Channelling my Inner Wood Nymph: The Women’s Land Army in WW1

04 April 2014

Gender and Sexuality | History | War and Conflict

Aftermonths of rain and grey skies we are finally seeing glimpses of a properspring. New lambs are in the fields and my garden, which has resembled a muddyswamp for most of the winter, is now beginning to pop with colour. Even thechickens, who have sulked in their coop for months, have begun to lay again. Myattempts to grow a variety of vegetables have been less successful, and itappears that we’ll be living off courgettes and potatoes all summer as they areso far the only survivors. Disappointing on a personal level, but with a supermarketjust around the corner it is hardly the end of the world.

 

A woman land worker sowing seeds. Images © The Imperial War Museum. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Thingswere, however, not that simple during the First World War, when Britain had toface the fact that it only produced 35% of the food it consumed. The submarinethreat in the Atlantic meant that there was a real risk of severe foodshortages. Although Britain did resort to rationing in 1918, it made realefforts to increase food production at home and, with dwindling numbers of ablemen, had to turn to its new labour force. Over 250,000 women volunteered towork on the land during the war, some of whom became members of the Women’sLand Army and the lesser-known Forestry and Forage Corps. Among the Imperial WarMuseum photograph collections in our upcoming resource, The First World War: Visual Perspectives and Narratives, are albumsdedicated to women’s work in agriculture and forestry. These offer afascinating insight into the tasks performed by women in food production, butalso the attitudes towards them. Farmers were reluctant to employ women asthere were doubts about their physical capabilities, and the governmentattempted to address this by holding competitions in an array of agriculturaljobs, from hedging to ploughing.

 

Competitors in the ditching competition at the Whitehall Estate, Bishops Stratford, July 1917. Image © The Imperial War Museum. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

This assertion that women were capable labourers is tempered by the other prevailing image of the 'land girls' – press and even official photographs seem keen to assuage any fears of competition for men by emphasising the workers' feminine qualities alongside their physical abilities. Land Army members were depicted in the Daily Mirror as 'wood nymphs of war time' and jolly girls participating in 'farm frolics', more morale-boosting than genuinely useful, and the Daily Mirror ran a competition for 'War Work Belles' in November 1918. In the photograph albums there is a divide between images of women actually performing agricultural tasks and others simply posing in fields looking pretty.

An array of ‘graceful’, ‘captivating’ and ‘charming’ female labourers from the Daily Mirror, 2 November 1918. Published in Module 2, The First World War: Propaganda and Recruitment. Image © Mirrorpix. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Whatevertheir representation, it is undeniable that the WLA not only helped to feed thecountry, it provided women with new possibilities and independence. Maybe itisn’t too late to try again with my vegetables; I’ll just have to channel my innernymph and get back out there.

 

The woman fruit picker. Image © The Imperial War Museum. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

More photographs of women’s roles during the First WorldWar, including the huge range of industrial and munitions jobs they carried out,can be explored in the forthcoming resource TheFirst World War: Visual Perspectives and Narratives.

About the Author

Sophie Heath

Sophie Heath

I am an Editor at Adam Matthew. Since joining the team in March 2013 I have worked on a number of exciting projects, from the First World War to American History, Church Missionary Society Periodicals, and Race Relations in America - very different but fascinating projects! My academic background is in foreign languages, in particular French and Italian, and I have really enjoyed putting this to good use when working with the foreign language material in our resources.

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