03 May 2018
Dermot Foley looks at the history, uniforms and collectable militaria of the organisation.
One month after the start of WWI on the 9 September the Women’s Defence Relief Corps was founded by Mrs Dawson Scott, with the backing of Lord Kitchener and Lord Roberts, in order to allow women to take the place of the men who were volunteering on mass for the regular armed forces.
Before the outbreak of WWI Britain was producing 35% of its food, the rest was imported from the Empire. In 1914 the German U-Boat threat was very real, but somewhat limited due to the tactics used by the German Navy at that point in the war. However, by mid-February 1915 Germany set up a no-go zone around Great Britain and began to sink all merchant and passenger ships without any warning. This tactic included sinking shipping from neutral countries and lead to the sinking of the passenger liner RMS Lusitania on 7 May 1915, with a loss of 1,200 lives. In September 1915, after a huge outcry and propaganda campaign against the Germans, the tactic was abandoned until 1917.
In 1915 female volunteers of the WDRC began working on the land. However, there was clearly a serious problem and by early 1916 something more had to done to help farmers on the land, as 100,000 men had already gone to France and Belgium to fight the Germans. Consequently food production was being affected by the lack of manual labour on the land.
In order to help alleviate this problem, the Women’s National Land Service Corps was founded in early 1916 by Mrs Roland Wilkins OBE. On the 10 June 1916 an appeal was put out to ask for women volunteers to join the Women’s National Land Service Corps.
Unfortunately there still weren’t enough women volunteering so War Agricultural Committees were founded in each county in order to try and find solutions to alleviate a growing problem. However, it was clear that these committees were very reluctant to use women to replace the men that had gone to the front. Women were often thought of as the weaker sex and they could not possibly handle the heavy manual labour in the same way male labourers could. The government had to do something to dispel these prejudices, so the Board of Agriculture organised practical demonstrations up and down the country in order to prove that women were competent enough to work the land as well as any man could before the outbreak of war in 1914.
The WLA is founded
In January 1917 the British Board of Agriculture established a women’s branch in order to make it easier to employ women to work on the land. Dame Meriel Talbot was appointed as its Director and by March 1917 an appeal was put out to young women over the age of 18 to join the Civilian Women’s Labour Force, known as the Women’s Land Army. Volunteer land girls’ duties included milking the cows, aiding farmers ploughing the land, planting and gathering crops. The pay started at 18 shillings per week, but after four to six weeks of training, if the candidate proved they were efficient enough during the training period, they got an increase of two shillings.
A Women’s Forestry Corps was founded in 1916, to work in forests and woodlands clearing and felling trees. It was controlled by The Timber Supply Department of the Board of Trade and it became part of the WLA, by January 1918 400 female workers were employed as foresters.
The WWI WLA uniform was provided free to volunteers and it consisted of the following: Two felt hats (these were often worn with a Board of Agriculture Land Workers badge), three overall tunics (with a built in belt), mackintosh (raincoat), jersey, dark green felt armlet, with a red felt king’s crown sewn on to it (these were only issued after 30 days proficient service in the WLA). A series of red felt stripes were often sewn to the armlet and represented length of service. There were also two pairs of breeches, leggings, puttees or gaiters, two pairs of boots ankle or tall boots (per year) and a pair of clogs.
By the time the armistice was signed in November 1918, 300,000 women had volunteered to work the land, 23,000 of these women were part of the WLA. Much of the work was incredibly hard and overall these land girls, proved that women could proficiently do the same work as their male counterparts.
After three years of outstanding service on the land, on the 30 November 1919 the Women’s Land Army was stood down.
Storm clouds gather again
In 1938 Lady Gertrude Mary Denman, a former activist for women’s rights, was approached by the Ministry of Agriculture and asked to reform the WLA. However, due to delays and the political situation at the time the WLA was not reformed untile 1 June 1939 when the clouds of war were once again forming over Europe. On the 29 August Lady Denman set up the headquarters for the WLA at her family home of Balcombe Place in West Sussex.
A campaign was launched in order to recruit physically able young women, aged 17 and over, to work on the land. However, these restrictions were not stringent and some recruits joined at a lower age. The recruit had to register their name at the local WLA HQ, or alternatively they could enter their name on the National Service Guide at the local post office.
The recruit then had to pass a, somewhat easy, medical and then were asked to attend an interview where the candidate was asked various questions by a panel, to decide on their suitability for the post. Approximately one in four passed the interview and went on to join the WLA.
In September 1939, after war was declared on Germany, the volunteer had to declare their service for the duration of the war. The recruit’s name was added to the country register in order to place them on farms near to where they lived. Unfortunately this was not always possible and sometimes the recruit had to work on the land many miles from home.
The first uniform item that was issued to each successful recruit was a standard Land Army pin back badge. This was often worn on the WLA tie and the issued felt slouch hat. Although actual cap badges were manufactured during WWII, the pin back badge appears to have been worn more often.
The WWII WLA uniform consisted of a tan coloured felt slouch hat (from 1942 this was replaced with a green beret) and a bottle green armlet with a Kings Crown and WLA embroidered design. A series of armlets were introduced that showed how long the WLA volunteer had been serving. Each armlet had pre-sewn diamonds with each diamond represented one years service. Additional diamonds or half diamonds for six months service were awarded and sewn onto the armlet.
Two years service consisted of the standard green felt armlet WLA and king’s crown with two embroidered diamonds per side, along with two red borderline stripes. Four years service armlet was made of red felt with green embroidered WLA and Kings Crown features and four diamonds. Six years service armlet consisted of a yellow woollen armband with the standard WLA features along with eight embroidered diamonds and a bottle green border. The Eight years service armlet consisted of a yellow woollen armlet with large green woollen area with a red, yellow embroidered WLA and kings Crown along with an ‘8’, plus four embroidered diamonds per side.
There was also a rare Ten years service gilt metal badge with red and green enamelled features on red wool. However, these were only awarded in limited numbers and are very hard to find now.
The rest of the outfit consisted of: A sheaf of wheat broach type badge (pin back); tan Aertex shirt; one bottle green jumper; corduroy breeches; two pairs of dungarees; one dust coat; gumboots (Wellingtons) - it appears that these were most often issued from non-WLA sources and were always in short supply; two pairs of long, brown socks; ankle boots; walking out shoes and a chocolate brown overcoat (from late 1941).
Interestingly, according to Nicola Tyrer, the author of They Fought in the Fields, new WLA recruits were advised to bring the following items: At least two complete sets of underwear, at least two complete sets of night clothes, one pair of house slippers, a second pair of walking out shoes, one or two frocks to wear in the evening, a woollen scarf, woollen gloves, a bicycle (if possessed) and standard toilet requisites.
When the recruit was assigned to work on a farm, accommodation would have been a private billet, or a hostel. Both could vary in quality and the private billet would often be situated within the farmer’s property. Hostels were either set up huts, or requisitioned country houses. The private billets were hit and miss and recruits were either treated like family, or totally ostracised by the farmer and his family.
If a young recruit was unlucky and placed within a bad environment, their time in the WLA could not have been worse, as many young girls had never been away from their loved ones for very long. Combine that with a long, strenuous day on the farm and it was a miracle they stayed for the duration of their service.
The WLA girls that worked on farms carried out the same duties as their male counterpart which included milking the cows, feeding pigs and sheering sheep. Dairy work was probably one of the hardest tasks, at first, due to the fact that many of the volunteers had never seen a cow in the flesh and being responsible for large herd must have been daunting. However, after just a few weeks, it became second nature and the girls became attached to the animals they worked with. Whilst working on the farm the WLA girls would often have to be up at the crack of dawn and finish at around 5pm in the evening.
Other duties included harvesting flax and fruit picking. Flax was a natural source of fibre that was grown and harvested on the fields. It was then turned into linen in factories for clothes manufacturing in throughout the country.
Although fruit picking appears to be somewhat mundane to us now, during times of war it was a very important task, as the WLA girls picked apples, strawberries, potatoes and other vegetables. WLA girls were also involved with market gardening which meant they grew the produce, picked and put it into boxes that were then sent to the market to be sold.
Pest control was an unpleasant and sometimes dangerous task, as the tools used to spray pesticides were often temperamental. Ratting, in particular, was not for the squeamish and rats that had not been killed by the baited food could attack if cornered. It was very important to prevent rats from thriving in the barns and the propaganda slogan of the day was, ‘Kill rats now’, or ‘Kill that rat! : It’s doing Hitler’s work’.
One of the dirtiest tasks that any land girl could undertake was undoubtedly removing sacks of waste during the threshing process, as dirt got everywhere. There were also rats and mice in the fields and the girls were advised to tie string around their legs to avoid an unpleasant event with the panicked rodents.
Other work involved digging ditches and making sure that the hedgerows were kept in good order. Although this appears to be rather unimportant, every single task helped the volunteers to adapt to working the land.
Into the forests
The Women’s Timber Corps branch of the WLA was set up in 1942, as there was a timber shortage after the German occupation of Norway in 1940. Every WLATC volunteer had to learn all aspects of forestry work with their duties including administration, measuring and felling trees, operating sawmills and loading the logs on to waiting trucks. The uniform included a beret with a new WTC badge and slightly different armband, as it had Timber Corps embroidered beneath the WLA logo.
These women became affectionately known as lumberjill’s. They took on the same role as their male counterparts and carried out their duties just as competently throughout their service in the WLATC. Many of the volunteers were sent to remote parts of Scotland and the work was harder than many city girls ever expected it to be.
On the 17 February 1945 Lady Denman resigned from her position, as she believed the WLA’s contribution was not being recognised by the government and, as it transpired, it would take many years before that recognition came. However, things did begin to get easier for the volunteers as the WLA began to wind down after VE day and Land Girls that were billeted far away from home were sent to locations nearer to their family.
The WLA was finally stood down in November 1950 and this quote by Lady Denman is quite fitting to this day, “The Land Army fights in the fields. It is in the fields of Britain that the most critical battle of the present war may well be fought and won.”
There is no doubt that the WLA’s role during two world wars was absolutely vital but no real recognition was given to these women volunteers for many years. Finally, in December 2007, recognition for the service the WLA and WTC freely gave was acknowledged with a special WLA badge and certificate. Films such as The Land Girls, in 1998, helped raise the profile of their contribution.
Collecting WLA uniforms and paperwork
Collecting WLA ephemera has become extremely popular in the last 20 years. However, most WWI uniform items are very rare and expensive to buy. If they become available on the market, these items will sell almost immediately. Any collector wanting to build a complete WWI Land Woman’s uniform would have to take many years of dedicated searching to find everything required.
Original standard bottle green WWI WLA armlets are not that difficult to find and they can often be found on UK eBay. Badges and certificates can also be found via regular militaria sites and auction sites.
WWII WLA items are much easier to find, but an original hat is very rare to find and they have never been commonly available on the open collecting market. Issue jumpers are scarce; thankfully there are some reproductions that can be used on mannequin displays until originals are found.
Home Front Collection (www.homefrontcollection.com)
Sally Bosleys Badge Shop (www.sallysbadges.com)
Sentimental Journey (www.sentimentaljourney.co.uk)
This article was published in the May issue of The Armourer, and featured many more photos of the women and the collectable artefacts.
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