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Deep stirrings from the past: land girls remembered

Friday 01 February 2008

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, unable to fish or garden in terrible weather, indulges in a dose of stirring nostalgia brought upon by the Government's belated decision to remember the value of the work done by 80,000 land girls in World War 11.

FORGIVE me, dear reader, if for once I forsake the politics of the countryside, the threats to our wildlife, the incompetence of the Government when it comes to rural issues, and this awful winter's weather which means I cannot fish (the rivers are still too swollen) or garden (my allotment is still a swamp).

Instead, permit me to indulge in a spell of nostalgia which this week stirred ancient memories of a time many years ago, stirrings that, as a young boy, I did not understand. Oh, the long-lost joys of innocence.

Land army recruiting poster
Land army recruiting poster

All this was brought on this week when the Government started handing out - sixty years too late - medals to the survivors of the 80,000 girls and young women who served in the Women's Land Army and its associated forestry branch in World War 11 (See News, Monday).

These lasses did sterling work in keeping this nation fed whist the men were away at war and were still working the farms for several years after hostilities ceased in 1945. I report this from memory, rather than research, because I was only six when Germany and Japan surrendered and surely that is too young for a lad to fall in love?

I remember her well, coming down the path from the parish church towards the kissing gate where I was loitering with intent with a few other urchins. I remember in details her khaki jodhpurs and her thick green sweater, just like the poster we reproduce here. And - turn away those of a weak disposition - I was quite fascinated by the curves under that sensible sweater and at the back of those somewhat shiny pants.

This, you see, was a land girl and she was quite different to most other girls we knew. Most of we lads had skinny sisters and pretty skinny mothers, for it had been a long war and food was still rationed. We were fit - in fact, the British diet under wartime rationing was probably the healthiest in our history - but there was nary an ounce of fat to be seen. If the word obesity existed, no-one I knew had ever heard it.

"Evening boys," said this vision as she pushed through the kissing gate as our ranks parted like the Red Sea to let her pass. "Isn't it time you went home for tea? Your mothers will be worried."

Our eyes followed her until she climbed the stile into the next field. Sixty years later, I can still see that ripe shape silhouetted against the evening sky. I can still hear the voice, too, in her accent which we all described as "posh" or "snobbish" but which I now realise was probably London or one of the more prosperous Home Counties.

And that rather sums of the WLA - the Women's Land Army. These young women came from all over Britain, were rich or poor, educated or ignorant, stylish or scruffy, but whatever their background they had volunteered in their tens of thousands for a life of sheer drudgery a long way from home.

These young women came from all over Britain, were rich or poor, educated or ignorant, stylish or scruffy

There were few boyfriends to meet: in our area, virtually the only males working on the farms were mainly Italian prisoners-of-war with a scattering of German PoWs mixed in, and a relationship with one of them would have been the subject of scandalous gossip. Their accommodation was often in barren farmhouses, not a few without electricity or running water. And the work went on from dawn to dusk, seven days a week with possibly a break for church on Sunday.

They did however have one advantage, if I remember it correctly. They were well fed on country staples like rabbit and pigeon, fresh veg from the farm or cottage garden, and a regular supply of eggs - an undreamed of luxury for townies living on dried egg powder shipped in from Canada.

But they deserved their food: they couldn't have worked that hard without it. And it was that food, plus hard physical exercise and fresh country air that gave my dream land girl that well filled uniform. I can still feel the stirrings now ...even though I had no idea at all what they were about then. Ignorance, they say, is bliss. I wonder if country childhood still holds such mystery?

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