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Women's Land Army - A Brief History
The Women’s Land Army (WLA) existed in England, Scotland and Wales from 1939 until 1950. A previous women’s land army had existed during World War I. The WLA was created to provide agricultural help to farms that had lost many of their male farm hands who were fighting in World War II and to provide extra food for a county that relied on many food imports.
The WLA was initially a voluntary organization but became mandatory in 1941 through conscription, giving those women the choice of entering the armed forces or working on farms or in other industries. Initially, only single women and widows between the ages of 20 and 30 were drafted, but later it expanded to include women between 19 and 43. However, there are many stories of women in the Land Army who were 17 and 18.
There were over 80,000 women in the Land Army by 1943. After 1942, there was a separate Timber Corps (or Lumber Jills) who helped in sawmills or worked as wood cutters. The WLA members were known colloquially as Land Girls.
The pay was 1.85 pounds for 50 hours of work per week. It was increased to 2.85 pounds in 1944. The women didn’t necessarily always receive all of the pay because it was paid to the farmer first. They had to rely on the honesty of their employer. The women either lived on the farm or in dormitories.
According to the BBC WW2 People’s War archive the WLA uniform consisted of “green jumpers, brown breeches or dungarees, brown felt hats and khaki overcoats.” However, it was the woman’s choice whether or not she wanted to wear a uniform. Each WLA member did get a badge, with a wheat sheaf on it. They also had a magazine called “The Land Girl” and a song.
The head of the WLA was Lady Denham and her home in Sussex became the WLA headquarters.
The hours were long, the work was very physically demanding and the pay was low, but for many of the Land Girls their time in the WLA was one of the best times of their lives. Many made life-long friends and many others met their future husbands while working together on the farms. German and Italian prisoners of war were forced to work on farms often closely with the WLA women; there are several stories of marriage between a Land Girl and a former prisoner of war.
Many farmers were against having the Land Girls working on their farms initially as they thought women could not handle the hard work and the long hours. They were proven wrong and by the time the war ended the women had earned a new respect amongst British farmers and farm organizations. This was an early part of the long journey for all women to be treated equally in a work place originally thought to be the domain of men, a journey that is still ongoing today.
Former members of the Women’s Land Army were honoured with a special commemorative badge in 2008. They were honoured for the part they played in Britain’s wartime effort, a recognition that was long over due. Over 30,000 former WLA members received the honour.
My interest in the Women’s Land Army came from the fact that my mother was a member. She worked on a farm in Scotland. She often told me that her working conditions were bad and that she actually had to sleep in the barn. Sadly, she did not live long enough to see the Land Girls get the recognition of being important veterans of the war effort. Children can get the special commemorative badge but the parent had to have died after 2007. My mother died in 1998.
I would love to hear from people who served in the Women's Land Army during World War II or whose mothers, aunts, and grandmothers served. Please share your memories below in the comments field.