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The War Years (1939-1945)

In July 1938, in a speech to farmers at Kettering, Neville Chamberlain said there was "no need to encourage the greatest output of food at home because ample supplies would continue from overseas in the event of war." Secretly, however, as early as 1933, plans had already been made to control prices, wages and profits in the event of a major war. The government was building on experiences gained in the second half of the Great War, and their aims were two-fold: to increase the fertility of the land by maintaining livestock production and planning to plough up grassland immediately war was declared, so that the supply of human and animal foodstuffs could be increased very rapidly. It was also proposed that War Emergency Committees be set up to oversee wartime needs. Local people had been selected to run these committees, though they were not aware of it at the time.

In 1936, therefore grants had become available for drainage and subsidies were introduced for fertiliser and this led in the war years to a doubling of the quantity of potash and phosphate applied to the fields. A wheat subsidy which was already in place had been extended to barley and oats. By 1939, there was also a payment of £2 an acre for every acre ploughed up between May and September 1939. The aim was to have two million acres of grassland ploughed in time for the 1940 harvest.

Key occupations were to be reserved so there was an adequate labour force and preparations were in place to recruit for the Women’s Land Army, which had been an important force even in the First World War. Lady Denman, whom we have met in her guise as organiser of the WI, was put in charge of organising and recruiting for the WLA and this she went about with her usual ferocious tenacity. She was convinced of the importance of her work, as during the First World War the country had had only three weeks’ supply of food left when the harvest failed in 1917. She was determined this would not happen if she could help it. "The Land Army fights in the fields. It is in the fields of Britain that the most critical battle of the war may well be fought and won," she declared in 1939. The WLA was formed on 1st June 1939 and two groups of land girls were trained and ready for work by the time war was declared in September 1939.


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