The First World War Women’s Land Army
With the marking of the World War One centenary from 2014 to 2018, much discussion has taken place over the invaluable role which women played during the war. Whilst most people remember there was a Women’s Land Army during the Second World War, many do not know that the organisation existed, albeit on a smaller scale during the First World War. The pioneering progress made during the First World War was important in laying the foundations for the continuation of women’s work on the land during the Second World War.
“The help of British women is urgent and indispensable.” These were the words on a First World War Women’s Land Army recruitment poster, encouraging women to work on the land to replace the 100,000 men who had gone to war. Despite the misleading title of the Women’s Land Army, this organisation was made up of young female civilians, commonly known as ‘Land Girls’, who worked in either agriculture, forage (haymaking for food for horses) or timber cutting. The Women’s Land Army was not set up until early in 1917 (well over two years after the war started), its main aim being to increase food production during wartime, imperative when a significant amount of Britain’s food was imported and Germany was blockading merchant shipping.
The majority of the 23,000 Land Girls worked as milkers and field workers, coming from urban backgrounds. Indeed some Land Girls had not even seen a cow before, let alone knew how to milk one – which provided many humorous anecdotes passed down the generations! For a few Land Girls who received training, this involved learning to drive newly-introduced tractors, a very exciting yet challenging experience, uniquely offered by the necessities of war. However, more Land Girls worked with horses and undertook a variety of manual tasks.
One enticing aspect of the Women’s Land Army was the uniform, and specifically the chance for women to wear breeches. In the context of the First World War, this was a positively revolutionary element which accompanied working on the land – yet this part of the uniform was received with much hostility by country people, who were highly suspicious of urban women coming into the country, wearing trousers, and in some cases having their hair cut into short bobs, challenging the perceived ideals of femininity. It is fascinating to hear the daughter of a Land Girl recounting how her mother Dorothy Eddowes (nee Brown) told stories about how men used to stare at her and a friend when delivering milk in the local town – they had never before seen a woman in trousers!
The Women’s Land Army played a significant role in contributing to Britain’s food production during World War One. The advancements which were made in setting up a central organisation to manage the movement of women onto the land came to play a vital role again, this time before the outbreak of the Second World War, when the Women’s Land Army came to employ over 100,000 women. In the words of Rowland Prothero, Minister for Agriculture, ‘All honour…to the pioneers of the Women’s Land Army and to those who follow in their steps. They are helping to hold the home front as the men are holding the lines by sea and land.’