The Women’s Land Army played a fundamental role in Britain during World War Two. The Women’s Land Army helped to provide Britain with food at a time when U-boats were destroying many merchant ships bringing supplies to Britain from America.
Members of the WLA sawing wood
The Women’s Land Army was first created during World War One. This was an era when a great deal of farm work was done by men. With so many young men called up for the armed services, there was a real gap in farm workers. Hence, the government called on women to fill this gap. The same situation arose in World War Two – home grown food was needed and the men were not there to harvest it. Hence why the government resurrected the WLA.
The women in the WLA did all the jobs that were required to make a farm function normally – threshing, ploughing, tractor driving, reclaiming land, drainage etc. Their wages were set by the Agricultural Wages Board. The wage for someone in the WLA over the age of 18 was £1 12 pence a week after deductions had been made for lodgings and food. There was an agreed maximum working week – 50 hours in the summer and 48 hours in the winter. A normal week would consist of five and a half days working with Saturday afternoon and Sunday off. Along with their weekly pay, all members of the WLA who was posted more than 20 miles from their home would receive a free rail warrant for a visit home every six months. However, their pay came from the farmers themselves and there is evidence that WLA members were paid less than the accepted rate by some farmers who tended to overcharge for accommodation and food. Also during harvest time, many WLA members worked from dawn to dusk and easily eclipsed their 50 hour week.
In World War One, the WLA had been set up at very short notice. This time, many knew that war was a real probability and plans for the WLA were made in the 1930’s rather than at the last minute. Though the WLA came under the control of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, it was given a honorary head – Lady Denham and her home, Balcombe Place, became its headquarters.
For its work to succeed, the planning for the WLA had to be excellent. England and Wales were divided into seven regions. Each region administered itself but reported to Balcombe Place. The seven regions were served by 52 county offices. Each county office had its own administrative force. In this way, the WLA had an organisational unit right down at farm level and inspections of farms could be carried out with a degree of regularity.
Women who wanted to join the WLA had to be interviewed and given a medical if they passed the interview. If accepted, training depended on just how much farms needed work done within a region. In theory, new members of the WLA should have been taught a number of farming issues, such as milking cows, drainage etc. In reality, such was the demand for food, that what was learned was done on the farm and as time went on. Many members of the WLA literally learned ‘on the job’.
Though the WLA had the word “army” in its title, it was, in fact, a civilian organisation. Women were recruited by the farmers themselves and, if they did not work sufficiently well, could be dismissed from the farm’s service. Also, women could move to another farm if they wanted to. There were ways for WLA members to express their grievances with farmers as well if they felt that they were being unfairly used.
The uniform of the WLA was functional. Women who worked on farms got dirty so by the very nature of their work, day-to-day uniforms were suited for the task as opposed to being fashion statements.
WLA service dress
The day-to-day uniform of a WLA worker consisted of brown corduroy or whipcord breeches, brown brogues, fawn knee-length woollen socks, a green v-necked pullover, a fawn shirt and a brown cowboy style hat. For special occasions, WLA members wore their service uniforms as in the above photograph. When working, many members of the WLA adapted their working uniform to suit themselves. In the summer, the breeches frequently became shorts.
To begin with, farmers were reluctant to use young female workers on their farms. Theoretically, they should have had no choice as there should have been a dearth of young male labourers in the early stages of the war. In fact, the call-up of young men was slow and many farms found that they had their full compliment of male labourers and members of the WLA. In the initial stages of the war, many members of the WLA went back home from their farms as they had nothing to do. Those who did stay on their allotted farm, were frequently used for domestic work in the farm house as opposed to farm work -despite WLA rules that they were not to be used for domestic work as they were ‘outdoor’ workers not ‘indoor’.
The command structure of the WLA mirrored society as a whole. Those who ran the WLA both at a national and regional level tended to be from middle class rural backgrounds. Those who actually worked on the farms, tended to be from the cities or industrial areas of England and Wales.
“The girls came from all walks of life and various parts of the country. We had some from Yorkshire and London. It must have been quite a culture shock for them. I, having been born in the country, didn’t feel quite so bad.”
By 1943, Britain needed more and more food as the U-boat campaign hit hard. By the end of the year, Britain was less dependent on overseas supplies as the work done by the WLA was sufficient to keep Britain in food. The WLA continued in existence even after the war had ended. Food rationing continued after the war and the WLA continued until 1950 when it was disbanded. During the time of its work, the WLA had provided 90,000 women to work on the land and had kept Britain in food for the duration of the war. Though Britain had rationing, no-one actually starved during this time – a testament to the work done by the WLA.