Tuesday, June 6, 2023

British Women at War -- The "Land Girls"

 by Helena P. Schrader

Throughout history, when men went to war, the burden of maintaining agricultural production — often the mainstay of the economy — fell to the family members left behind. That meant old people and children – and women. Yet in WWII, something new happened. Rather than relying on whatever family members happened to remain behind, the British government organized an external labor force to help farmers cope; it called on women to help out on the land and created the “Women’s Land Army.”

The Women's Land Army (WLA) had its origins in WWI. Established in 1917, the Women's Land Army employed some 23,000 women before the end of the First World War. This precedent encouraged early planning for a similar deployment of women in agricultural work as Europe slid slowly but inexorably towards war in the late 1930s. 

Logically for an agricultural employment scheme, the Women's Land Army (WLA) was organized geographically and divided into fifty-two regions each with a "county office." This office employed a permanent and paid staff which administered recruitment, placement, and complaints. The "local representative," most commonly an older woman with standing in the community and an appreciation for agricultural issues (e.g. a woman who owned a country estate), was responsible for visiting each Land Girl in her district at least once a month. She noted and reported on billeting, food, pay, time-off and recreation facilities available. She handled complaints and tried to mediate between the Land Girls and their employers, but if differences could not be resolved, the Land Girls were free to change employers.

Young women interested in the WLA applied at a county office and were interviewed by at least two people. Applicants came from across the country with widely different educational backgrounds and training. An astonishing third of all so-called "Land Girls" came from urban backgrounds. Many conscientious objectors were found among the ranks of the Land Girls. 

The work week was set at 48 hours in winter and 50 hours in summer, although during harvest and other periods of particular need the Land Girls like farmers and agricultural workers around the globe worked dawn to dusk. Most of the year, however, Land Girls got off work at noon on Saturday and did not need to report back until Monday morning. The majority spent their weekend at home with their families. 

The Land Girls were hired and paid directly by farmers, receiving the same wages as female agricultural workers -- i.e. the minimum wage of one pound, two shillings and sixpence a week. However, their room and board were deducted from this wage, leaving only ten shillings a week for personal expenses. Girls working more than 20 miles from home were also entitled to a "railway warrant," which was free train transportation to their home once every six months.

The work was extremely varied. It included, for example, driving tractors and ploughs, feeding and herding livestock, milking cows, mucking out barns, weeding kitchen gardens, harvesting grains, vegetables, and fruits, threshing, thatching and rat-catching/killing. Land Girls were expected not only to know how to use all usual farm equipment but also to be able to repair it. The only kind of work they were exempted from was domestic work -- something not all farmers appreciated in the early years. Furthermore, except for some correspondence courses, most of the Land Girls had to learn about farming on the job. 

Although Land Girls had a "uniform" and badges that declared their seniority in the service, the WLA was never a military or paramilitary organization. There were no ranks, no drill, and no regimentation. Girls could both give notice and be fired. Many Land Girls lived on the farms where they worked -- sometimes treated like members of the family, although some had the misfortune to be treated like cheap labor instead. Others lived in hostels together with other Land Girls. The biggest problem with individual billeting was loneliness and boredom. Girls in hostels had each other for company both when “at home” and for forays to local towns and events. 

In 1942, the "Timber Corps" was formed as a component of the WLA. The women who joined this corps were engaged in forest management including felling trees and transporting lumber. They lived in communal huts, usually 20 to a hut, and engaged in particularly heavy labor. 

The major appeal of the WLA was the opportunity to work in the sunshine, fresh air and away from the bombing. A secondary appeal was the "extras" like fresh eggs, milk, vegetables and fruits that the girls were able both to enjoy and to share with families.

Altogether, roughly 90,000 women served in the WLA during the Second World War. Their contribution is best measured by the fact that the organization was not disbanded until 1950. From the middle of the war until that time, Britain's dependence on homegrown foods had become acute, and the extra labor in the agricultural sector was essential to meet even minimal demands.

Award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader is the author of three books set in Britain during WWII: Where Eagles Never Flew, Grounded Eagles and Moral Fibre.  You can find out more about them, their awards and read reviews and excerpts at: https://helenapschrader.com


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