A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The new British front - in the fields
With food imports blocked by German U-boats, the Women's Land Army was vital to Britain's survival
Emily Dugan is Social Affairs Editor for The Independent, i and Independent on Sunday. She was previously a news reporter for The Independent on Sunday. Her investigations into human trafficking have twice been awarded Best Investigative Article at the Anti-Slavery Day Media Awards and her human rights journalism was shortlisted for the Gaby Rado Memorial prize at the 2012 Amnesty Media Awards. Her first book, 'Finding Home: Real Stories of Migrant Britain', is published by Icon Books on 2 July
Sunday 08 June 2014
While their husbands and brothers crouched in trenches across The Channel, a "forgotten army" of women was being deployed into fields at home in April 1917.
Britain was on the brink of starvation in the penultimate year of the war and needed radical measures to make sure food production kept pace with need. Bad harvests and attacks on shipping by German U-boats had pushed food shortages to critical levels.
With two million extra acres of agricultural production needed, the government began a campaign to recruit as many female hands as possible. Thousands of women picked up ploughs, hoes and milk pails in response. Recruits ranged in age from 18 to 60, though most were young, single women from middle-class families.
For many women, responding to the patriotic call of duty meant being liberated from their restricted, chaperoned existence in towns and cities. For others, a new life in the fields just meant cripplingly hard work.
Doris Robinson, from Rochdale, went to work on a farm in Loughton, Essex, as part of the WLA. Her husband was fighting in Gallipoli and she wanted to do something to help the war effort. The work was exhausting. In an archive interview currently being exhibited at the Imperial War Museum North, she recalled: "I had the whole farm to look after. I had seven Jersey cows, and about 400 hens, and a goat, and ducks. And there was only me. I had to go at six in the morning, you see, for milking. And I had to stay 'til about 10 at night, because they had a lot of eggs incubated that had to be turned."
The hours were relentless and her new boss was unforgiving. "I asked if I could go to church on Christmas day. 'No' he said. 'I'm not paying you to go to church, I'm paying you to work'. I worked seven days a week.
"If I wanted a bath there was no bathroom. I had to take newspapers and put them all round the greenhouse and carry the water down .… It was a very cold winter in 1917 and everything was frozen."
Efforts by women's campaigners to get government support for female agricultural workers earlier in the war had been marred by resistance from traditionalist farmers. Roland Prothero, a Conservative MP and agricultural historian was one of the few politicians who was supportive of the idea but he warned women "not to antagonise the male worker" by accepting lower wages.
It was not until Prothero was appointed Agricultural Minister by David Lloyd George at the end of 1916 that government support for the Women's Land Army began. The first recruits of the official scheme – which included a month's training, a wage and a uniform – were released to farms across the country in April 1917. Wages were advertised as 18 shillings plus bonuses a week, with the opportunity for more if a woman showed particular skill.
An article in the Aberdeen Daily Journal in March 1917 exhorting "town girls" to volunteer for the Land Army stressed the urgency of the need for women to sign up, saying: "Immediate enrolments are urged as after the middle of April the men now on furlough for farm work will be recalled to the army."
The newspaper assured potential recruits that there was a chance for the pay to improve "when a girl can rear, take to market and sell a prize beast, she will be worth high wages and her War Agricultural Committee will see she gets them".
By 1918, the final year of the war, there were 23,000 official Women's Land Army recruits and female labour made up around a third of all the agricultural workforce. Many women working on farms did so outside the scheme, meaning that in total more than a quarter of a million women worked in agriculture during the conflict.
Tomorrow: Mutiny in the French trenches
The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar
- 1 Man who was struck and killed by lightning in Brecon Beacons 'was carrying a selfie stick'
- 2 Lisa Randolph-Gant: Queen Elsa cake maker says she will carry on baking and will not let people 'break her spirit'
- 3 Tube strike: This pedestrian-friendly map tells you time it takes to walk between stations
- 4 Pamplona Running of the Bulls 2015: Three men gored and 10 hospitalised on first day of festival
- 5 Sarah Jessica Parker explains why she is not a feminist: 'It's not just about women now'
Man who was struck and killed by lightning in Brecon Beacons 'was carrying a selfie stick'
Greece debt crisis: Greek future in the euro slips into deeper uncertainty as Alexis Tsipras arrives at emergency talks without written plan
Man soars over Calgary after tying 110 balloons filled with helium to his lawn chair for PR stunt, gets arrested for mischief
Tube strike: This pedestrian-friendly map tells you time it takes to walk between stations
Pamplona Running of the Bulls 2015: Three men gored and 10 hospitalised on first day of festival
More Britons believe that multiculturalism makes the country worse - not better, says poll
Osborne to cap family benefits at £23,000 – announced ahead of his post-election Budget
Nathan Collier: Montana man inspired by same-sex marriage ruling requests right to wed two wives
Sickness and disability benefits could be reduced by £30 a week as part of £12bn welfare cuts
Greece debt crisis: Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande issue Athens with 24-hour ultimatum to avoid crashing out of the euro
Greece crisis: Referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its lack of genuine legitimacy
£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...
£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...
£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...
£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...