“Come out of the towns and on to the downs, where a girl gets brown and strong; with swinging pace and morning face she does her work to song.” – The Land Army Song
Television and film have popularized the story of the Land Girls of World War II, but few know of the sacrifices made by women agricultural workers who “fought in the fields” of the Great War. Britain’s labour shortage during the First World War was critical: over three million men had left for military service, and women workers were desperately needed to maintain the country’s food supply.
Wanting to lend their assistance, numerous organizations attempted to recruit women for work on the land, including the Board of Agriculture, the Board of Trade, the Women’s Farm Land Union, the Women’s National Land Service Corps, the University Association of Land Workers, and local Women’s War Agricultural Committees – to name just a few. By 1917, the Government realized the necessity of founding and funding a central organization, the Women’s Land Army (WLA), and by the end of the year, the WLA had placed over 23,000 “Land Girls.” Although official records have been destroyed or were never kept, it’s estimated that over a quarter of a million women volunteered for agricultural work.
Yet, despite the need for women farm workers, resistance was high. A London Telegraph article published in May 1916 reported,
‘At the Ryedale Agricultural Club, held at Helmsley, yesterday, Mr. Hebron said he could not get women workers for love or money. Women labour on the land was a farce. They were simply out on spooning expeditions, trying to catch husbands. (Laughter.) Women’s place was at home.’
The president of the Board of Agriculture warned potential volunteers that they should not expect the kind of work that called for “lilac sun-bonnets” (see Twinch, 1990:18[i]), and a report on a 1918 Land Girls parade in Birmingham in 1918 stated,
‘The procession attracted much attention, and to many of the watchers, it was a novelty to see the girls in their working clothes, and to realize that the girls of England are really working on the land, and not merely playing about in print frocks in the haymaking time’ (ibid:32)
Most people were surprised at women’s ability to capably accomplish farm tasks; some with traditional values even viewed the Land Girls’ uniform trousers as disgraceful cross-dressing. In response, the government issued posters that celebrated the women’s patriotic efforts and feminized the new roles in an attempt to change public attitudes.
Recruitment efforts appealed to women’s patriotism and their consciences, underscoring the importance of “doing one’s bit.” Those wishing to sign up for the Women’s Land Army had to be over 20 years of age, and women were required to submit references, complete paperwork that demonstrated their education and literacy, attend an interview, and pass a physical exam. If accepted, each Land Army Girl signed a six-month or one-year contract, agreeing to be sent anywhere in the country that she was needed. She was typically paid between 20 – 25 shillings a week, and charged 17 shillings/week for room and board. The Women’s Land Army Handbook asked each recruit to pledge that she would “behave quietly,” “secure eight hours’ rest each night,” “avoid entering the bar of a public house,” “not smoke in public,” and “never wear the uniform after work without her overall, nor walk about with her hands in her breeches pockets.”
The Land Army issued each girl a knee-length tunic or overall (that could be no more than 14 inches above the ground), breeches, a hat, coat, boots, and leather leggings. After thirty days of service, she was issued a green armband to denote her patriotic service, to which was added a stripe for every six months of work. Land Girls also received a L.A.A.S. (Land Army Agriculture Service) badge after two months and were eligible to earn good service ribbons and distinguished service bars.
Volunteers who signed up with idyllic visions of the British countryside soon learned of the long days and hard work demanded by life on a farm. The women fed livestock, milked cows, trapped vermin, ploughed fields, and harvested fruits and vegetables. Formal training was scarce and offered piecemeal, but Land Army recruits were encouraged to send for leaflets on such topics as the construction of pigsties, advice to beginners in bee-keeping, thatching, potato growing, cleanliness in the dairy, and ringworm in cattle. They worked 9 to 10 hours a day in all kinds of weather, often six days a week, at wages significantly below those of women who were “doing their bit” in munitions or clerical work.
Rose Macaulay volunteered for agricultural work in 1916. Working at Station Farm outside Cambridge, Macaulay wryly wrote of her experiences in the poem “Spreading Manure.”
There are forty steaming heaps in the one tree field,
Lying in four rows of ten,
They must be all spread out ere the earth will yield
As it should (And it won’t, even then).
Drive the great fork in, fling it out wide;
Jerk it with a shoulder throw,
The stuff must lie even, two feet on each side.
Not in patches, but level…so!
When the heap is thrown you must go all round
And flatten it out with the spade,
It must lie quite close and trim till the ground
Is like bread spread with marmalade.
The north-east wind stabs and cuts our breaths,
The soaked clay numbs our feet,
We are palsied like people gripped by death
In the beating of the frozen sleet.
I think no soldier is so cold as we,
Sitting in the frozen mud.
I wish I was out there, for it might be
A shell would burst to heat my blood.
I wish I was out there, for I should creep
In my dug-out and hide my head,
I should feel no cold when they lay me deep
To sleep in a six-foot bed.
I wish I was out there, and off the open land:
A deep trench I could just endure.
But things being other, I needs must stand
Frozen, and spread wet manure.
The first three stanzas of the poem give a sense of the tedium of the work: forty steaming piles of dung must be forked, lifted, and flung before the stinking excrement can be evenly smoothed across the field “like bread spread with marmalade.” The simile ironically highlights the contrast between the typical domestic sphere of women and the work of the Land Girls, and the image linking manure with marmalade is both apt and disgusting.
The last four stanzas use wry humour to highlight a similarity that is even more shocking and disturbing: Macaulay dares to compare the discomforts of the Land Girls’ work with the conditions of the men on the front lines of battle. Both the soldiers and the Land Girls battle the cold and wallow in the frozen mud. But “Spreading Manure” argues that the women have it worse: without the shelter of dugouts, they suffer longer spells in the freezing sleet and cold and are more exposed to the elements. Without bursting shells, the women lack the excitement that warms the blood of the soldiers. And without the threat of death, the Land Girls cannot anticipate an end to their misery.
The poem makes these audacious claims as it subtly challenges the social order that limited women’s participation in the war. The poem’s repeated refrain “I wish I was out there” can be viewed as naïve and self-indulgent – or as a protest against the cultural restrictions that consigned women to roles that were tedious and frustratingly confining.
The Women’s Land Army Handbook sought to reassure new recruits:
‘You are now in the Women’s Land Army; serving your Country just like the Soldiers and Sailors, though in a different way…When people see you pass…they watch you and admire your pluck and patriotism. Make them also admire your independence and your modesty, your frankness and enthusiasm; show them that a British girl who is working for her country on the land is the best sort of girl.’
These best-sort-of-girls have only recently been remembered with their own National Memorial at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire, dedicated in October of 2014. As Twinch (1990:52) observes, “Theirs was a necessary but largely unspectacular heroism”.
[i] Twinch, C. (1990). Women on the land: Their story during two world wars. Cambridge. Lutterworth Press