During the war many of the governments poster campaigns were aimed specifically at women and none more so than the drive to recruit women to work on the land. The WLA was founded during the 1st WW when the 1917 harvest failed and the country was left with just three weeks reserve of food, staring famine in the eye. With an acute shortage of farm workers due to conscription, Lady Trudie Denman was appointed to organise the WLA and by 1918 there were 23,000 Land Girls working on the country’s farms. They helped to avert disaster but in 1919 as the men returned from war the organisation was disbanded.
In 1939 the government realised it would need to grow more food if it was to avoid the near disaster of 1917. Due to the emigration of agricultural workers to factories and military service there was a shortfall of around 50,000 farm workers. The second WLA was formed in June !939 and the already experienced Lady Denman was appointed director, the government’s poster campaign to attract and recruit women began. These poster’s sometimes portrayed the Land Army in rather a rosy hue promising a ‘Healthy, happy, job’ a ‘Victory harvest’ if the women would ‘Lend a hand on the land’ and ‘Pitch in and help’.
The reality of life in the LA would come as a shock to many of the recruits, long hours, hard physical work, often poor living conditions and a wage of 28 shillings a week from which board and lodging was deducted, did not live up to the glamorous recruitment posters. Most of the women recruits had never worked the land or even lived in the countryside, they were barmaids, hairdressers, mill workers and waitresses and more than a third came from London and the industrial cities of the north. The women were issued with a very practical and unglamourous uniform of baggy corduroy breeches, a ribbed jumper, brown brogue shoes with welly’s and a waterproof overcoat for wet weather. There was no set holiday entitlement and individual farmers decided when they could take time off, although if they worked more than 20 miles from home they were entitled to a free journey!
These raw recruits learnt to plant and harvest, milk cows, keep pigs and poultry, pick fruit and perform countless other tasks to keep the country’s farms producing much needed food. They did not prevent rationing but made sure there was enough food to go round , in turn supporting the governments famous poster campaign to, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. More than 100,000 women served in the WLA keeping the country fed for over 10 years, their director Lady Denman said “The Land Army fights in the fields. It is in the fields of Britain that the most critical battle of the war may well be fought and won”. Such was their success, that when they were disbanded in 1950, the National Farmers Union who had been less than enthusiastic about this volunteer women’s army, were on the front line of the bitter protest.