Women in World War One – Women’s War Work and the Women’s Forestry Corps.

It is well known the contribution women made as nurses during the First World War with examples in literature such as Testament of Youth written by Vera Brittain about her experiences as a VAD nurse but this was an occupation traditionally undertaken by women.

Half a million single men had volunteered in the first two months of the outbreak of World War 1. Conventions, pre-conceptions and prejudices hampered the employment of women to fill the job vacancies left by the men in the Services in traditionally seen male occupations. A group of Scottish medical women offered their services to the War Office in 1914, had been told that all that was required of them was to go home and keep quiet. [Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain p195]

In July 1915 30,000 women marched through London demanding the right to work and serve their Country.

Women who worked in the Textile factories had an easier transition into munition work. In 1915 the Ministry of Munitions positively and actively encouraged enrolment of women into munition factories.

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[“For King and Country” painting by E.F.Skinner – Women at War 1914-1918 by Arthur Marwick]

By 1916 there were too few men volunteering to replace the casualties in the ranks in the Services so the Government had to bring in conscription of men between the ages of 18- 40 and to include married men.

Agriculture had been adversely hit by the War in three ways :- the blockading of shipping importing fertilizers, the army requisitioning horses, the main source of agricultural power and the enlistment of thousands of farm workers. Agriculture was still a labour intensive occupation and by 1915 over 100,000 men who had worked on the land had gone to war.

A number of voluntary Organisation were formed between 1914-16, such as Women’s Defence Relief Corps (WDRC) and the Women’s National Land Service Corps (WNLSC), which used women volunteers to work on the land but there were insufficient numbers to meet the need.

Even women with limited income wore restrictive corsets and ankle length skirts, cited as one of the reasons women were considered unable to undertake heavy farm work during World War 1, but when some women went to work in the fields wearing breeches they were ridiculed and branded immodest.

In the North Devon Journal of 18/05/1916 Mr George Lambert M.P. ‘was endeavouring to impress upon the Government that we may be drifting to shortage of food in this country’. By 1917 the Minister of Agriculture stated there was only three weeks food supply left in the country. Prices were rising causing the fear that only the rich would be able to afford to buy food. Voluntary rationing of diet staples of meat, bread and sugar was brought in but more was needed by 1918 with butter, cheese and margarine added and the Government issued ration cards and required everyone to register with a Butcher and Grocer.

In 1916 the Government set up a War Agricultural Committee in each County but these committees consisted of men who were reluctant to use women because they believed women would be unable to perform the physically demanding work. It was traditional for rural women to help their farmer fathers or husbands with small animal work and dairy produce but also with heavier work such as milking cows, handling horses and to bringing the harvest. However, this did not help the prejudice towards women who were not of the farmer’s household, when it was put forward that during the War, women could replace the men working on the land.

In January 1917 a Women’s Branch of the Board of Agriculture was established with a woman Director Meriel Talbot.

In the same year the Women’s Land Army was formed to provide a paid trained, disciplined and supervised female workforce. It was administered by the War Office and financed by the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries. There began an active advertising and recruitment campaign. “Wanted 5000 educated women between 18-35 for war work on the land” Women’s Land Service Corps. The Archdeacon of Exeter believed that ‘educated women would have little difficulty in adjusting to farm life’. Lower class women who were more used to physical labour were initially ignored. Later posters only stressed that ‘The help of British Women is urgent and indispensable’.

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[Imperial War Museum Photographic Archive Women’s Land Army poster 04/1918 Art.IWM PST 5489]

There were three sections in the WLA: Agriculture, Forage and Timber Cutting. Each County appointed the first paid women WLA Inspectors in 1917.

Devon was one of the first counties in England to form a Women’s Land Army and Miss Calmady-Hamlyn, from an old Devon family who owned an estate on the edge of Dartmoor, was appointed an Inspector, and by speaking at regional and national meetings, became one of the key figures in promoting women to work on the land.
At a turbulent meeting of the Totnes Farmers’ Union in 1916 leading female figures including Miss Calmady-Hamlyn, were chastised and would “have done very much better with women’s labour by taking vacant farms and showing how they could produce poultry, pork and dairy produce. They had not done it but they were telling farmers to do it.”[The People of Devon in the First World War by David Parker]

Such was her conviction that women could be effective farmers and to convince the sceptics she was right, that in 1917 she established a farm exclusively run by women. Great Bidlake Farm had fallen from “one of the best bits of wheatland in the district, to grazing ground”. [Great Bidlake Farm The Landswoman September 1918 p194-197]

A trial had been made of the horse drawn Syracruse riding plough which proved to be ideal to be worked by women, making possible for eighty-two acres to be put under cultivation. Proving that with the right equipment women could be efficient in farming.

Twenty acres of wheat was prepared, amid the gloomy predictions of local farmers it would be doomed to failure on newly turned land and “bewitched” by female labour, instead it was awarded praise as the “the finest crops in the parish”.

There were four permanent land worker staff, supplemented by twelve trainees at a time who were instructed in field work. Miss Isaac, the horsewoman, was straight from school and the daughter of a farmer from North Devon. Responsible for cutting the Hay harvest she handled her horse team, for the first time in a mower, with considerable skill.

There were three North Devon farming families of Isaac’s, Ethel [18] daughter of Ade Isaac from Winkleigh, Elizabeth [14] daughter of Albert Isaac of Goodleigh and three girls in the same family, Francis [16], Alice [15] and Gertrude [14] daughters of William Isaac of Buckland Brewer. It was more likely to be Albert’s or William’s girls as the school leaving age at the time was 13.

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[Photo I.W.N 08th Aug 1917]
As stated in the previous Blog it was the reference to “in Devonshire a whole [tented] camp of [women] Foresters was completely flooded out” that attracted my interest in the “Timber Jills” of the First World War.

E.P. Stebbings, a renown pioneer British Forester, in 1916 wrote that “The life of a Forester is pre-eminently an open-air one…. It renders the possession of a good physique, good health and active habits indispensable. Girls, the modern girl at any rate, may be considered to possess these attributes to much the same extent as young men”, an unusual attitude towards women at the time. [British Forestry, It’s Present Position and Future Outlook after the War]

Miss Calmady-Hamlyn recruited for the Women’s Forestry Service promoting that women of various backgrounds and experience could undertake all aspects of timber processing from measuring, felling trees and to the driving of heavy horses for the removal of the timber. Forty women were working on a government contract in Lydford Wood.

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[Imperial War Museum Photographic Archive Q30695]

Initially in 1917 training camps had been set up in Buckinghamshire, one camp of twenty-five women for timber measurers, and two camps of twenty each for cutters.
Being a Measurer was a skilled trade, requiring a knowledge of felling, marking and measurement to ascertain the monetary value of the timber and reckoning the rate of wage to be paid to the hewers and was generally drawn from educated women. The Cutter was less skilled but required above average physically strength.

Mainly based in the South of England, by the end of the war there were around 1,900 women in Forestry. Around three hundred and fifty were Measurers and Forewomen and 1,500 were Cutters.

The Illustrated War News ran a regular feature called Women at War based on the contribution women workers were making to the War written by Claudine Cleve. In the issue of August 8th1917 they ran four pages featuring photographs of Devon Forestry Workers, stacking Pit Props, felling trees and “working strenuously” and “effecting a saving in ships and tonnage as previously all these pit props came from abroad.”

She also wrote that it was of perpetual astonishment of the male publicist that the women should have proved themselves worth their salt in the great emergency of the War.

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[Photo I.W.N 08th Aug 1917]
Two other photographs are of Devon women Timber Measurers supervising Portuguese Wood Cutters. There is a possibility that this was at South Molton where there was a camp of Portuguese workers.

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[Photo I.W.N 15th Aug 1917]
The unprecedented job opportunities for women seemed to be short lived, although some women went into work for the duration of the war to aid the National war effort, others were unwillingly forced to give up their employment by the Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act 1919 as men returned from the trenches and factories switched to peacetime production. By 1920 almost two thirds of women in work during the war were no longer working.

As a result of the War women’s lives had been revolutionised but gender roles remained the same with the main concern for women of family and domestic life.
The role of women may have been undervalued in Britain but their experience was wanted in other parts of the world.

In an article in The Globe 30th Aug 1919 they reported that there were “two million “surplus” women in Britain” after the loss of 600,000 men under 55 during the War and Ex-Servicemen’s free passage within the Empire was now extended to ex-Servicewomen. This included Nursing, VAD’s, Women’s Land Army, Women’s Forage and Forestry Corps.

The Buckingham Advertiser 27th Sept 1919 states that “it will be recognised in the Dominions that those who have served in the Land Army, the Women’s Forestry Corps, nursing services and in the Army, Navy and Air Force will make splendid emigrants.”

In the Western Times of 20th Sept 1919 reported that of the eighty girls remaining in the Land Army in Devon at that time, sixteen had applied for small holdings on emigration or farm colonies.

…Assistant Librarian, Sandi

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