Women's Land Army (WLA)

An alternative way for women to make a contribution to the war effort was to join the Women’s Land Army. First established in the First World War, when almost 300,000 women had worked on the land, the Women’s Land Army was reformed in June 1939.  Aware that war with Germany was almost inevitable, the British Government was equally aware of Germany’s ability to destroy the merchant shipping bringing essential supplies into the nation’s ports. An ability that might prove powerful enough to starve Britain - a nation which imported almost 70% of its food - into submission.

Land Girls

In order to avoid that fate, when the Second World War began, as well as introducing rationing, the Government mounted a campaign to increase the amount of food grown in Britain. As the demands of war began to strip the country of men, including thousands of agricultural workers, it was clear that if food production was to increase, help would be needed on Britain’s farms.  This help came from the women who joined the Women’s Land Army (WLA) and who were known as Land Girls. Despite its title, and its uniform, the WLA was a civilian organisation and, initially, a voluntary one. Many of the women who volunteered came from country areas, but almost a third of them came from urban, industrialised backgrounds, and had no experience of agriculture or the countryside.  At that early stage, unconvinced of the women’s ability to cope, some farmers were unwilling to use them on their farms, but, in time, a shortage of labour changed their attitude and, their perception of women’s abilities. Unfortunately, the treatment some farming families meted out to Land Girls, in terms of the food and accommodation they provided, was far from ideal. Later, when conscription brought thousands more women onto the land, Agricultural Executive Committees were set up in each county to organise hostel accommodation for the recruits and the transport which took them to farms in the surrounding area.

Over the course of the war women from every walk of life became Land Girls, doing work which was hard, dirty, exhausting, poorly-paid and often had to be carried out in appalling weather conditions.

Over the course of the war women from every walk of life became Land Girls, doing work which was hard, dirty, exhausting, poorly-paid and often had to be carried out in appalling weather conditions. Although they were meant to undergo a form of basic training, in reality many WLA members learned as they went along. In time Land Girls took on every area of farming and for 48 hours a week in summer and 50 hours a week in winter they ploughed fields, cared for animals, drove tractors and harvested crops. In addition, because the war made the import of timber impossible, some Land Girls were recruited as members of the Timber Corps and as well as learning to fell trees, they were taught to prepare the wood needed to make telegraph poles and pit props for the mining industry. 

For the duration of the war

When they joined the WLA, women signed up for the duration of the war, although they were allowed to leave if they married or to take up other forms of war work.  However, they did not receive the same recognition as those women who were in the other services. When Kathleen Snoad joined up it was because she had ‘always loved the country’. She received no training and was billeted in unsatisfactory accommodation.  Once she was moved, she had a more positive experience and had a milk round driving a small van around the local villages in Kent. In common with other women, she left when she married, yet continued doing the same job at the same farm until her daughter was born in 1946.

Eileen West, who joined the WLA in November 1945, thought the worst part:

was the sharing in the hostel, you know, one bathroom, one shower, waiting to get the dirt off and, that was the only thing; the roughest part of it, waiting, you know. We had a wash room, but everybody wanted to be in there washing and getting theirs… there was no proper convenience, you know.  Things were hanging in the washroom all the time, you know, you had to be careful someone didn’t help theirself to it, you know. 

Upon leaving the WLA you were required to return all your uniform. Some, like Eileen West, hung onto their coats whilst Gladys Baker - who gave everything back when she left in 1948 – often wishes ‘I’d kept my greatcoat, they were nice ones’.

Joan Hanks (nee Champion) sent most of it back but now thinks it was absolutely stupid. When asked did she regret sending it back, Joan replied:

Not until I heard that we were having our own service at the Cenotaph and then I did.  Because we couldn’t look as we should look.  I’ve now found that there is a firm that’s making the uniforms.

It is Joan’s intention to get one.

As the war progressed the number of Land Girls continued to increase and by 1944 WLA membership had risen to more than 80,000, and the work they did helped to feed the nation during five years of war. After the war, although demobilisation saw its numbers diminished considerably, with rationing still in place the work of the WLA continued for another five years. It was finally disbanded in November 1950 and it was to be another 58 years until the WLA received some recognition in the form of a badge awarded to those still alive.

This page was added by Malin Lundin on 19/11/2011.
Comments about this page

I have really enjoyed reading about the memories of the ladies in the services. It made my visit to the Women's Memorial on Whitehall so much more poignant, as I had names and personal stories to think about whilst looking at it.

By Sarah Macri
On 07/05/2012