The Women’s Land Army (WLA) of WW1

Information from www.womenslandarmy.co.uk

During the early days of WW1 Germany decided to blockade the UK of any imported foodstuffs thus effectively starving the British into submission and capitulation. In January 1915 over 100,000 men who worked the British Farmland had gone to War and not enough food was being produced for the Home Front.

To help with this as early as February 1916 some Women volunteered to work on the land as part of voluntary societies, one example of this was the Women’s National Land Service Corps but this still wasn’t enough. War Agricultural Committees were formed in each County to help increase the amount of foodstuffs grown but these Committees were reluctant to use Women, they thought that the Women could not do the physically demanding work that was required.

A new department for Food Production was created in January 1917, a Woman’s Branch by the Board of Agriculture under a Director by the name of Meriel Talbot. In March 1917 she established a civilian women’s labour force of mobile workers called the Women’s Land Army (WLA) to recruit, train and 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.

 

Black and white photographs courtesy of Imperial War Museum.

Between March 1917 and May 1919 23,000 Women became Official Members of the WLA, a small but significant part of the 300,000 who by 1918 were working on the land.

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:

$1·         breeches

$1·         a knee-length overall tunic (with a button-fastening integrated belt)

$1·         boots or high boots (2 pairs per year)

$1·         buskins, leggings or puttees (if issued with short boots)

$1·         a mackintosh

$1·         a jersey

$1·         a soft felt cloche hat

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.

The WLA of the first World War had proved to be an assett to feeding the population. By 1939 it wasnt to be a slow operation at getting the the WLA again off the ground on an even bigger scale than had ever been seen.