The heavy winds and rain didn’t stop over 2,000 people from gathering in Staffordshire yesterday, to witness The Countess of Wessex unveil a statue in honour of the Women’s Land Army at the National Memorial Arboretum.
And why should it? The members of the Women’s Land Army, popularly known as the Land Girls have endured hardships that were more physically tiring and strenuous to help keep the country afloat during the World Wars. As the late Queen Mother put it, “They have obeyed the call of duty in the nation’s hour of need and Britain owes them an everlasting debt.”
The Women’s Land Army was formed in 1915, when compulsory enlistment in the army resulted in a shortage of labourers to work on the farms at home. To keep up the production of food, women began to work on the farms. By the end of the war, nearly a quarter of a million women were sowing and harvesting crops to reduce the country’s need for imports. During the Second World War, the Land Girls produced 70 percent of Britain’s food. They disbanded in 1946, after the end of the war.
More than 300 former Land Girls were present in the crowd, the oldest of which was a 101 year-old, who came from Yorkshire. Around 16,000 of the Land Girls who lent their support to the war effort are still alive today. In addition to honouring the 90,000 members of the Women’s Land Army, the memorial serves as a tribute to the members of the Women’s Timber Corps, known as Lumber Jills, who worked in the nation’s forests during the war, generating wood for railway sleepers and barricades.
The bronze sculpture depicts a Land Girl, holding a pitchfork in one hand, linking arms with a Lumber Jill. The statue cost £85,000 to build, and the money for which was raised by the Staffordshire Women’s Food and Farming Union after three years of campaigning. It stands at a height of 8 feet, and was constructed by Denise Dutton. The Girls stand opposite a statue of the Bevin Boys, which was erected last year to honour the young men who worked in coal mines.
Julie Scott, the Women’s Land Army tribute project co-coordinator, said that they were pleased that the Countess had agreed to attend the unveiling. She said: “It has been a privilege to fund raise for this memorial. The Land Girls and Lumber Jills were, and still are, an inspiration to us all. So many people have agreed with us and have been a great support for which we are genuinely grateful.”
In fact, the Land Girls were so important to the country’s war effort, that in 2011, the Arboretum received hundreds of letters asking why there wasn’t a Land Girls’ memorial. The curator approached Eunice Finney of the Staffordshire Women’s Food and Farming Union, who said: “Without the WLA we’d never have fed the nation during the war years. They changed the face of British agriculture single-handedly – before the war we were importing most of our food.”
After official unveiling the statue, Sophie chatted with the the former Land Girls, who were part of the gathered crowd. Among them was 84 year-old Mary Wright, who became a Land Girl at the age of just 17. “It was very physically demanding, but you were doing something for the country,” she said about her role in the war. “They needed women on the farms because there weren’t enough labourers to do the work.”
Another member of the Women’s Land Association who turned out for the occasion was June Rose Williams of Wednesfield, a Land Girl in Herefordshire, back in the day. “We used to go about 8am and come back about 4ish. I was only about seven stone. It was hard work and we did all kinds of jobs,” she quipped. “It is nice to be remembered at last. It seems funny to say we did our bit, but it was a good life. I am proud to be part of the occasion.”