“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.”
Women’s Land Army song
“Land Girls” was an affectionate term given to members of the Women’s Land Army (WLA). This had been formed during the First World War and was reintroduced in 1939 through a genuine fear of food shortages. Britain was very reliant on food imports and those cargo ships were obvious targets for the enemy.
Farm workers would be expected to join up and fight which left the prospect of labour shortages. The government also wanted to bring fallow land back in to agricultural use so it fell to the women to get to work. By 1943 there were more than 80,000 land girls.
The work was tough: everything from milking, ploughing and rat catching and of course getting the harvest in. This is some of the selection criteria:
Health and Physique
Girls should be strong, able to undertake strenuous work, heavy lifting, and an outdoor life in all weathers. They should be asked whether they have a tendency to rheumatism or catch cold very easily.
Short stature is a definite disadvantage and needs to be compensated by sturdiness.
All the hardships and difficulties of country life should be thoroughly explained to the volunteer: Loneliness, lack of time off, primitive sanitation etc.
Initially the government asked women to volunteer but by December 1941 the government passed the National Service Act, which allowed the conscription of women into the armed forces or for vital war work. Initially single women between 20 and 30 or widows without children were called up but later the age range was expanded from 19 to 43.
The women either lived on the farm where they worked or stayed in hostels where they would be picked up and taken to their long day’s work.
I can’t imagine how hard it must have been. Once the blitz began those from the affected cities must have been so worried about their families and many of the land girls must have had brothers or sweethearts away fighting. But if you read their memoirs it was a fulfilling life and many were proud to do something for the war effort. The BBC’s archive has many fascinating accounts here.
I am lucky enough to enjoy my garden in a time of peace and I grow my vegetables and fruit for fun not to swell the thin rations of a hungry population. I certainly don’t think of myself in the same league as all those women who still don’t really enjoy the gratitude and recognition they deserve – but I hope I do understand how vital and noble it is to work the land.