What Did You Do In The War Mum?

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Before the outbreak of the Second World War most women, particularly married women, spent their days cooking, cleaning and looking after the children. There was no expectation that they would go out to work and it was even considered shameful in some circles if a married woman took up employment. From an early age girls were taught to sew and knit, cook and clean, whilst boys were thrust into education in the sure knowledge that one day they would have to be the sole provider for their future wives and families.

When the conflict came this cosy world of ordered domesticity was thrown to the wind of war as more and more men were called up and sent away to fight on the battlefield, in the air, and on the seas. Suddenly there were fewer and fewer men doing men’s work and gradually more and more women stepped in to fill the gap.

At first this was done by volunteers, but as the war went on with more and more men leaving their jobs to go off and fight, women were required to take the lead in all sorts of occupations. By the middle of the war all able women under the age of forty were required to work and do their bit for the war effort. Of course this was a huge change for the majority of women involved. Most of them had been brought up in the expectation that they would be provided for by their husbands whilst they stayed home and tended house and hearth, and suddenly here they were thrust into factories making bombs, patrolling the streets alone as aircraft wardens, building ships, putting out fires, they worked on the railways, canals, and on buses and women even built Waterloo Bridge in London. Any job previously done by a man, no matter how hard or dirty was now equally as likely to be done by a woman.

Of course with food in such short supply, and with the vast numbers of men who’d worked the land as agricultural workers and farmers away at the front, another opportunity for women arose. With a shortage of labour to work on farms and in other land based jobs, and the increasing difficultly of getting food imported from abroad due to ‘U’ boat attacks, more and more land was being farmed to provide home-grown food. No square of green was spared – football pitches, playing fields, even village greens were tilled and planted in the quest to grow yet more crops to feed Great Britain’s wartime population.
 

 

By 1943 there were over 80,000 women in the Land Army. They were known as Land Girls and were joined in 1942 by a separate Timber Corp called Lumber Jills. These women worked in sawmills or as wood cutters, often making pit props for the coal mines.

Their pay was less than two pounds for over fifty hours of work a week, although it was increased to just under three pounds in 1944. Often though, the women didn’t receive all of their pay because it was paid to the farmer first who often took some of the salary for himself. The women either lived on the farm or in dormitories, and for many this was a first taste of independence and freedom.

The Women’s Land Army provided a great deal of the labour needed to work the land during wartime Britain and they were encouraged to opt for the WLA with an advertising slogan reading, ‘For a healthy, happy job join The Women’s Land Army’. The reality however was quite different; the hours were long, the work hard and dirty and only some of the girls were trained prior to being sent to farms, others were trained by the farmers when they arrived or simply left to get on with it.

The war changed our social customs beyond all recognition with both women and men enjoying far greater social freedom than before – more opportunities for encounters with the opposite sex, and of course a wartime sense that normal rules didn’t really apply given the dangers that many faced daily and the turmoil of a society whose model had been turned upside down. The downside to all of this new freedom was an increase in the numbers of people contracting sexually transmitted diseases and a huge increase in the number of children born to single mothers during the war.

Post-war food shortages meant that the women working in the Women’s Land Army continued working the farms of Great Britain until 1950. But it wasn’t until 2008 that the sacrifices of the women of the Women’s Land Army and the Women’s Timber Corps were recognised by the minting of a badge specially designed by the Garter King at Arms and bearing the Royal Crown. It shows a gold wheat sheaf on a white background surrounded by a circlet of pine branches and pine cones, indicating the work of both the Land Army and the Timber Corps.

These are the words of one Land Girl, 86-year-old Rose Brown of Uttlesford, talking about her time in the Women’s Land Army:

“Things changed so much. I was just 18 and had never been away from home before. I had to do everything – milking the cows, ploughing the fields, operating machinery – it was very hard work, but I loved every moment of it.

“I was sent down to Land’s End, where I spent five years. It really brought us all together – it was a great bonding experience, and I know it’s a terrible thing to say because there was a war on, but it gave me so much confidence.

“It was the most significant event of my life, something I’ll never forget, and we’re all very grateful that we’re being recognised like this now.”

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