Holding the Home Front –The Women's Land Army in The First World War.

Posted on Friday 27th January 2017

The Women's Land Army in The First World War


Recruiting rally for the Women’s Land Army, Preston, June 1918. (Reproduced with the kind permission of Lancashire County Council and Preston City Council.)

In January 1917 the newly appointed President of the Board of Agriculture, Rowland Prothero, addressed a meeting of farmers in Hereford. Prothero gave his audience a taster of the plan, currently being developed by the government, to raise an ‘army’ of 200,000 female agricultural workers. He told the meeting:

'They would not say to them, "Here's a dirty and monotonous piece of work, badly paid, and with poor accommodation." but the appeal would be in this form: "you will be paid a soldier's rate of pay; you will be billeted just like ordinary soldiers. You will be part of the army supply service of the Kingdom, and you have thus an opportunity of going into the 'trenches' on just the same terms as your brothers are doing."'

Like servicemen, the women would be uniformed, must be prepared to be sent wherever in the country they were needed, and would be required to commit ‘for the duration’. January 2017 thus marks the centenary of the launch of the Woman’s Land Army (WLA).

In 1914 Britain was the only major European power that was dependent on foreign imports for the bulk of its food. Consequently, of the countries now at war, Britain was the one whose larder was least well prepared. She trusted the freedom of the seas, the supremacy of her navy and that the open markets would always be able to provide. But with shipping being turned over to military transport, supply and support for the navy, the availability and price of foodstuffs would soon be impacted.

Within days of the start of the war there had been calls for women to come to the fields, and, over the next three years, various private and public initiatives would be launched to achieve that end. However, success was limited, both by the attitudes of women to agricultural work, and by farmers’ evaluation of women’s worth. In Lloyd George’s words, efforts to persuade farmers to take on women were met with ‘a good deal of sluggish and bantering prejudice and opposition.’ Lessons had been learnt, though, and the Women’s Land Army would be shaped as much by the achievements and failures of these earlier enterprises as by the precise needs of 1917.

When Lloyd George replaced Asquith as Prime Minister, in December 1916, he immediately made a show of addressing the ‘food problem’. The issue was already ‘undoubtedly serious’, he told the House of Commons, ‘and will be grave unless not merely the Government, but the nation, is prepared to grapple with it courageously without loss of time.’ The situation would get worse before it got better, though, as on 1 February 1917, Germany lifted its restrictions on submarine warfare. Food had now become ‘a munition of war’, as Lloyd George put it. The government’s response was to call on farmers to extend the ploughed acreage, but increasing domestic food production required more labour. With conscription combing through the ranks of the remaining male farm workforce, women were needed on the land – and farmers must be persuaded to accept this labour source.

The recruitment campaign for the Women’s Land Army was launched in March 1917. Notices placed in newspapers appealed: ‘10,000 Women Wanted at Once to Grow and Harvest the Victory Crops.’ Posters were printed, cinema films were commissioned and rallies and demonstrations were organised. These frequently featured women performing what were normally regarded as ‘male’ agricultural tasks, like ploughing and manure spreading. Such energetic displays pulled crowds (and newspaper column inches) and allowed the message to be delivered directly and forcefully to local audiences. These were not only occasions to recruit, but also to convince farmers of the potential of women’s work.


Recruiting rally for the Women’s Land Army, Preston, June 1918. (Reproduced with the kind permission of Lancashire County Council and Preston City Council.)

Recruits were either trained by their employer-to-be, or on designated training farms. Beatrice Bennett’s diary, kept during the winter of 1917, details how she was taught to milk on ‘a rubber cow full of water’, learned to care for livestock, to harvest, sort and store various root crops, and acquired some proficiency in manoeuvring a muck cart. Every task that Beatrice did in her training was muddy. ‘You cannot stick a pin on my nice velvet breeches for white mud an inch thick,’ she wrote. But this was all taken in good spirits. ‘We laughed until tears came and all we could say was, “What would Mother say if she could see us now?”’

In addition to those breeches, recruits were provided with a uniform of boots, gaiters and overalls. The WLA’s handbook stipulated: ‘You are doing a man’s work and 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 an English girl who expects chivalry and respect from everyone she meets.’ That dressing ‘like a man’ would cause some consternation, though. Putting women into male jobs was one thing, seeing them in trousers was quite another. Wearing breeches might be practical, but was it respectable? Helen Poulter, a 1918 recruit, recalled: ‘We knew we were being looked at, you know, and talked about.’

In August 1918 a survey of 12,657 WLA members recorded their principal occupations: 5,734 were milkers, 3,971 field workers, 635 carters, 293 tractor drivers, 260 ploughmen, 84 thatchers, 21 shepherds, with the remaining 1,659 being in mixed roles. Rosa Freedman began her service in the WLA going from farm-to-farm as part of a threshing gang, but soon, like most members, found herself doing a bit of everything. Rosa recalled fruit picking, flax pulling, haymaking, cleaning out pigsties, cow pens and stables, muck-spreading and mincing mangelwurzels for cow feed. She reflected: ‘The work was hard, but after the discipline and confinement of domestic service I found the work liberating and rewarding… it was a job we set out to do and I hope I did my best.’

And they were expected to do their best. As they faced long hours of heavy work, financial hardship and few comforts, the WLA constantly reminded its members that their contribution was vital to the war effort. Rowland Prothero told a Land Army rally:

'Now you have got to hold this home front, just as your brothers and your friends are holding our various fronts by land and sea on the continent. If you do not hold it by growing all the food you can in this country, then the line will be broken at home. If it is broken at home, in respect of food, it will break down throughout the whole of the fronts, and you will be letting down the men who are giving their lives for you on all those fronts.'

Reinforcing this understanding was perceived as key to maintain discipline and focus. But WLA propaganda was as much about carrot as stick; women were also repeatedly told that this experience was good for them. Working on the land, far from robbing them of their femininity, was making them better women, improving their characters, their figures, their complexions, their after-the-war employment and marriage prospects. An appeal for recruits coaxed: ‘Land labour may give you a few backaches, but it will also give you health, a complexion such as a fortune spent with beauty specialists would never beget, and happiness such as only comes from the knowledge that you are doing your full share to speed the day of Victory.’

More recruits would be needed to speed that day. The German army launched its spring offensive in March 1918 and soon the allies were retreating and in urgent need of reinforcements. Appealing for another 30,000 volunteers, the April 1918 issue of The Landswoman, the magazine of the WLA, urged: ‘Let us all be full of flaming enthusiasm! Let us set fire to such a blaze of endeavour throughout England that not the smallest demand for labour on the land shall be left unsatisfied, and that every want shall be filled and well filled by women.’

There were recruiting rallies all over the country in May 1918, and the martial language, and sense of imperative, were cranked up. Banners were carried displaying the legends: ‘Hold the Home Front’, ‘The Lasses are Massing for the Spring Offensive’ and ‘Men on the Battlefield; Women in the Cornfield’ (with the message on the reverse: ‘Join the Land Army for Health and Happiness’).

Having come through a ‘great national emergency’, British wartime agricultural policy was held up as a success story; domestic food production was higher at the end of the war than at the start, the average calorific value of the British diet barely changed and bread never had to be rationed here. By comparison, in continental Europe, agricultural output had declined by around one third. Rowland Prothero called this ‘one of the great achievements of the War’ – and Lloyd George would go further, stating in his memoirs that ‘The food question ultimately decided the issue of this war.’ This book is an attempt to understand how the return of women to the fields and farmyards contributed to that achievement – and, in turn, it looks at how that experience affected them.

Look out for "Holding the Home Front –The Women's Land Army in The First World War" online at Pen and Sword Books.

Further Reading

Holding the Home Front
(Hardback - 214 pages)
ISBN: 9781783831128

by Caroline Scott
Only £19.99

In recent years the Second World War's land girl has caught the public imagination. Weve seen her in films, television series and novels. We might be misremembering her, we might have distorted her image into one that suits a twenty-first century audience, but we haven't forgotten. Other things have been forgotten, though. One could be forgiven for supposing that the story of the Women's Land Army starts in 1939. But its a much older and more complicated history.

British agricultural policy during the First World War was…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...
Advert for the Women’s Land Army,
placed in the press in June and July 1917.
‘How Women are Filling the Gaps in the Ranks’; Women sheaving corn,
Missenden, Buckinghamshire. The Sketch, 26 August 1914.
A ‘wood-woman’ (‘Given a sound and robust physique, a woman war-worker
could scarcely desire a healthier occupation than that shown in our photograph.’)
Illustrated War News, 30 January 1918.
spreading manure in the
snow in Nottinghamshire,
Illustrated War News, 24
January 1917.
Montage showing varieties of work at Great Bidlake Farm, Devon, The
Landswoman, September 1918, No. 9, Vol. 1.

Of further interest...