The Land Girls

25 Sep

In 1917, during the Great War, the British Government realised that only three weeks of food supply remained in the whole country.  In order to prevent the nation from starving, more food had to be produced and women were encouraged to make up the shortfall of agricultural workers as many male farm labourers had gone off to fight.  The mistake was heeded and when the Second World War broke out in September 1939, there were already 1000 trained women ready to be sent into employment.  In the first two years of its re-formation, the Women’s Land Army was voluntary and 20, 000 women enrolled.  By 1943, the total number of women recruited had reached 90, 000 and this was due to the conscription of women aged 18 – 40 into war work.

At the beginning of the war, Britain was importing two thirds of its food from abroad.  In order to become more self-sufficient, more land had to be put into production and County War Agricultural Executive Committees were established to do this.  Committee members visited farms and arranged with the farmer which fields had to be ploughed up.  Ploughing orders had the force of law although in most cases the farmer was persuaded rather than forced into ploughing up his fields and none seems to have refused the grants of £2 an acre that accompanied them.  By the end of the war, arable land had increased by 50% and pasture by 66 per cent.  In addition the output of wheat and barley had doubled as had potato production and only one third of the food required was imported.  With this ‘second agricultural revolution’, farms were becoming mechanised for the first time and so land girls ploughed the fields using both tractor and horse.

Some girls volunteered to be trained in pest extermination.  This included rabbit gassing and mole trapping but the vast majority of the work was rat catching.  There were approximately 50 million rats in Britain during the war and as each could eat one hundredweight of food a year, all of them were consuming two and a half million tons of vital food per year.  About 1000 land girl volunteers were employed by the County Committees to tour the farms and reduce the number of rats.  There were various methods for eliminating rats including trapping and bait poisoned with arsenic or zinc phosphide was often used.  However, gassing was by far the most effective measure and in Devon alone 100,000 rats were destroyed by gassing compared to 24,000 by trapping.

Some members of the W.L.A. were employed in Britain’s woods and forests and became known as the Timber Corps.  Their duties included everything from nursery work and the cultivation of young trees to felling and snedding to working in saw-mills.  A further duty was in the acquisition of trees for essential wartime purposes such as pit props, telegraph poles, ladder poles and obstruction poles for road blocks.  It was the Timber Corps task to identify the tallest, straightest trees in order that they could be cut down and used for these purposes.  Timber Corps girls numbered about 4000 in England and Wales and 2000 in Scotland.

In the coastal counties of Essex, Norfolk, Suffolk and the South Coast, the Women’s Land Army not only had to contend with day to day life working on the farm but also the constant threat of air attack and in some cases shelling from continental Europe.  Luftwaffe pilots often strafed the fields with machine gun rounds, forcing farmers and land girls to dive for cover under machinery or hedges.  In 1942 a land girl was awarded the British Empire Medal for brave conduct, for the farm in Kent where she worked, was constantly bombarded with up to 200 shells a day and in the peak of the Battle of Britain was continuously machine gunned.  However, she bravely continued to work on the farm, carrying out her duties of looking after the animals and reaping the corn.

The Women’s Land Army was finally wound up in 1950 although numbers had been dwindling continuously since the end of the war.  There was some acrimony when the Government announced that Land Girls would not be eligible for re-settlement grants that were available to other Civil Defence workers and many thought that after all their hard work, the land girls were  treated unjustly.

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