The Women’s Land Army
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.
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, 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.
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 knee or high boots (2 pairs per year); buskins, leggings or puttees (if issued with short boots); a mackintosh; a jersey. However, not all land girls dressed according to the official rules!
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.
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.
Source: adapted by Stuart Antrobus from The Women’s Land Army: a Portrait (Gill Clarke) & The Women’s Land Army (Neil Storey & Molly Housego)