The First World War came at a time when Britain was probably more dependent on imported food than at any time before or since, and when hardly any women worked on the land. These were both fairly recent changes, but they both left Britain's food supplies vulnerable, first as an increasingly large number of young men went off to war, and then as the U-boat war began to threaten food imports. This book traces the various efforts to get women back onto the land, before the formation of the Women's Land Army early in 1917 put things on a more professional footing.
We start with a look at the role of women in Agriculture in 1914, and how that varied across the country. This would have an impact on how women workers were treated later on, with those areas in which women had almost disappeared from the land putting up the most resistance to their return. We then look at the pre-war trend for some women to 'return to the land', at least in areas such as market gardening, or as 'scientific' farmers, having paid for an education at one of a new generation of agricultural colleges. It would be these educated women who led the original calls to get more women onto the land. Not all of their efforts are portrayed as entirely successful, and it is clear that some of the early leaders of the volunteer movements could be rather patronising.
One gets a clear picture of how the initially rather amateurish British approach to war had to change as the fighting dragged on. The emphasis was on voluntary schemes, both for the women and the farmers who would employ them, and only the increasing need to call up more and more young men ended this approach. It is also interesting to see how much of the initiative came from women and women's groups, who wanted to play a part in the war effort. The same happened for women in the army, where the WAAC wasn't formed until 1917, and even in the army itself, where conscription didn't begin until 1916. In each case a key motivation was the increasingly difficult situation. In agriculture the ever decreasing number of men available to work on the land, combined with the U-boat war, led to a serious food shortage, and a fear that there wouldn't be enough people to even maintain food production levels.
Many of the same problems that you find in histories of the Second World War Women's Land Army also appear here - hostility on the part of farmers, a belief that women couldn't do men's work or a fear that the work would destroy the femininity of the women involved - occurred first during the First World War, but perhaps on a more exaggerated scale. We also get sections on accommodation, terms of service and so forth.
Many of the same problems faced by women working in industry during the First World War also appear here, including a fear that women would drive wages down, and might fill jobs previously held by men after the war. In this case some ambitious plans to keep women on the land after the war ended up fading away.
Perhaps the greatest complement to the success of the First World War Women's Land Army was the formation of the second Land Army on 1 June 1939, before the actual outbreak of the Second World War.
1 - Such Dirty Work
2 - The New Women and the Old Acres
3 - Keeping Calm
4 - Lilac Sunbonnets and the No-Corset Brigade
5 - From the White Hands of Strapping Girls
6 - Our Front is Where the Wheat Grows Fair
7 - Hold the Home Front
8 - Legacy
Author: Caroline Scott
Publisher: Pen & Sword History