£1. 12 1/2) for a 48-hour week, with those under 18 receiving considerably less.
The Land Girls were required to do a wide range of jobs, including digging ditches, ploughing, gathering crops, managing poultry, milking cows, lambing and even catching rats and carrying out farm maintenance work. They would work for 48 hours a week in the winter and 50 hours a week in the summer and, as there was not enough machinery to go round, they often had to work with old fashioned equipment, such as horse drawn hand ploughs, and to harvest crops by hand.
There was a Land Army uniform which generally comprised a green pullover, short sleeved shirt, brown corduroy breeches or dungarees, brown felt slouch hat and a khaki overcoat, but as the WLA was
not a military force, the uniform was not compulsory. There was also an official magazine, "The Land Girl", a badge which depicted a wheat sheaf, and a special song:
Back to the land, we must all lend a hand.
To the farms and the fields we must go.
There's a job to be done.
Though we can't fire a gun.
We can still do our bit with the hoe.
Back to the land, with its clay and its sand.
Its granite and gravel and grit.
You grow barley and wheat.
And potatoes to eat.
To make sure that the nation keeps fit.
We will tell you once more.
You can help win the war.
If you come with us - back to the land. The girls came from a wide variety of backgrounds, with more than one third from large cities, particularly London. For many this was their first time away from home for an extended period. If they stayed in hostels (as many did) they settled down quickly. They could socialise together and if they went to local dances or picture shows (which could be a few miles away) they could travel together. Those that stayed in private billets told a different story. They were much more prone to loneliness and homesickness and reacted to the attitude of many farmers who were initially sceptical about employing young women on their farms.
There has not been space in this article to say much about the division of the WLA known as the Women's Timber Corps, also known as the "Lumber Jills", who worked tirelessly in the forests felling trees, sawing timber and sharpening saws to provide timber for the war effort. They also played a vital role in making telegraph poles and pit props. The latter were sent to the mining areas which helped fuel Britain's industry.
Similarly, I have not written about the women's branches of the three forces - the WAAF, WRAC and WRNS - all of which played vital parts in staffing headquarters and command centres as well as more routine clerical, messenger, and chauffering work.
When the war finished, the Women's Land Army continued working to feed the population until the men came home to take back the agricultural jobs. Unlike demobbed servicemen, the girls received no help in finding peacetime employment, a fact that so annoyed Lady Denham that she resigned in protest. The WLA was finally disbanded on 21 October 1950 and 500 Land Girls went to Buckingham Palace to march past the Queen and hear her words of gratitude.
The WLA was never a military organisation, and though it was sometimes treated as such by the government it had no official recognition for its efforts during the war. Known as the "Forgotten Corps", until very recently there were no official WLA representatives at the Albert Hall Remembrance Services and at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday.
Speaking about the new initiative, Hilary Benn said: "The Women's Land Army and Women's Timber Corps made a vital contribution to this country during the second world war. Supplying the nation with food and timber during the dark days of war was no easy task. These women worked tirelessly for the benefit of their nation. Their selfless service to the country deserves the recognition that this badge will represent. I look forward to meeting some of the veterans and presenting them with their badges".
- If you or anyone you know was in the Women's Land Army, you can apply to receive a badge by completing an application form to give evidence of eligibility.
- Badges will be awarded to surviving members as of 6 December 2007.
- Badges will not be made available to descendants of deceased members, except any who die after the 6 December 2007.
- For further information phone 08459 335577.