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Nostalgia, Gender, and the Countryside: Placing the ‘Land Girl’ in First World War Britain

  • Susan R. Grayzel

In December 1917, an article in the Daily Chronicle, entitled ‘The New Land Lady’, stated that:

One of the good things which may issue from this war is a revival of the old English countryside.

The happy village may be born again.

If this reformation should come, it will be the work of the women.

The nostalgia evident in this call for women's wartime ‘return’ to the land to restore a lost, pastoral idyll during an event more usually associated with modernity raises several questions. What meanings can be attached to the ways in which women agricultural workers were seen as the key to a ‘rural revival’ and thus as crucial to a revitalized nation during the First World War? And what are we to make of the seemingly contradictory appeal to women radically to leave their presumably urban and suburban homes and conservatively to restore the countryside?

As Raymond Williams pointed out, this emblematic English countryside has always been placed in a more ideal past, and the desires to return to or to preserve the allegedly unchanging patterns of land and the lives attached to it are integral to the problem of modernization itself. More recently, Alun Howkins has argued that the ideology and ‘ideal’ of England and Englishness have remained essentially ‘rural,’ and that in 1914 this was the vision of Englishness that ‘went into battle'. However, one might certainly be forgiven for assuming that the creation of the Women's Land Army and the resulting appearance of urban women in trousers, breeches and puttees in villages throughout Britain would herald something more like a ‘transformation’ than a ‘revival’.

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1. ‘The New Land Lady’, Daily Chronicle, 15th December 1917. Women's Work Collection, Imperial War Museum [WWC].

2. Williams, Raymond, The Country and the City (New York, 1973). See also the discussion in the introduction to Maclean, Gerald, Landry, Donna and Ward, Joseph P., eds., The Country and the City Revisited: England and the Politics of Culture, 1550–1850 (Cambridge: 1999).

3. Howkins, Alun, ‘The Discovery of Rural England’ in Englishness: Politics and Culture 1880–1920, eds. Coll, Robert and Dodd, Philip (London, 1986), pp. 6288.

4. The Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, defines ‘home’ or ‘domestic’ as adjectives used to modify the military term ‘front’ or ‘organized sectors of activity’, citing Punch's 1919 History of the Great War. ‘Front’, Oxford English Dictionary, VI, 214. See also the entry for ‘home-fire’, VII, 327.

5. ‘Your Country's Call’, Parliamentary Recruiting Poster, I[mperial] W[ar] M[useum]. See Howkins, , ‘The Discovery of Rural England’, pp. 6263.

6. Schama, Simon, Landscape and Memory (New York, 1995), pp. 1011.

7. For a general histories, see Horn, Pamela, Rural Life in England in the First World War (Dublin, 1984), chapter 6; Twinch, Carol, Women On the Land: Their Story During Two World Wars (Cambridge, 1990). For a recent celebratory study that focuses on the Second World War, see Tyrer, Nicola, They Fought in the Fields: The Women's Land Army, The Story of a Forgotten Victory (London, 1996). Twinch emphasizes that there are no archives for the Women's Army, Land, Women On the Land, p. x, and thus evidence, particularly for the First World War, is not very extensive. The best source remains the Women's Work Collection at the Imperial War Museum. See also the discussion in Ouditt, Sharon, Fighting Forces, Writing Women: Identity and Ideology in the First World War (London, 1994), chapter 2.

8. Horn, , Rural Life in England, 134—136. Quote is from 136.

9. Information in this paragraph comes from Twinch, , Women on the Land, chapter 1 and Horn, , Rural Life in England, chapter 6.

10. Horn notes that not all recruits found the ‘armlet’ appealing, p. 121.

11. Twinch, , Women on the Land, chapter 2. See pp. 34–5 for information on wages and also the poster detailing ‘conditions and terms’ for the Women's Land Army reproduced on p. 17.

12. See the discussion in Horn, , Rural Life in England, chapter 6.

13. Daily News, 10th June 1916. WWC. This attitude towards getting British women to act like French women was also articulated by M.P.A. Hankey, Secretary to the War Cabinet, as discussed in Twinch, , Women on the Land, chapter 1.

14. Wolseley, Viscountess, Women and the Land (London, 1916), pp. 4951.

15. ‘Women as Farm Labourers’, Bristol Times, 8th May 1915. WWC.

16. For examples of these perspectives, see ‘Women's War Work’, The Salisbury Times, 25th February 1916; ‘Women and Farm Labour’, Reading Mercury 8th April 1916; ‘Women and Farm Work’, The Englishwoman, 88 (April 1916); ‘Not Too ‘Well-Brought-Up’ For the Land’, The Englishwoman, 94 (Oct. 1916); ‘The Land Army at Home’, Daily Express, 29th January 1917; and ‘Women's Work in the Country’, Queen, 20th April 1918.

17. ‘Women On the Land’, Evening Standard and St. James Gazette, 8th March 1916. WWC.

18. ‘The Back-to-the-Land Temperament’, Evening Standard, 28th October 1916. WWC.

19. ‘Girls on the Land’, Pall Mall Gazette, 1st June 1918. WWC.

20. Wolseley, , Women and the Land, p. 203.

21. Wolseley, , Women and the Land, p. 14, speaks of ‘the good example of our educated women’.

22. ‘Women On the Land’, Evening Standard, 1st September 1916 and ‘The Women's Land Army at Work’, Daily Chronicle, 16th August 1917, WWC. See also a heated exchange of letters to the Editor in the Oxford Chronicle of May 1917, particularly ‘Women and the Land’, letter to the Editor, Oxford Chronicle, 18th May 1917, after which the Editor stated that ‘We can publish no further letters on this subject’.

23. Land Army Handbook quoted in Horn, , Rural Life in England, p. 125; and also in Ouditt, , Fighting Forces, Writing Women, p. 55.

24. Quoted in ‘Women's Land Army’, Bristol Times and Mirror, 8th February 1918. WWC. See also her comments quoted in The Landswoman (January 1918).

25. This included assuming that they adhered to the double standard and that any hint of sexual misconduct by individual women would taint the reputation of the Women's Land Army as a whole. See the discussion in Horn, , Rural Life in England, pp. 130132.

26. Department of Art, IWM: PR 62–5473.

27. Department of Art, IWM: POS 5997 and IWM: POS 356.

28. Building News, 29th August 1917. WWC.

29. ‘Daintiness and Heroism’, Daily Graphic, 31st November 1917. WWC.

30. ‘The Call of Spring’, Daily Graphic, 2nd April 1918. WWC.

31. Queen, 8th June 1918. WWC.

32. ‘The Walls of Jericho’, Ladies Field, 19th October 1918. WWC.

33. ‘The Land Lasses of England’, Daily Chronicle, 5th April 1918. WWC.

34. Advertisement, Royal Vinolia Cream, The Landswoman, January 1918.

35. Advertisement, Royal Vinolia Talcum Powder, The Landswoman, March 1918.

36. ‘Helpmeet or Toy?’ The Landswoman, June 1918.

37. ‘Concerning our Uniform’, The Landswoman, November 1918.

38. Bennett, Beatrice, ‘Women's Land Army Diary’, [n.d.], p. 36, p. 47, IWM.

39. Hockin, Olive, Two Girls on the Land: War-time on a Dartmoor Farm (London, 1918), pp. 137138, iii, 158. For a different interpretation of this text, see Ouditt, , Fighting Forces, Writing Women, pp. 5964.

40. The Times Literary Supplement, 13th March 1919, p. 138.

41. Ruck, Berta, The Land Girl's Love Story (London, 1918), pp. 12, 149. Ruck's novel is filled with gender role reversals and is also discussed in Ouditt, , Fighting Forces, Writing Women, chapter two.

42. ‘Women Land Army’, Birmingham Post, 30th January 1918. WWC.

43. Reprinted in Mr. Punch's History of the Great War (London, 1919), p. 96.

44. London Opinion, 27th April 1918. WWC.

45. Reprinted in Mr. Punch's History of the Great War, p. 253.

46. ‘Land Army Songs’, The Landswoman, March 1918.

47. ‘Nursery Rhymes for the Next Generation’, The Landswoman, August 1918.

48. ‘What I long to do after the War’, The Landswoman, June 1918.

49. Land 6 1/4, WWC and quoted in Ouditt, , Fighting Forces, Writing Women, p. 55. Note how this song's image of ‘brown’ strong women contrasts with The Landswoman's advertisements discussed above.

50. Harold Begbie, ‘Up, Ladies, Up’, in ‘Women's Land Army’, Department of Art, IWM: POS 355. Begbie was the author of one of the most popular poems of the First World War, called ‘Fall In’. It was first published in the Daily Chronicle in August 1914 and later set to music.

51. ‘The Land Cure’, Daily Express, 20th September 1918. WWC. For a more elaborate discussion of these issues, see Grayzel, Susan R., Women's Identities At War: Gender, Motherhood, and Politics in Britain and France during the First World War (Chapel Hill, 1999), ch. 4.

52. Reynold's Weekly, 2nd December 1917. WWC.

53. ‘Women On the Land’, Western Times, 11th May 1917; ‘Portslade Land Workers’, Sussex Daily News, 5th April 1918. WWC.

54. ‘Women's Land Army’, Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 15th May 1918. WWC.

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Rural History
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  • EISSN: 1474-0656
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