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

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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

Power of the geek Gods

Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

Perfect match

What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high