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Women of WW2-Land Girls
Why Were They Called Land Girls?
The Land Girls when known by their official name were called the WLA (Women's Land Army) but they are rarely known by that name. Most people remember them as 'Land Girls' - fresh-faced, hard working women who served their country in agriculture in both World War I and World War 2.
The British government knew that their involvement in World War 2 was inevitable and faced with the possibility of being isolated, they knew that Britain would need to produce more of its own food.
That and the need to send men working on farms off to serve their country in the military led to the reformation of the Women's Land Army, thereafter usually called The Land Girls in June 1939.
Lady Denham became the honorary head of the Land Girls but it was probably the one organisation which needed little in the way of organisation, having already worked so well in World War One.
It needs to be acknowledged that many of those who served in the Land Girls were already farm girls or already lived out in the countryside. Only about one third of its membership came from the cities, but they were a significant number.
Ther job of the land girls was to slot into the jobs traditionally done by men on the farms.
The Women's Land Army also had successful counterparts in the USA and Australia. They were also lovingly called Land Girls there as well.
Land Girls - Unglamorous Work
There is a school of thought that suggests that becoming a land girl was an opportunity to strike out alone.
For the vast majority of those who came from the cities, it was their first time to be away from home but this came with its own challenges.
In spite of not being a military organisation, they were issued with a uniform comprising 2 short sleeved shirts, 1 pullover, 2 pairs of socks, 1 pair of shoes , 1 pair of overalls, 1 hat, wellington boots and a mackintosh. It is clear that it was mainly put together for the outdoors and they were even issued with a tie!
For those land girls new to being away from home, it offered an opportunity for some adventure but it didn't necessarily follow that that's what they would get.
When the land girls left cities like Manchester, London and Newcastle they were often billeted with families in the villages. This meant that they lived with a family for the whole stay in the countryside, often only seeing their workmates at work.
With houses often far away from their closest neighbours, the land girls were lonely and isolated. Home sickness was a regular complaint and they relied on letters from their families and the camaraderie they got at work to sustain their wellbeing.
It needs to also be added that not all of the British country folk wanted these young women from the city in their villages - they felt that they were an unwanted influence and more of a hindrance than a help on the land.
In time though, the villagers in the countryside came to appreciate the huge contribution made by the land girls.
All evidence suggests that they were very much a core part of keeping British farms turning out food for the general public. Men had to go to war, women stepped in.
Land Girls Learning to Be Farmers
Land Girls living in billets were often closer to the farms but even then, they sometimes had a two or three mile walk or trap ride to the farm wrapped up warm for their early morning job of milking cows.
They received breakfast after that and then set to work in the fields threshing crops.
They learned how to drive tractors and at harvest times, September and October in the UK, they were responsible for emptying the threshing machines, a dirty, unpleasant job.
Leand girls learnt to tie their trousers up with lengths of string to keep out frightened field mice escaping the thresher blades.
At the end of the day, the girls were exhausted. They returned to their billets to be fed and were permitted to have a bath (often in a tin bath) of 5 inches of hot water.
Yet, notice many of the photographs found on the internet show girls smiling - they're even smiling holding dead rats! Maybe the camaraderie was what kept the land girls going.
Those billeted together in a hostel had the opportunity to have a social life, this was not really able to be taken up by land girls billeted in local villages with families.
For a wonderful first person account of working as a Land Girl, visit Emily Braidwood's account at the BBC's World War Two site.
Land Girls - Animal Husbandry
Land Girls may well have been an unwanted part of country life for some but their work rate was admired by everyone with whom they worked.
As well as milking cows and doing jobs like fruit picking, vegetable picking and harvesting crops, land girls also had to care for animals on the farm.
Some land girls from the city had not ever seen a cow or a bull and struggled to tell the difference between them; they also feared these enormous beasts. But they were not allowed to opt out of any jobs. Afterall, they were supposed to be replacing men on the farm so it was only right that they did all of the jobs that the men would normally carry out.
Land girls cared for cows but also did a lot of the work with pigs on the farm, basically feeding them and caring for them from birth to slaughter. Pigs were an important food source in Britain and the work with pigs had to be carried out properly.
The land girls also cared for sheep during lambing - a job which was probably more enjoyable as it often involved a 'mothering' type of role where baby lambs were given their first milk from bottles given by the land girls.
The Land Girls were also closely tied to another organisation, the WTC (Women's Timber Corps) who were responsible for replacing men working in forestry. Their work was also civilian in nature - they were not connected with any military organisation but like the Land Girls, they worked very, very hard for their country - not shirking any task.
American Land Girls & Australian Land Girls
The British Land Girls proved that a non-military team of women could be organised to carry out invaluable work.
The land girls in Britain were paid a shilling a week to do some back breaking work in really difficult conditions - away from their families and friends, the work became the most important part of their lives.
That was why they did it - not for themselves but for the honour of saying they were working hard for their country.
It was not long before other countries looked to their example and found ways to emulate their work.
The formation of the Women's Land Army of America in 1943 was American women's opportunity to fill the boots of farm workers in their own country. Wikipedia informs us that in Oregon alone, there were some 135,000 land girls working the farms. Even Mexico worked with the USA to produce more food for the country.
The Battle of the Atlantic was one of the main causes of the formation of the Women's Land Army on both sides of the Atlantic with terrible loss of life on a number of Merchant Navy ships - this meant that cargo never got to its destination - devastating when trying to feed civilians.
The Australian Women's Land Army formed in 1942, also covering the vast farmland of Queensland, filling the roles of the many Australian men who had come to fight in Europe and Africa.
Digging for Victory
Land Girls Popularity Even Now
It is a strange phenomenon, the prevalence of Land Girls in popular culture. We have not seen the WAAF, WRNS, ATS or any other organisation come in for the kind of scrutiny that the Land Girls did. This is probably to do with the fact that they were city girls moving to the country to work.
Out of their elements, they created 'otherness' in their lives and people wanted to be part of their experience; to learn what it meant to do real men's work, to watch this 'hero's journey' at close quarters.
Land Girls started their work as homesick teenagers but grew into their roles and came to understand the sacrifice they were making and the importance of the work they were undertaking.
The position of Land Girls in popular culture remains even today- people love these life changing experiences and is there anything better than scenery set in the countryside?
I'm not being cynical, it is true - we love the 'different' and there was nothing more different than the experiences of these wonderful Land Girls, another group of women in World War Two who made a huge contribution to the war effort, both in Britain and abroad.
Thanks so much for reading.