Womens Land Army
Women's Land Army girls, 1942, Gosford, NSW.
This photo is available on the National Archives of Australia website at naa12.naa.gov.au/scripts/ItemDetail.asp?M=0&B=5598665
Thousands of young women joined the Women's Auxiliary National Service (WANS), more commonly known as the Women's Land Army on the home front during World War 2. They kept farms and food production going and helped to feed both the civilian population and service personnel.
Although the Women's Land Army began in the late 1930s as a volunteer organisation, in 1942 it became a more organised and formal national body. According to Robyn van Dyk, senior curator at the Australian War Memorial, Australia was overcommitted to feeding the Allies - it was a 'bread basket' for Australian, British and US troops. By 1942 the government realised that there could be a food shortage, especially with drought and as farmers increasingly left for war.
As the need to attract women to the Land Army became increasingly critical, the Land Army had to compete with the munitions industry which offered better pay. The Land Army was promoted as a healthy, safe and wholesome lifestyle for the girls - some as young as 16 years of age. Discipline was fairly strict, with matrons watching over the camps.
In an interview on 1 March 2010, Peggy Williams, former Land Army girl and president of the NSW branch of the Australian Women's Land Army, talked about the discipline of the service, the hardships of the drought years during the early 1940s and the the difficulties WLA women have had in being officially recognised for their service - being allowed to march on ANZAC day or to join the Returned Servicemen's League (RSL). She also talks about the hazardous working conditions and the effects of agricultural chemicals on the women's health. (ABC Radio National, Bush Telegraph, 1 March 2010)
The following extracts from a letter written by Judy Finlay about her experiences in the Women's Land Army, 1939-1945, provide insight into the daily lives of women in Land Army.
My Land Army Days
I was a teenager and working in the city for a frock suit manufacturer.
War came and I joined the Women's Australian National Service (WANS) which was a voluntary organization.
After about three months, I decided to transfer to the WANS Land Army section. The girls were needed more and more in various services and as I had a love of the country, I decided this was my calling.
We arrived on 14th April 1942 after a 16 hour journey and were met at the railway station and welcomed by the manager of Leeton Cannery and Matron.
We were each given a white palliasse and told to go to one of the sheds where we would find bales of straw and so make our mattress for the following years. This we did and hauled the filled palliasses back to our allotted rooms where we laid them on the bare stretchers provided (we had to bring our own sheets, pillows and blankets from home) and made up our beds.
My first job was thinning out carrots -miles of them- up and down row after row from 7.30 in the morning until 5 in the evening with 3/4 hour for lunch and 10 minutes for morning tea (provided by the farmer).
Picking peas was a back breaking job. You began the morning bending over then you knelt on one knee, then on two knees, then lying on the ground and dragging the body along tired and aching all over. We had to do this all over again the next day and the next and the next.
The first girls off the bus ran for the baths (the showers were cold water only) so we usually worked in pairs. While one grabbed the bath and sat on it, the other got the sticks for the chip heater. The others then waited in a queue with their little bundle of sticks to keep the fire going.
The farmer pointed out where we were to work and told us that there was a horse wagon (minus the horse) which he wanted loaded. The wagon had mesh sides 6 feet high all around.
We set to and picked all that day and the next which must have been hot for we had rolled up our overalls. During the afternoon, we were terribly thirsty with not a tap in sight but we could see an old water tank in the distance. To get to it, we had to walk through waist high grass and climb a barbed wire fence.
Now snakes come out early in Leeton and I would not go over there. But Gwen's thirst got the better of her, she went across, had a drink and was bringing back a cup for me when she unfortunately caught her crutch on the barbed wire (she had short legs.)
As she could not free herself, I had to go to her assistance just as I got to her she called out 'snake'. It was about 2 foot 6 inches long and wriggled between her legs (one leg either side of the wire.) As the snake wriggled off, I quickly released her and we shot back to the field. That cup of water could still be sitting on that fence post for all we know.
It was late July 1942 when the WANS were taken over by the Government and worked under Manpower. It was realized that the Land Army was an essential service.
'Land Army delays may cause a storm' a leading Country member complained in the House of Representatives on the delay by the Dept of Labour and National Services to complete the plans for the establishment of the Australian Women's Land Army (AWLA)
We did all manner of orchard work - from picking peaches, pears, apples, oranges, cleaning out ditches, pruning 1500 peach trees and driving the furrow plough used to make the furrows for the watering of the trees.
We had to track cut the rice bay wide enough for the header to work without running over the crop. Then Esme worked on the platform of the header while I firstly opened up the bales of bags and branded with the stencil. I would then bring the horse in from the stable, harness him to the flat topped horse wagon, load it up with dry bags I had prepared earlier in the week.
The first day Esme and I started at Baulches, Mr Baulch brought down our morning tea and asked what we liked. I said 'tea' and just mentioned that I liked fruit cake; Esme said 'arrowroot biscuits'. So for the next two years, we had a small slice of fruit cake and two arrowroot biscuits five days a week!!! However, they were marvelous to work for.
Our camp was just one happy family living in the centre of the orchard with the beautiful peach blossom and the scent of the orange blossom. Sitting in the front of the big open fire in the winter time making toast on a long fork and drinking cocoa are among my treasured memories.
At the dairy, the copper had to be lit, the cows brought in and bailed (they all knew their own bails and put their heads into the bins and began to feed). This made it easy to lock their heads in. By the time we had put the separator together, the water was ready to scald the milk buckets. We then put disinfectant into two other buckets kept for washing udders.
If a sheep had to be killed, we had to skin it by punching the pelt off. It was easy while the carcass was warm but when it got cold, it solidified and was twice as difficult to skin. We also had to scald the pig and scrape the bristles off with a shoe-polish lid.
War over but we stayed on until December 1945 when we returned to our homes. Grace and I always remained good friends.
A quote from a friend 'How can one say in a few words, all the work we did, the conditions we faced of the changes we made to our lives? 'friendships and shared memories last forever'.
(Extracts courtesy Gooloogong Historical Society)
Buckley, Martin J. We Also Served: Recollections of Far North Coast Women Who in World War II were members of the Australian Army Medical Women’s Service, the Australian Army Nursing Service, the Australian Women’s Army Service, the Australian Women’s Land Army, Lismore NSW, c1995.
Hardisty, Sue (ed). Thanks Girls and Goodbye!: The Story of the Australian Women’s Land Army 1942-45, Viking O’Neil, Ringwood, Vic, 1990.
Macklin, Mary. The Fourth Service: Ex Women's Land Army, World War II, Maryborough, Qld, 2001.
Scott, Jean Girls with Grit: Memories of the Australian Women’s Land Army, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1995.
ABC Radio National's Bush Telegraph program featured the WLA on 1 March.
You can listen to it as a podcast on ABC's website.
Australian War Memorial encyclopedia, Australian Women's Land Army, a short overview of the WANS, http://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/homefront/land_army.asp
A search of the War Memorial's collections retrieves a wealth of material about the Women's Land Army, including an extensive collection of images of women's daily lives, http://www.awm.gov.au/search/collections/?q=Australian+Women's+Land+Army
The War Memorial website also has images of the WANS uniform:
- the summer dress (http://cas.awm.gov.au/heraldry/REL/00164)
- the working shirt (http://cas.awm.gov.au/heraldry/REL/00166)
- working overalls (http://cas.awm.gov.au/heraldry/REL/00167)
- winter dress shirt (http://cas.awm.gov.au/heraldry/REL/00169)
The National Library of Australia's Trove service also has a wealth of information about the WANS, including books, newspaper articles, images, posters, oral histories, archives and more, http://trove.nla.gov.au/result?q="women's+land+army"&l-australian=y
See also resources on the Home Front
Australian War Memorial, article with related resources, http://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/homefront/index.asp
This image appears in WHM 2010: Demeter's Daughters