Keeping Wartime Britain Fed

by Simon Kidd

Ann Kramer

Land Girls and Their Impact

(Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Remember When, 2008)

Land Girls and Their Impact - Cover

The world described in Ann Kramer’s book seems very remote from the one that British people inhabit in 2019. As I write this review, the United Kingdom is in the midst of an unprecedented constitutional crisis in the run-up to the latest deadline (31 October) for the country’s exit from the European Union, following a 2016 referendum that revealed a severely divided electorate (only 52% of those voting supported withdrawal). Eighty years ago, by contrast, the British people were overwhelmingly united in their determination to defeat a very different kind of enemy. This involved both military and civilian mobilization, the latter including the Women’s Land Army (WLA), the subject of Kramer’s book. Although the role of the armed services was clearly critical to the war effort, I suspect that more recent generations would be unfamiliar with the equally vital task performed by the WLA (popularly known as ‘land girls’) in nourishing the nation and averting starvation. My mother, who grew up in the West Midlands and was 12 years old when war broke out, often referred to the rigours of food rationing, but I don’t recall her ever mentioning the WLA.

Starvation was regarded as a very real prospect by a government preparing for war in 1938–39, based on the experience of the First World War, when hundreds of thousands of men left agricultural work to fight overseas, leaving the country heavily dependent on imports that were in turn disrupted by the predations of German U-boats: ‘According to some accounts [by 1917] there was only about three weeks’ food supply left in the country’ (p. 5).

Thanks to the work of the WLA, British people did not starve during the Second World War, unlike their civilian counterparts in occupied Holland and France and in Germany. By 1943, the WLA was providing something like 70 per cent of the nation’s food which, together with rationing, meant that the British population were able to eat a balanced and extremely healthy diet throughout the war, even if food dishes were sometimes peculiar and more exotic fruits and foodstuffs were absent. The work of the WLA meant that Germany failed in a major objective, which was to starve Britain into submission. (p. xx; see also p. 164)

An offshoot of the Women’s Farm and Garden Association (established in 1899), the Women’s National Land Service Corps was formed in 1916 and disbanded in 1919 (pp. 1–9). When it became clear that another war was imminent, the British government realised that it would be essential to recruit women for agricultural work again, and preparations began in 1938. The highly capable Lady Gertrude Denman assumed leadership, but her initial organisational efforts were hampered by the Ministry of Agriculture. Notwithstanding the changes in female political and social status since 1918, many still regarded agricultural work as unsuitable for women. Lady Denman threatened to resign unless her proposals were implemented, with the result that the WLA was formed on 1 June 1939. It was initially part of the Ministry of Agriculture, but staffed and run by women, with headquarters established at Lady Denman’s Sussex home on 29 August, five days before war broke out (pp. 10–19). The book goes into considerable detail about the administrative complexity of the organisation, which would enlist more than 80,000 women over the course of the war (pp. 20–21).

The remaining chapters of the book explore different aspects of the WLA: recruitment and propaganda; the age and social background of the recruits; the nature of their work; the specialist sub-section known as the Women’s Timber Corps (‘lumber jills’); the pros and cons of working in the WLA; the end of the war; and reflections of recruits on their experiences. Much of the detail is fascinating for anyone with a taste for social history.

Despite the harshness and danger of the working conditions, the prejudices that they confronted (and mostly overcame), instances of sexual harassment, occasional loneliness, and the jealousy of some farmers’ wives, the land girls successfully performed an essential role with great pride, and without the level of recognition that was awarded to their sisters in the armed services. Moreover, those interviewed generally described the experience as the best time of their lives. With the majority coming from urban backgrounds, they gained new skills, independence, camaraderie, and an appreciation for the countryside. Some remained in agricultural work after the war, and there were some cases of marriage to farmers.

Kramer briefly mentions that in 2017 the British government announced that a specially designed commemorative badge was to be awarded to surviving members of the WLA, in recognition of their wartime service (p. 165). The book had presumably gone to press by the time this occurred in July 2008, with over 45,000 former land girls receiving the award.

Features of the book that enhance the reading experience include two separate sections of colour plates, containing 58 illustrations in total; text boxes on special topics (e.g. Lady Denman); illustrative quotes from interviewees and published sources like the Land Girl magazine; a timeline; a bibliography with suggestions for further reading; and an index. The writing is aimed at a general readership, and the scholarly apparatus, although present, does not overburden the text.

The book was lent to me by a former WLA recruit, now resident in Australia. At 96 years of age, she is still as sharp as a tack, and I am grateful for many very interesting conversations with her. I was reminded that in 2017 I had bought a DVD of a BBC drama entitled Land Girls, which I had not yet watched. The book’s blurb points out that Kramer was the history consultant for that 2009 series. I have since watched it, and, although it does capture many aspects of the WLA experience as described in the book, it tends towards melodrama and is no substitute for Kramer’s written account.

The WLA had counterparts in the United States and Australia. The Woman’s Land Army of America (WLAA) operated from 1917 to 1919 and was re-formed as the Women’s Land Army from 1943 to 1947. The Australian Women’s Land Army (AWLA) existed from 1942 to 1945.

As a final reflection, I would like to draw attention to two aspects of the story told in this book that I think should give twenty-first-century readers particular pause for thought. The first of these concerns the sociability of the experience. One interviewee is quoted as follows:

It was a bit scary at times in the hit and run raids, but I wouldn’t have changed it. We were happy, we use (sic) to sing on our way to work, you could always hear someone singing on the tractors and we got so good. If we had two or three working in the field, which most times there were because they were big fields, you could see we were singing and if we did the actions of the song, the other one would pick it up. I remember one song was Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer, and a lot of popular songs, wartime songs, it was good. (p. 170)

Although the technological and economic factors contributing to large-scale industrial farming had been developing long before the world wars, clearly agriculture in the early 1940s was still highly labour intensive. This meant that the hardships experienced, compounded by war, were ameliorated by the support network that labour-intensive work entailed. By contrast, it is not difficult nowadays to find isolation and loneliness being listed as contributory factors in the high rate of farmer suicides. I suspect that ‘virtual’ contact via the Internet is a very poor substitute for persistent, face-to-face involvement in shared labour.

The second aspect concerns the love of the land that many land girls described, often in movingly poetic form. A selection of poems was assembled in An Anthology of Verse (1945) by Vita Sackville-West, who also wrote The Women’s Land Army (1944). A couple of these are quoted by Kramer (p. 175), for example:

Mine is the moonlight-silvered winding river,
Mine are the trees that grow, the birds that sing,
Mine are the happy woods, the friendly wild-flowers –
For, having nothing, I have everything.

Mine is the splendid sun, my bridge the rainbow,
Mine are the shining darts the rain-clouds fling.
Mine are the winding lanes, the curving hillsides –
For, having nothing, I have everything.

The boist’rous wind is my familiar playmate,
The beauty that dawns and sunsets bring,
The chattering streams are mine, and I am happy –
For, having nothing, I have everything.

As Kramer reflects:

One thing that seems to have united land girls, whether from town or country, was a deep love of the country itself. Those who came from the country already understood country ways and country life, but all evidence seems to suggest that women who came from the towns also developed a deep love of the countryside and missed it deeply if, and when, they returned to urban life. (p. 175)

If they were penned by an urban dweller on a day trip to the countryside, such poetic flights could be accused of romanticism or sentimentality. The land girls were not tourists, however, and were well aware of the hardships of working on the land. We must conclude, therefore, that their words express something deep.

It shouldn’t surprise us that an emotional connection with nature is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. Think, for example, of the central significance of ‘connection to country’ associated with Aboriginal Australians, often described as having the world’s oldest civilization. Yet this connection has been increasingly disrupted by modern life. Industrial-scale food production is no exception, as we have become increasingly dependent on technologies that separate us from nature. Economies of scale may have produced higher yields, but have also led to monocultures, dependence on agrichemicals, destruction of habitat and wildlife, and the sort of social isolation already described above. Many of the practices of industrial-scale meat production are particularly disturbing, given that they are carried out on sentient beings. Film footage taken in abattoirs reveals a brutalising environment, as shown in the 2018 Dominion documentary.

These problems are systemic and seemingly intractable, resulting from intersecting causes like population growth, economic rationalism, and technological development. We are all caught up in them, as producers and consumers. While it doesn’t address such matters, Land Girls and Their Impact is a reminder of how much things have changed in agriculture in a short period of time, and not always for the better.

The Women’s Land Army has a Facebook page, where memorabilia of various kinds are shared.

Simon Kidd
Perth, Western Australia
September 2019