Keep The Home Fires Burning: War and Work at Home
Women's Land Army

Women's Land Army
Members of the Women's Land Army harvesting corn at Geli Cadwgan farm, Buith Wells, 1917
© Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales

ENQUIRIES: 

  • Why were there food shortages in the First World War? How did the government deal with this problem?

  • Why might some farmers have resisted the idea of the WLA to start with? How and why might these feelings have changed over time?

  • What is the significance of the name – Women's Land Army? Looking at the evidence in the photograph and this print called 'On the land: Ploughing' – how was the uniform worn by the WLA adapted to the kind of work they did? How did the WLA challenge thinking on what was 'proper' work for women to do, and how they should dress?

What was the national importance of the Women's Land Army ?

A group of farm workers, including several Land Girls, pause briefly for the camera in their task of harvesting corn. Even with the help of horse-drawn machinery, this was hard and exhausting physical work. 

The Women's Land Army (WLA) was formed during the First World War to encourage more women to get involved in growing and harvesting food. Although women had always worked on family farms – milking, making butter and cheese, and keeping poultry – they were now needed to supply and sustain an agricultural labour force, filling vital jobs left vacant by men who had joined up.

By 1917, despite initial opposition from some farmers, there were many thousands of Land Girls engaged in agricultural work in Britain – including heavy tasks such as ploughing, threshing and hauling timber. There were very few farm horses left to help them: most had been sent to the Front.

Land Girls were paid a weekly wage; they wore a hard-wearing, practical uniform which challenged conventional ideas of how women should dress.

Throughout the war, British food supplies – and other imported goods – were under constant threat from German submarines. In 1917, naval blockades and the sinking of hundreds of merchant ships, caused widespread shortages of food in Britain, including potatoes, sugar and wheat. In 1918, the Government introduced rationing to try and ensure a fair distribution of food.

Farmers were encouraged to cultivate every available piece of land; people were told to eat less, and to grow their own food by taking on allotments and becoming as self-sufficient as possible. Government propaganda posters linked these messages directly to ideas of national security and naval power. 

The value of the work being done at home to fight the war was also reinforced through official art – such as the print series, ’The Great War: Britain's Efforts and Ideals', which was exhibited in France, America and Canada, as well as Britain.  It included images of women working cheerfully on the land alongside men, demonstrating their skills, resilience and physical strength.

FOLLOW UP ACTIVITIES:

  • Watch this interview (recorded in 1994) with Agnes Greatorex who worked as a Land Girl on a farm in Cardiff. What kind of tasks did she carry out? How did Agnes feel about this work experience, and why? How did the war change the lives of young girls from her background?

    BBC: Green Farm, Cardiff

  • Farming was a 'reserved occupation'. Find out what this meant, and who was affected and why. Who else, apart from Land Girls, did agricultural work in the war alongside farmers? Why was this work considered appropriate for them?  

    Which other occupations were ‘reserved?’ Why was this? If farming was a reserved occupation, for example, why were so many women needed in the WLA to replace agricultural workers who had gone off to war? 

  • In 1917, many soldiers were temporarily released to help with ploughing. One of these was the poet Hedd Wyn . Investigate the ways in which the war affected his family – as hill farmers in North Wales.

    You can find out more about Hedd Wyn and his family by watching this short film:

National Museum Wales: Hydd Wyn - Home of the Hero

EXPLORE RELATED OBJECTS:

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Women's Land Army

Members of the Women's Land Army harvesting corn at Geli Cadwgan farm, Buith Wells, 1917
© Amgueddfa Cymru…

Gladys May Evans

a member of the Women's Land Army photographed in her uniform. She worked in the grounds of St Fagans Castle,…

Charles Pears, Maintaining Export Trade

from Transport by Sea portfolio, 1917
' The Great War: Britain’s Efforts and Ideals'
Presented by the…

Postcard commemorating the poet Ellis Humphrey Evans (Hedd Wyn)

who died in 1917 at the Battle of Passchendaele. He was posthumously awarded the bard's chair at the 1917…

Yarta and Ida Saxby of Halligarth House 'Digging for Victory', Baltasound, Unst, Shetland Isles, during the First World War

Serious food shortages in 1917 resulted in increased prices, especially for imported foodstuffs. The British…

German U-Boat

with the caption - “Destroyed and sunk by S.S. Olympic and U.S.S. Davis”
© National Museums Northern…

First World War propaganda poster

'Food -  don't waste it'. (League of National Safety Poster No.23)
© National Museums Northern Ireland

A.S.Hartrick, On the land

Ploughing, from Women's Work portfolio, 1917. Britain’s Efforts and Ideals
© Amgueddfa Cymru - National…

Acetylene Welder from Building Aircraft portfolio

by C.R.W. Nevinson
lithograph on paper, 1917

'The Great War: Britain’s Efforts and…

In the Air from Building Aircraft portfolio

by C.R.W. Nevinson
lithograph on paper, 1917

'The Great War: Britain’s Efforts and…

On the Railways: Engine and Carriage Cleaners from Women's work portfolio

by A. S. Hartrick,
lithograph on paper, 1917

'The Great War: Britain’s Efforts and…

Casualty Clearing Station in France from Tending the Wounded portfolio

by Claude Shepperson,
lithograph on paper, 1917

'The Great War: Britain’s Efforts and…