The Women’s Land Army was established at the beginning of 1917 and officially disbanded at the end of November 1919. Across the country 23,000 women were recruited to work full-time on the land to replace the men who had left.
Training centres were established on selected farms, managed by regional committees. There were three areas of work: agriculture, including working with livestock and milking; timber cutting, which included cutting and loading timber and operating saw mills; and forage work, which involved producing bales of hay for horse feed and straw for bedding.
Women were working on farms in the East Riding and elsewhere before the Women’s Land Army was formed. The East Riding War Agricultural Committee regularly discussed labour shortages throughout the war. Once conscription was introduced in 1916 the shortage of agricultural labour became critical.
Lady Sykes, whose husband had 30,000 acres of land in the East Riding, formed a Women’s War Agricultural Committee in 1916. It worked with the County War Agricultural Committee to train women agricultural workers and place them on farms
(see Downloads link below). The Hull Employment Exchange also organised seasonal female labour to support the harvest.
Because farms could not always provide separate accommodation for men and women, hostels were established for women workers. Lady Sykes opened up a wing of her home at Sledmere House near Driffield to accommodate and train 30 women in aspects of agricultural work.
Opposition to women workers:
Despite the widespread food shortages caused by the war, some people objected to women working on the land. Some farmers refused to accept that women could do heavy agricultural work such as managing livestock or ploughing with horses. Others, such as the president of the Holderness Agricultural Club, felt that ‘women are barely capable of working in their own homes and would be of no use on remote farms without facilities’. There were moral concerns about women working on farms where traditionally male workers would share a dormitory and washing and toilet facilities were basic.
Eventually the dissenters lost the argument as the women workers proved their worth. By 1917 farmers appealing for their male workers to be exempted from conscription were asked if they had women workers on their farms and faced having their appeals dismissed if they had not taken on any women.
By 1 March 1918 there were 1,237 part-time and 121 full-time women agricultural workers in the East Riding, compared with 1,184 soldiers working on farms in the region. The War Agriculture Committee stated that ‘no women capable of working on the land should be sent out of the East Riding’.
KS3/4 History – World War One
KS3/4 Citizenship – Dealing with conflict, types of conflict
Knowledge of the ways in which women contributed to the war effort
Understanding that women’s experiences were varied and diverse
Skills in analysing and interpreting historical evidence
Why might women have wanted to work with the Women’s Land Army?
Look at the Women’s Land Army recruitment poster and the painting ‘Return to the Farm’ by Hilda Carline
(pictured above). What image do these sources give of Land Army work? How realistic are they likely to be?
There is less evidence available about the lives of individual working women during the First World War than of men who served in the armed forces. Why might this be?
Use the sources here alongside those in the Agriculture in Wartime section. How important was female labour compared with other sources of labour in ensuring food production was maintained?
Use these sources together with the other sources on women’s work during the First World War. How important was women’s contribution to the war in the decision to grant women over 30 the vote in 1918?
Ask the class to imagine they are members of the 1916 War Committee. Organise a class debate about whether or not women should be allowed to work on the land. Split the class into for and against. Ask students to research their own argument – and that of the opposition – and make the case for why women should, or shouldn’t, be encouraged to work on the land.
Ask students to research the experiences of women who served with the Women’s Land Army. What information can they find? What do they think the women’s lives would have been like?
Agriculture - working the land to produce crops or livestock
Conscription - people being forced by the government to serve in the armed forces
Dissenter - someone who disagrees with the majority