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Women at war: remembered at last

PETER FROST has been to Staffordshire to pay a belated tribute to some real war heroes

AT last, a century after World War I and more than 70 years after the start of World War II, our supposedly grateful nation has finally erected a fitting memorial and tribute to honour the many heroic young women who served in the Women’s Land Army and the Women’s Timber Corps.

The two related organisations existed in both wars but the eight foot bronze statue unveiled last month at the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, Staffordshire, shows a Land Army Girl and a Lumber Jill from the home front of WWII.

Governments since the war have done little or nothing to pay tribute to these key women workers who fed the nation during the two wars.

Belatedly in 2008 a Defra badge of honour — not the medal they certainly deserved — was awarded to over 45,000 former Land Girls.

It has taken three years of hard political campaigning and an £85,000 public fundraising effort to bring the present memorial created by sculptor Denise Dutton to fruition.

The Women’s Land Army (WLA) was created to carry out work in agriculture, with women replacing the thousands of male farm workers who had gone off to fight.

The Board of Agriculture organised the Land Army during World War I, starting activities in 1915. By the end of 1917 there were over a quarter of a million women working on British farms.

Many traditional farmers opposed this female agricultural labour force. When peace came the women were sent home and men returned to work the land.

Then again in the 1930s, with the second world war looming, the government needed to increase the amount of food grown within Britain. It relaunched the Women’s Land Army in June 1939.

The majority of the Land Girls already lived in the country but more than a third came from London and the industrial cities of northern England.

By 1944 the Women’s Land Army had over 80,000 members. It lasted until October 1949.

Now, 65 years on, those brave women who ploughed and sowed, reaped and mowed in the British countryside have their long-deserved and fitting memorial to their dedication and service.

The Lumber Jills

THE Women’s Timber Corps worked in the forestry industry. Its members were often known as Lumber Jills.

They did all kinds of heavy logging, producing everything from pit props to telegraph poles.

The women trained to use axes, billhooks, primitive power saws and heavy horse transport to cut massive trees and transport them to the saw mills for processing. Timber was a vital material in all aspects of the war.

A little better north of the border

SCOTLAND was just a little bit quicker than England in erecting a memorial to the heroes of the Women’s Land Army and the Women’s Timber Corps.

The Scottish memorial, designed by Yorkshire artist Peter Naylor, and erected in 2012, is sited on reclaimed farmland near Fochabers.
The metal sculpture features a group of smiling young Land Girls sitting on a farm gate and waving. The memorial overlooks the spectacular Moray coast.

Idle Women, on the canals

THEY wore a badge with the initials IW. Insulting towpath jokers said that it stood for Idle Women.

In fact it simply identified them as working on the Inland Waterways.

The brave young women who had volunteered to replace so many canal boatmen who had gone off to war took the insult and turned it into a badge of pride. They were proud to use the term Idle Women.

In 1942 an advertisement appeared in the national press from the Department for War Transport.

It asked for female volunteers to work on the waterways and replace the many traditional canal boatmen who had marched off to war.
No boating experience was needed, but young women who applied, the advert demanded, should be of robust constitution. They certainly were.

After just six weeks’ training, these young women found themselves operating the pairs of narrow boats — a powered motorboat towing an unpowered butty.

Each boat measured 70 foot long by just seven feet wide to fit the unique narrow locks of the English canal system.

Each pair of boats carried up to 50 tons of essential supplies, often dangerous munitions, along the nation’s waterway arteries.

Some routes ran between London’s docks and the factory wharfs of the industrial Midlands.

The return cargo would usually be coal loaded, often by the women themselves, from the Warwickshire canalside pits for delivery to the capital.

A team of three of these far from Idle Women would work each pair of boats, often for 18 to 20 hours a day. They lived on board in tiny cramped cabins.

After a hard-working round trip of some three weeks, they had the option of a week’s unpaid leave.

More than 60 years after the end of the war, in 2008, and just like their Women’s Land Army comrades, after much campaigning and private fundraising, a plaque dedicated to the Idle Women was finally unveiled beside the Grand Union Canal next to the National Waterways Museum at Stoke Bruerne, Northamptonshire.

A far better tribute is found in some of the wonderful books these women left as their own memorial of the part they played in winning the war.

Try Maidens’ Trip by Emma Smith, Idle Women by Susan Woolfitt or The Amateur Boatwomen by Eily Gayford — all are still in print.


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