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Women on the Land

Britain’s imperial position, and technological advances in shipping had increased her dependency on imported food. By 1913, British farmers had only produced enough food for 125 days of the year. The Germans had identified that targeting this reliance on imported food and materials and sinking the ships that supplied them would seriously affect Britain’s ability to wage war. Starving the population into submission would be an effective strategy.

A labour shortage in agriculture was having an impact on food production. It is estimated that of the one million men in Britain who were employed in agriculture five hundred thousand had enlisted by 1916. Farming in Falkirk District was affected by the labour shortage despite appeals each year for labour to help with the harvest. The army temporarily released men to work on the farms in the District, although farmers felt the men were more of a hinderance than a help. County War Agricultural Committees had existed since the outbreak of the war when all County Councils had been requested by the President of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries to set them up to assist farmers in the best means of cultivating their land. The East Stirlingshire Agricultural Committee organised the temporary release of ploughmen from the army as well as a pool of farming equipment.


To support the demand for horse fodder the government formed the Women’s Forage Corps in 1915. This organisation was administered by the Army Service Corps (ASC). The Women’s Forestry Corps, they supplied wood for the paper industry, wood for construction works in various theatres of the war and wood for the home front. They came under the control of the Timber Supply Department of the Board of Trade.

By December 1916, agricultural production had grown to be a serious matter of national concern that the President of the Board of Agriculture stated ‘The victory or defeat in this great War may be brought about on the cornfields and potato lands of Great Britain.’ Although, women had always worked on farms in dairies, keeping poultry, and at harvest time there were only a few organisations that got women working on the land. The main organisations were The Women’s Land Service Corps, which later became known as the Women’s Land Corps, the Women’s Farm and Garden Union, and the Land Service Corps, which organised village women into working gangs.


In early 1917 the Women’s Land Army was established with three sections covering agriculture, timber cutting and forage. A key factor in the development of the new organisation was the integration of the growing Women’s Institute movement into the Board of Agriculture and it ultimately became the women’s branch of the Food Production Department (FPD). The FPD was created to silence the fears that Britain could be reduced to fighting a war of attrition after the German U-boats had sunk the merchant fleet. Its remit was to organise and distribute labour, feed, fertiliser and machinery to enable an increase in crops. To assist the FPD the government gave them a wide range of emergency powers including the right to cross private property, dispossess tenant farmers who they felt were being inefficient and take fallow land into production.


Previously, the contribution of women on the land was hindered by underlying tensions as male agricultural workers saw their exemption from military service being taken away, their wives feared the loss of their part-time jobs, and farmers wives saw women billeted on them as simply more mouths to feed. The 1917 National Service recruitment poster ‘God Speed the Plough’ hid from the recruits the issues mentioned and also that the fields they would be ploughing would be muddy and windswept.


To address these issues the Board of Agriculture set up special sections to deal with hostels, training , county organisation, equipment and publicity materials. Every applicant had to supply three references from their employer, local minister and a doctor with enrolment for a period of six or 12 months service. There were some forty five thousand young women who applied, of whom about 50 per cent were rejected and twenty three thousand being recruited. Terms of service included a uniform in military khaki of a knee length overall tunic with a button-fastening integral belt, boots, girls were allowed two pairs of working boots per year, gaiters or puttees, soft hat and breeches which were cut to measure for each girl. Wages were an initial 18s rising to 20s and 22s 6d per week by 1919. The enrolled women were placed at a farm for training with the period of training varying from four to six weeks which depended on the stipulation set by their local Board or the nature of the work. After three months’ proficient service, of not less than 240 hours, each girl would receive her official armlet which consisted of a loden green band with a bright red crown. The women were also issued with circular proficiency badges for milking, horse work, tractor driving, stacking corn, hoeing and manure spreading. The women also received a red cloth chevron for each six months’ work representing not less than1,440 hours. For those who had completed two years work they received a red diamond with an outline green diamond in the centre.


The women were expected to behave in a ladylike fashion with concerns in some quarters about the girls losing their femininity, not only was this because the land girls wore breeches but also because the hard working nature of the job. The Land Army Handbook recognised these concerns when it was pointed out that ‘You are doing a man’s work so you are dressed rather like a man, but remember, just because you wear a smock and breeches you should take care to behave like a British girl who expects chivalry and respect from everyone she meets.’ There were also concerns over discipline, as many of the girls saw this as a great adventure and a chance to break away from the restrictions of the years before the war. Both the local and national press carried letters of complaint about girls failing to wear their overalls and showing their breeches and of girls going into public houses and staying out of their billets beyond 9.30pm.

The Land Army girls proved their worth and in 1917 there was increased food production and the wheat harvest was the best in history. The Land Army was disbanded in 1919, and like the women who worked in the munitions factories, the women found that their efforts were strictly for the duration.


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