Between its thousands of members, the Women’s Land Army managed to feed the nation during Britain’s darkest years. Here, Emily Ashworth examines the work of the women, their dedication and their humble attitudes towards their contribution.
Imagine the shock, excitement and sheer anticipation as 80,000 women descended on the British countryside, slipping on their breeches to proudly fill in for men away at war.
For some, joining the Women’s Land Army (WLA) was a turning point in their lives, a new beginning, a chance to escape their former lives.
Others fell headfirst into the landscape, having never been on a farm before and not harbouring an ounce of agricultural knowledge.
But from the many women who have since voiced their stories, there is one resounding fact: they all loved being Land Girls.
With a view to keep food production in the country at a sustainable level, the WLA was re-established in 1939 by the director of the organisation Lady Denman, who at the time said: “The Land Army fights in the fields. It is in the fields of Britain that the most critical battle of the present war may well be fought and won.”
While conscription was introduced in 1941 for all those aged 18-40, many continued to volunteer regardless; their eagerness born from a sense of duty and pride.
Dorothy Taylor, who joined in 1944, says: “Joining up made you grow up. You had too. You went from living at home with your mother telling you what to do, to being in charge of money and becoming your own person.
“Undoubtedly, 90 per cent of Land Girls will say the same. We would, without hesitation, do it all again if we had to.”
The women, who stemmed from diverse backgrounds, put their social class, career and ages aside to live and work with one another, shoulder to shoulder, through thick and thin.
Mary Harris experienced the sincere mix of characters who fell into farming, a life changing event which has had a lasting effect on her.
Part of a mobile gang – some members were shuttled to different jobs all over the country – she witnessed this for herself: “There were girls from everywhere just thrust into this work.
“I met people I would never have had the chance to otherwise: miners’ daughters from Yorkshire to girls from the stage. It was such a positive experience. I learned to judge people on who they were as people rather than their background.”
In the name of the land, women from across the country formed almighty bonds. Not just in the form of friendships, but with farming too. With such a task on their hands, the girls set to work, but it seemed even though their days were laborious and long, many found solace and fulfilment in their workloads.
For Clare Arnold, a former Land Girl from Staffordshire, it was the freedom and independence the life- style gave her.
She says: “I used to love the smell of fresh fields in the morning. I would get up early to do the milk rounds and it would just be me out delivering with my horse and cart, while the rest of the world was asleep.”
Yet for others, such as Joan Ackrill, the choice to go and work in the beautiful British countryside gave her the ultimate chance to escape south east London.
She says: “My husband came from farming stock, but I didn’t. I am a country girl only by adoption after joining the WLA in 1947 at the age of 17.
“With 19 other brash little Londoners, I came to Oxfordshire to be a Land Girl, but I don’t know what made us think we could farm. Most of us lived in council flats without windows.
“I ended up getting promoted to relief milker and had six farms on my rota. I enjoyed this so much because I got to meet new people and learn new ways of working.”
From ditching and hedging to hoeing and picking sugar beet, each member has fond memories.
“I used to love ploughing,” laughs Jean Bindoff, who was stationed in a hostel in Aylesbury in 1946.
“You have to do it a certain way and there is a knack to it. It was hard work and we were thrown out in all weathers, but I have always worked hard, all my life.”
Pose the question of pride to any WLA member and you will more than likely receive the same answer: they are profoundly proud and rightly so.
Prior to their formation, 70 per cent of Britain’s food was imported at the beginning of the war, but by 1943, this figure was reversed.
Terry Chairman, senior historian at the Imperial War Museum, said in 2010: “This was in no small measure due to the Land Army. There was resentment from farmers about taking their jobs away, but as the war grew darker and France fell, people recognised how vital they were.”
Clare says: “It was the making of me. Not just physically, but mentally too. It made me feel more grown-up.
“I saw the poster on the way home from work and it just suited me. I was the youngest child at home, but felt I had to do something for the war.”
But when adding they honestly did not think they were doing anything special, Clare probably speaks for other members too.
She says: “We just got on with it and perhaps we were quite naive. I am prouder now than ever. It is only looking back we can see more clearly what it was all about.”
For Jean, a lady born and bred in Birmingham, it was a question of embracing the opportunity.
“There were eight of us at home and when we were growing up in the city, we never got to see anything like it before.
“It altered my life. It was the camaraderie, which is what it was all about. Like birds of a feather, we stuck together.”
Often referred to as the unsung heroes of World War Two, their work has only been recognised fully over the last few years.
In 2014, a memorial was erected to honour all Land Girls and Lumber Jills following a three-year fundraising initiative.
The Staffordshire Women’s Food and Farming Union (WFU) cam- paigned to raise £90,000, with many of the donations coming from the Land Girls and Lumber Jills themselves, such is their feeling of pride in the new memorial.
The tribute is placed at the National Memorial Arboretum and realistically represent jobs done by women across the branches, with ears of corn, an axe and a rat trap at the feet of the statue, a much deserved nod to the Women’s Timber Corps and rat catchers. Eunice Finney, WFU press officer says:
“The contribution these women made during the war years ensured the nation was fed and they changed the face of British agriculture.
"It is only fitting we have a memorial for both Land Girls and Lumber Jills.”
In true WLA spirit, it is Clare who ponders over probably the most relevant question of all.
“I wonder, have you ever met anybody who did not enjoy being a Land Girl?”