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Fact File : Women's Land Army

The Women's Land Army (WLA) was established in World War One, but was re-founded shortly before the outbreak of World War Two, in June 1939, to provide extra agricultural labour. The government feared that if war broke out there would be food shortages. Britain, then as now, relied heavily on imported food, and it was thought that imports would be threatened by anticipated German blockades. In addition, many male farm workers were expected to join up, leaving a shortage of labour. The government was also keen to increase food production by reclaiming pasture and unused land for growing crops.

Women were initially asked to volunteer for the WLA. However, in December 1941 the government passed the National Service Act, which allowed the conscription of women into the armed forces or for vital war work. At first only single women between 20 and 30, and widows without children, were called up, but later the age limit was expanded to include women between 19 and 43. Women could choose whether to enter the armed forces or work in farming or industry. By 1943, more than 80,000 women were working in the Land Army. They were nicknamed Land Girls.

The Land Girls did a wide range of jobs, including milking cows, lambing, managing poultry, ploughing, gathering crops, digging ditches, catching rats and carrying out farm maintenance work. Some 6,000 women worked in the Timber Corps, chopping down trees and running sawmills.

All of these women worked long hours, especially during the summer, mostly outdoors and often in cold and rain. There was minimal training and most women were expected to learn about agricultural work while they were actually doing it. The Land Girls lived either on the farms where they worked, or in hostels.

They came from a wide variety of backgrounds, with more than one third from London and other large cities. Some were homesick, and many farmers were initially sceptical about employing young women on their farms, but people soon came to realise how useful most of them were.

Initially, Land Girls earned £1.85 for a minimum of 50 hours work a week. In 1944, wages were increased by £1 to £2.85. However, as the wages were paid by the farmer, rather than directly by the state, it was difficult to ensure that everyone was paid properly.

There was a Land Army uniform of green jumpers, brown breeches or dungarees, brown felt hats and khaki overcoats. As the Land Army was not a military force, however, uniform was not compulsory. The WLA badge depicted a wheat sheaf as a symbol of their agricultural work. There was also an official magazine The Land Girl, and a special song:
  • 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.external image 5ea3e7590d674d9be4582cc6f6c8e86070157686.gif

The WLA came under the control of the Ministry of Agriculture, but its head was the formidable Lady Denman. Married to the former Governor General of Australia, Lady Denman was a leading figure in the Women's Institute movement, and also had a close interest in rural affairs. Her home, Balcombe Place in Sussex, became the WLA headquarters. Each district had its own WLA representative, who was expected to ensure the Land Girls were being treated well and were working effectively.

The Land Army was disbanded in 1950. Although the work was hard, conditions were often bad and the pay was low, many women enjoyed the experience, and formed lifelong friendships with fellow Land Girls.


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The work placed upon the shoulders of women was strenuous, nothing like many had done before. From threshing to milking cows, the work was tiring and incredibly demanding. As Mant accounts, some girls put on a whole stone of muscle due to the heavy work which they were undertaking as their role as Land Girl. Below summarises a typical day a Land Girl would experience working on the farm.

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Despite working for most of the day in uniform, Land Girls did not have much money to spare. Out of their wages, money was taken for board and lodgings and laundry. The lifestyles of many Land Girls functioned on a tight budget. Grimwood remembers hitch hiking on numerous occasions, despite being warned of the dangers but there really was a desperation to make their money stretch.

Bicycles, which were often used as transport from the girls’ accommodation to the farms were vital, once they got to know their war around the country lanes. There were no road signs, so as to not aid the enemy in attack. Dimmed bicycle lamps at night also made it extremely difficult for the girls to find their way around the local area, let alone any further. In some cases, the Land Girls had to put up with the rather unglamorous lorries which were used to ferry them around, driven by Land Girl hostel drivers.

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Land Girls’ social lives varied according to where their accommodation was and how many other girls were billeted at a particular place. If, for example, they were lucky enough to have an RAF base near them, or indeed an American base, then their social life was going to be livelier when compared with a single Land Girl billeted with an elderly couple. If big military camps were in the area, then Land Girls were frequently invited to dances.

However, not all of the social life of a Land Girl involved men. A somewhat ‘normal’ war-time social life was kept back at their place of lodging. Many had recreation rooms which had comfy chairs, books and a piano or gramophone player (if they were lucky). The girls had very little time off work.

There were many restrictions on social life due to the demanding nature of the farm work. Grimwood comments that there were strict rules on the time in which girls arrived back in the evening. The typical curfew time was 10pm. If girls missed this curfew 3 nights running, they would be moved to other hostels. This in itself demonstrates how disobedience was frowned upon deeply – which in all fairness can be seen justified, as the Land Girls were providing the crops for the nation in a time of war.

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By January 1915 over 100,000 British men who worked on the land had gone to war. As a result, farmers were finding it hard to carry out their seasonal work and not enough food was being produced.To help, some women volunteered to work on the land as part of voluntary societies. One example was the Women’s National Land Service Corps formed in February 1916. However, there were still not enough women to do the work previously carried out by men.War Agricultural Committees were formed in each county to try and help increase the amount of food being produced in their area, but these committees were reluctant to encourage the use of women. They thought that women would not be able to do the physically-demanding work. The Government’s Board of Agriculture tried to change men’s prejudices regarding women working on the land by organising practical demonstrations and competitions throughout the country, which showed that women could do a range of farm work competently.
World War One Land Girls at gate. Source: IWM Q30678
World War One Land Girls at gate. Source: IWM Q30678

A new Department for Food Production was created. Finally, in January 1917, a Women’s Branch was established by the Board of Agriculture under a Director, Meriel Talbot. In March 1917 she established a civilian women’s labour force of mobile workers called the Women’s Land Army to recruit, train for four weeks and then channel healthy young women over 18 years of age into farm work. These ‘land girls’, as they came to be known, took on milking, care of livestock and general work on farms and were paid 18 shillings a week. This increased to 20 shillings a week after they passed an efficiency test.

Between March 1917 and May 1919, 23.000 women became official full-time members of the Women’s Land Army, a small but significant part of the 300,000 women who by 1918 were working on the land.


I have posted this extract just to highlight men´s prejudices against women. Although there weren`t no one else to work the land, those girls had to show their value by undergoing hard competitions. Don`t you think it is really unfair?


A Girl of the Women's Land Army" showing Miss Yvonne Gwynne-Jones. By R Schwabe, 1918 Source: IWM
A Girl of the Women's Land Army" showing Miss Yvonne Gwynne-Jones. By R Schwabe, 1918 Source: IWM

Recruits who signed on for a year to the Women’s Land Army [WLA] were provided with a free uniform, worth around 30 shillings, which consisted of:
  • breeches
  • a knee-length overall tunic (with a button-fastening integrated belt)
  • boots or high boots (2 pairs per year)
  • buskins, leggings or puttees (if issued with short boots)
  • a mackintosh
  • a jersey
  • a soft felt cloche hat

The revolutionary innovation was that land girls were allowed to wear breeches. This was to give them the same freedom of movement as men when doing physical work.
This development, together with the fact that some young women chose to have their hair ‘bobbed’ short, shocked most country folk. These new female land workers were viewed both with suspicion and initial hostility.
The Land Army Agricultural Section Handbook, issued to all members, laid down the following advice regarding appearance and deportment:

‘You are doing a man’s work and so you’re 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.’

After three months’ proficient service, the land girl would be presented with a green loden armlet bearing a red felt crown indicating that she was on national service.
There were also good service badges and chevrons which indicated the length of time and the minimum number of hours that they had worked. These could be added to the uniform during their time in the WLA.


Land Girls honoured at The National Memorial Arboretum

Finally the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire has recognised the work the Land Girls carried out.
It has more than 200 tributes to commemorate service personnel across the world wars, but none to recognise the work the Land Girls carried out – until now.

When British men were called up to join the armed forces, jobs such as farming were left , so women were called upon to join the Land Army to take over their roles.


The Cinderellas of the soil:

Like other conscripted war-workers, most of the land girls came from towns and cities, therefore country life came as shock to them.

The working day was long and the work was hard and dirty, using heavy and sometimes dangerous tools and equipment.

Women war workers at Cross Farm, Shackleton, Surrey in 1.917.

In this picture we can observe a self-sacrifing woman working in hard conditions

Rationing and the Land Girls

The Land Army continued in existence even after the war had ended. Food rationing continued after the war and the Land Girls continued working until 1950, when they were disbanded.
During the time of its work, the Land Army had provided 90,000 women to work on the land and had kept Britain in food for the duration of the war.
Rationing worked, with everyone getting what they needed, if not what they wanted.
Though Britain had rationing, nobody actually starved during that time, which was a achievement of the Land Girls.

Everybody had to get an identity card. To do this, the women collected together the whole family's birth certificates, and took them to their local church hall or school or somewhere similar, rather like the usage of buildings as polling stations today


A ration book contained coupons, which were very small squares, one for each week.

There were coupons for basic food and for clothes, in a few words, basic needs.

According to the testimony of Mrs.Crane, they had to use the coupons for underwear because the Land Army only provided the obligatory uniform.