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Backbone of Britain: Lest We Forget - honouring farming on WW1 Centenary

As the country marks 100 years since the end of World War 1, Emily Ashworth looks at the sacrifice of those from rural Britain and how the war reshaped farming lives.

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Babckbone of Britain: Lest We Forget - honouring farming on WW1 Centenary #LestWeForget

It is remarkable to reflect on how the country made it through World War I, whether it was those fighting on the front line to the families and women left behind to keep things going.

 

When it came to agriculture, the Great War presented a significant challenge to the farming industry as it sought to feed the nation, doing so with limited resources and man power.

But it was also a case of splitting families up, with the need for soldiers heftier than the need for men to tend to the land.

 

Many were conscripted but thousands also signed up and, in some instances, fathers were called on to make tough decisions as to who was to stay at home and farm, and who should join the forces.

 

Food

 

More than 170,000 farmers went away to fight in the trenches, leaving a devastating hole to fill to ensure food production and British agriculture continued as effectively as possible.

 

Given that in 1914 our reliance on imports was substantial, it was vital the Government handed power back to the farmers of Britain, as merchant ships became key German targets and multiple routes were cut off completely.

 

It prompted some immediate and much welcomed change to how the industry worked, especially when the Corn Production Act was introduced in 1917. Guaranteeing minimum prices for oats and wheat, it encouraged farmers to convert pastures to arable production to increase home production of these foods along with potatoes.

 

All were the staples of the country’s diet at the time and by 1918, nearly 3.6 million hectares (9m acres) had been planted with grain and potatoes.

 

It was a daunting task considering how diminished the agricultural workforce was, however in true farming style, the people of rural Britain pulled together stoically to do their utmost for the war effort, despite the absence of loved ones and the uncertainty of the country’s survival.

 

At the time, Colin Campbell, NFU President in 1916, said: “However much agriculture has been neglected in the past, this is not likely to be so in the future. It is coming to the front and it is being recognised that it is one of the principal industries, if not the principal industry, of the country.”

 

Change

 

With more than a third of men away at war, it was a time of upheaval for the country when war was declared.

 

With such shortages of labour, the essential formation of the Women’s Land Army took place in 1917 and by the end of the war, there were more than 223,000 women working in agriculture.

 

Paul Reed, a leading military historian, says: “The uptake of those signing up in rural areas was huge and it was a catastrophe for rural Britain at the time of World War I.

 

“It reflected a time of change throughout Britain and what was known as a male dominated rural workforce became predominantly female.”

 

But for those deriving from farming and lucky enough to come home, it was the peace and beauty of their countryside homeland which helped to comfort some of them.

 

“I once interviewed more than 300 former WW1 soldiers from Sussex and for them, coming back to what they’d fought for, to the landscapes of the British countryside, was a coping mechanism,” says Paul.

 

“It helped to put the war behind them.”

 

There is an overriding element of pride which shines from the accounts of family members who have been able to retell their ancestors’ defiant tales of war and farming, and there is no doubt that without the solidarity from those working tirelessly on the farms of Britain, our country would have faced starvation.

 

Now, it is to those who fought not only on the frontline, but from the fields too, that we must thank and honour a century later.


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THE AGRICULTURAL RELIEF OF ALLIES COMMITTEE

 

The role of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland and its work with the Agricultural Relief of Allies Committee at the end of World War I is not widely known.

 

French and Belgian farmland was mostly decimated and had to be rebuilt. But with the help of Agricultural Relief of Allies Committee, they managed to start the process of regeneration.

 

The committee organised the collection and dispatch of livestock, seed corn, potatoes and agricultural implements to the Flanders district of Belgium and a large number of Southdown rams, ploughs and harrows, cultivating drills and binders, as well as large quantities of seed corn and seed potatoes, were sent and distributed to French farmers too.

John Thomas Hardcastle

John Thomas Hardcastle

Kate Dale, Helperby, York, recalls visiting the grave of family member John Hardcastle, a former farmer from North Yorkshire.

 

“John Hardcastle, my great uncle, farmed with his brother, Arthur, on the Newby Hall Estate, North Yorkshire.

 

"Serving in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, John was wounded in action on the Somme in September 1916 and after a period in hospital, he joined a different regiment.

 

"On July 10, 1917, John was taken prisoner during the Battle of the Dunes on the Belgian coast and, while being marched across Belgium, he fell ill and sadly died on August 6.

 

"He was originally buried in the hospital grounds but was relocated to his present resting place in Harlebeke, Belgium, which is where I and some other family members visited him for the first time in May 2015.

 

"The visit made a powerful connection between John and us as a family, and it is something we will never forget.

 

"In 2017, he was remembered in a special service at Skelton-on-Ure, exactly 100 years from his death.

A total of 14 men from the same village lost their lives during World War I, which must have had a major impact on the families in such a small farming village.”

Will Evans: 'I stood in the windswept field where my great-grandfather went over the top of the trench'

Will Evans: 'I stood in the windswept field where my great-grandfather went over the top of the trench'

 

Will Evans, a farmer from Wrexham, North Wales, recalls his journey to the battlefields of France where his great-grandfather fought during the Great War.

 

“I stood in the windswept field where, along with his comrades from the 9th Royal Welsh Fusiliers, my great-grandfather went over the top of the trench and into German fire at the Battle of Loos, on September 25, 1915.

 

"It was the culmination of a journey which I began as a child..."

 

To read the full story click here

‘He had to choose which son to send to war’

‘He had to choose which son to send to war’


With a passion for history, Gillian Chapman creates exhibitions on World War One for the Royal Highland Show. Here she tells her grandfather’s story.

 

"In 1916, the Chapman brothers were among the first group of men in the area to be called up via conscription but, like many employees, their father William contested this on the grounds his sons were required for essential work on the land at home..."

 

To read the full story click here

Surviving Gallipoli

Surviving Gallipoli


Geoff Sansome is Head of Agriculture at Natural England. His grandfather, Harry Sansome, was posted to Gallipoli during the Great War.

 

“My grandfather, Harry Sansome, was born at Oak Farm, Claines, in 1892, the youngest of six children and he was a natural horseman.

 

"In August 1915, news came the regiment would be ordered overseas but, as the horrors of Gallipoli unfolded, Harry’s destination was clear – the infamous Gallipoli peninsula in the Dardanelles..."

 

To read the full story click here

land girls

LAND GIRLS


Women were instrumental in agriculture throughout World War I and here, Cherish Watton, Women’s Land Army historian and founder of womenslandarmy.co.uk, shares an account from former Land Girl Dorothy Eddowes.

 

"They had never seen a woman wear trousers before. They found the whole concept fascinating...”

 

To read the full story click here

Blind farmer

The Blind Veterans UK

 

The Blind Veterans UK was started in 1915 by Sir Arthur Pearson. Having lost his sight to glaucoma, he was determined those who lost their sight in the war should have a place to go.

 

Blind veterans were trained in a variety of things including poultry farming and, after several months of training, returned home to start work in the occupation they had chosen.

 

Click here to read the full story of farmers who were blinded during WW1, and went on to farm successfully

Farmer publishes on book on the Great War

Farmer publishes on book on the Great War

 

Based on the true story of his great uncle, farmer and author Ed Green has written a book on his family history, detailing the young soldiers account from his family farm in Somerset to the Somme battlefield...

 

Click here to read more

 

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