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The Women's Land Army: a portrait

Clarke, Gill (2008) The Women's Land Army: a portrait, Bristol, UK, Sansom, 216pp.

Record type: Book


This portrait of the Women’s Land Army reveals their vital ontribution to keeping the nation fed in the First and Second World Wars. Land Girls dressed in their distinctive uniforms became an iconic image, symbolising Britain’s triumph in winning the domestic battle to raise food production. With the exception of the official history compiled by Vita Sackville-West
published under the auspices of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in 1944 and Carol Twinch’s Women on the Land: Their Story during Two World Wars (1990), the history and role of the organisation has been largely overlooked. Yet, the work Land Girls undertook to maximise levels of productivity from the land was crucial to the success of the war effort.1

Official recognition of their role has been woefully late in coming. When the Women’s Land Army was disbanded in 1950 the members were shabbily treated, receiving neither medals nor gratuities, and being required to return most of their uniforms. It was not until the new millennium that members of the Women’s Land Army and Women’s Timber Corps were allowed to join the annual Remembrance Day march in London to the Cenotaph, despite the fact that other national service organisations had for some time been part of the parade. It took a further eight years
of pressure before the British Government agreed to officially recognise the efforts of Land Girls in 2008 and award a specially designed badge to commemorate their service.2

Although the two World Wars created new opportunities for women and a degree of social and economic independence – in many cases temporary – this should not be over romanticised, nor seen as adding greatly to women’s emancipation.3

The use of auto/biographical sources and in particular the life stories written by former Land Girls provide fresh insights into the actuality of their experiences, thereby avoiding the homogenisation of the contributions of members of the Women’s Land Army to the ‘Battle of the Fields’. Extracts from their life stories illuminate events and experiences that have not previously received the attention and recognition they warrant.
Uniquely, The Women’s Land Army: A Portrait also focuses
upon wartime paintings, posters and cartoons to portray the life of the Land Girls. Although few of these evocative works are strictly portraits, the artists, subject though they were to censorship, engage with the challenge of presenting a record of the experiences of those who worked on the land and ‘with ideas
of identity as they are perceived, represented, and understood in different times and places.’4

The formation of the Women’s Land Army in the First World War and its reforming in the Second World War afforded opportunities for artists to document the work Land Girls were undertaking, and in so doing interpret its impact on their identities in what was for many a strange and hostile environment.

Part 1 – Holding the Home Front: The Women’s Land Army in
the First World War – traces the emergence of women’s land-based societies and corps and the formation of War Agricultural Committees. Farmers’ reluctance and prejudice to employing women on the land is examined, as is the establishment of The Women’s National Land Service Corps which preceded the formation of the Women’s Land Army in March 1917 under the directorship of Dame Meriel Talbot. This is followed by a discussion of the work of the three sections of the newly formed Women’s Land Army: agriculture, forage and timber.

Part 2 – Back to the Land: The Women’s Land Army in the Second World War – reveals how the WLA ‘sprang into being
even before war had been declared’.5 This ordered planning led by the Honorary Director, Lady Denman, was in sharp contrast to the improvisation of the First World War, where all ‘had to be carried through at breakneck speed, with no precedent and no time for preparation.’6

In discussing the contribution of the WLA both autobiographical and biographical evidence is drawn on, including extracts from
interviews with Land Girls, a WLA administrator and an assistant secretary. In addition, life stories written by Land Girls illustrate the realities of life on the land.7

Part 3 – Recording Life on the Land – provides biographical
portraits of the lives of selected artists and illustrators who recorded the activities of the Women’s Land Army and Women’s Timber Corps, the life and work of a number of whom has hitherto received scant attention. These ‘portraits’ reveal the artists’ not insignificant contribution to twentieth-century British Art and cultural history and provide valuable insights into the commissioning and production of their distinctive wartime drawings and paintings.

1. I do not attempt here to assess the contribution of the WLA to the war effort vis-à-vis other types of workers, an exercise which is problematic – see section V in Gill Clarke (2007) ‘The Women’s Land Army and its recruits 1938–50’, in Short, B., Watkins, C. and Martin, J. (eds.) The front line of freedom. British farming in the Second World War. Readers are referred in particular to the research of H.T. Williams who, in an influential article written after the war, reported his attempts to
quantify the contribution of the WLA to the war effort. The article
‘Changes in the productivity of labour in British agriculture’, J. of the Agricultural Economics Society, X, 4 (1954) was endorsed by K.A.H. Murray (1955) in Agriculture, p.243. I am grateful to John Martin for bringing this to my attention.

2. Application forms are available at Telephone: Defra Helpline 08459 335577.

3. See Summerfield, P. (1988) ‘Women, war and social change: women in Britain in World War II’, in Marwick, A. (ed.) Total war and social change, Summerfield, P. (1995) ‘Women and war in the twentieth century’, in Purvis, J. (ed.) Women’s History: Britain, 1850–1945 and Summerfield, P. (1998) Reconstructing women’s wartime lives: discourse and subjectivity in oral histories of the Second World War.

4. West, S. (2004) Portraiture, p.11.

5. Sackville-West, V. (1944) The Women’s Land Army, p.9.

6. Shewell-Cooper, W.E. (c.1941) Land Girl. A Manual for volunteers in the Women’s Land Army, p.10.

7. My research over the past decade has also involved extensive
documentary analysis and attending reunions of Land Girls and
Services of Commemoration for the WLA and WTC veterans at the Cenotaph. The women involved in the study were aged between 17 and 29 at enrolment, and served from just over one year to 11 years; they are now aged between 77 and 96. For specific detail about the biographical research see Gill Clarke (2001) ‘Lives on the home front: the Women’s Land Army’, Auto/Biography, IX (1&2), pp.81–8.

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More information

Published date: October 2008
Additional Information: Gill Clarke is Director of the Centre for Biography and Education and was guest curator for the exhibition 'The Women's Land Army: A Portrait' held at St Barbe Gallery, Lymington, UK, from 18 October 2008 - 10 January 2009
Keywords: biography, artists, women's land army, first & second world war


Local EPrints ID: 63635
ISBN: 9781904537878
PURE UUID: b035df27-b5d0-4cd4-b93e-8c1ac4400562

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Date deposited: 22 Oct 2008
Last modified: 17 Jul 2017 14:16

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Author: Gill Clarke

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