THE LAND GIRLS – FEEDING THE NATION THROUGH HORSEPOWER DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR
· The Women’s Land Army, formed in June 1939, had 80,000 members at its peak, working alongside more than half a million horses on Britain’s farms
· Working animal charity SPANA calls on the public to honour the women and working animals that helped feed Britain during the war
As Britain prepares to mark 80years since the start of the Second World War, working animal charity SPANA is asking the public to remember another significant anniversary – the formation of the Women’s Land Army. The Women’s Land Army (WLA) was reformed in June 1939, a few months before the outbreak of war, and filled the gap in the farm workforce left by the hundreds of thousands of men called up to fight.
Britain imported more than two-thirds of its food in 1939 and, during the war, Germany was sinking vast amounts of shipping bound for Britain in the Atlantic in an attempt to starve the country into submission. Producing food domestically on a huge scale was therefore critical.
At its peak in 1944, more than 80,000 female workers – known as ‘Land Girls’ – had joined the WLA and were producing 70 per cent of the nation’s food. They worked closely with working horses, which outnumbered tractors by 30 to one on British farms at this time.
Geoffrey Dennis, Chief Executive of SPANA, which provides free veterinary treatment to working animals in developing countries, said: ‘The contribution made by the Land Girls and the working horses they worked alongside during the Second World War was monumental.
‘At a pivotal time in our history, the Land Girls and the animals that stood side by side with them helped to fuel the war effort on the home front. We owe so much to this army in the fields.
‘Working animals, such as horses, donkeys and mules, are still vital to the survival of people in the poorest communities around the world today. Often working closely with women, these animals are a lifeline – helping to provide food, water and livelihoods. It’s important that we also recognise the contribution of this silent workforce – both then and now.’
Dame Vera Lynn said: ‘The women of the WLA are without question among the unsung heroes of the Second World War – stepping into traditionally male roles and securing Britain’s food supply throughout the conflict.
‘When the WLA was reformed at the start of the war, Britain was producing less than a third of its food by 1939, but – thanks to the enormous efforts of the Land Girls – this rose to 70 per cent by 1943.
‘At the start of the war, horses outnumbered tractors by 30 to one on Britain’s farms – and the Land Girls couldn’t have succeeded without their horsepower.
‘Many women formed close bonds with the animals that worked side by side with them – and this important relationship is still evident in the world’s poorest countries. Millions of women and families still rely on working animals today – and SPANA is there to help them.’
Historian Ruth Goodman, whose television series Wartime Farm highlighted the work of the Women’s Land Army, said: ‘It’s hard to overstate the contribution that the Women’s Land Army made to Britain during the Second World War. Women from across the country stepped up to fill the gap left by men going off to war. Many of these women had never lived away from the city, but were immediately thrown into every variety of farm work – from using horse-driven ploughs, to milking cows and delivering produce on a pony cart.
‘At a time when Britain was besieged and its food supply was under threat, the Land Girls and the horses that worked alongside them played a critical role in helping to feed the nation.
‘Today, in developing countries worldwide, women continue to work very closely with working animals, which are fundamental to food production – pulling ploughs and transporting produce.’
THE LAND GIRLS – TIMELINE
The Women’s Land Army was first formed to increase the amount of food grown in Britain, due to difficulties importing during the First World War.
Women’s Land Army disbanded.
Women’s Land Army re-established. Recruitment begins in earnest.
Working horses outnumbered tractors by 30 to one on British farms.
Second World War begins.
By the outbreak of war, 17,000 women had enrolled in the WLA.
At the start of the war, two thirds of Britain’s food was imported.
Food rationing begins in Britain.
By the end of 1940, Britain had lost over 2,000,000 gross tons of merchant shipping during the Battle of the Atlantic.
The Women’s Timber Corps was formed. Working in forestry, the corps had over 6,000 members, who were commonly known as Lumber Jills.
The Land Girls were producing around 70 per cent of Britain’s food.
More than 80,000 women were working in the Land Army.
8 May 1945
VE Day – end of war in Europe.
By the end of the war, there were still over half a million farm horses in Britain.
Minister of Agriculture states that the organisation will be needed ‘at least until the harvest of 1948’.
8 June 1946
Land Girls march in the Victory Parade in London.
Women’s Land Army disbanded.
Surviving Land Girls receive a badge of honour in a ceremony at Downing Street.