Medals for the 'land girls' of the Second World War

Dressed in a scratchy uniform of brown woollen breeches, a green jumper and a shirt and tie, they were the women whose back-breaking labours in milking parlours, lumber yards and on muddy fields helped to ensure that Britain did not starve during the Second World War.

While a grateful nation later saluted its fighting forces, the 80,000 members of the Women's Land Army (WLA) received scant official recognition. The government only begrudgingly paid them a £150 resettlement allowance after the Queen made clear her support for their cause.

Now, some 68 years after the first of the women volunteered for service on the land, the surviving members of the WLA are to be officially recognised for their contribution to the war effort with a commemorative badge to celebrate their efforts.

Applications will open today for the medallion, which is being awarded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It follows a campaign to reward the estimated 20,000 women still alive, mostly in their seventies or eighties, who undertook the gruelling work on the Home Front.

Hilda Gibson, 83, spent two years in the WLA killing rats in Lincolnshire before transferring to Norfolk to muck out and feed poultry. She said the badge was a "powerful and touching gesture to thank us for what we did".

Mrs Gibson, who joined the WLA aged 18 and now lives in Huddersfield, added: "They were men's jobs we took on, they were heavy jobs and hard work. I wanted a job that was important and I felt that it was.

"This recognition has taken a long time in coming. I think it will be appreciated by the girls who are left. It is something that shows for a little time you did serve your country, and to serve your country in its hour of need is a privilege."

The WLA was founded during the First World War and was revived in 1939 as Britain geared up for war and planned ways the country could become self-sufficient in food production.

Many of the Land Girls spoke of the camaraderie and closeness of the friendships made during their service. By 1943, 80,000 had volunteered or been conscripted, with a further 6,000 working in the Women's Timber Corps, the so-called "Lumber Jills", whose job it was to meet a shortage of telegraph poles and timber by felling trees and operating saw mills.

Both groups will be eligible for the badge, which will be distributed at a ceremony later this year. Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for Environment, said: "It is absolutely right we at last recognise the selfless efforts these women made. This badge is a fitting way to pay tribute to their determination, courage and spirit."

Those wishing to apply can call a dedicated call centre on 08459 335577.