At the start of the war Britain imported around 50% of its food requirements so when Germany successfully mounted naval blockades in 1915 the country faced a problem. Harvest failures in 1917 exasperated an already precarious position. Left with just three weeks of food reserves and facing the prospect of famine The Board of Agriculture founded the Women’s Land Army.
Over a quarter of a million female volunteers came forth to work the land. ‘Land girls’ as they were commonly known, worked in agriculture, forage or timber cutting. The majority worked as milkers and field workers, some working with horses, and others with the newly-introduced motor tractors.
Appeals for women workers were made via recruitment posters and rallies. Demonstrations were held all over Hertfordshire and we know from the local Gazette were held in Hemel Hempstead, Berkhamsted, Tring, Kings Langley and Apsley. Colourful and charismatic, the events featured music, and processions of decorated carts, vehicles and women, all championing the cause ‘If Britain is to win the war, women must help!
The recollections of a local woman, Myryl Smith, provide an insight into life as a Land Army Girl during the First World War.
Myryl Smith who worked at farms in Tring was given no formal training and later recalled that the work was ‘all instinct’. Commencing work at 5 am daily, Myryl’s tasks were varied and included ploughing, looking after cattle, milking, feeding farm animals and looking after the farm’s accounts.
One enticing aspect of the Women’s Land Army was the uniform, specifically the wearing of breeches, which at the time was positively revolutionary! As part of her uniform Myryl Smith wore a pair of leather Land Army boots which came above the calf leg and a waterproof coat. Myryl recollected how the sight of a woman in uniform provoked much interest amongst the locals and humorously recalled how “all the heads would be round the doors’ trying to catch a glimpse of her.”
Myryl delivered milk to most of Tring with a horse-drawn cart, a physically arduous task. After her day’s work she volunteered at a local canteen for two hours each evening serving meals to local men on leave from the front. In recognition of her service she was awarded the ‘Order of the Red Triangle’ by the YMCA.
Despite the hardships of the work, which a speaker at a Women’s Land Army rally in Berkhamsted ensured would provide every woman with ‘corns on their hands’, it was also a time of liberation, a taste of independence.