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Womens Land Army
from:LondonI found this amongst some papers given to me by Margaret White (maiden name unknown) now deceased.
Life in the Land Army
It was 1943, in the middle of the war years. I was 19 at the time and working in a London office and bombing raids were an everyday occurrence. We spent many nights in our air-raid shelter which was just outside in the back garden. It was cold and miserable in there and we were always glad when morning came and we could go back indoors. Sometimes there was damage to clear up as often the windows had been blown out with the bomb blast. We were all weary with lack of sleep and then there was the problem of getting to work on time. The buses and trains were either late or not running at all. So everything seemed chaotic and grim.
In our office the younger men were being called up to join the forces and the young girls were either getting married or volunteering for the services. I began to think that I would like a change too, so at 19, completely ignorant of what life in the country would be like I volunteered for the Women’s Land Army. This I thought would be fun.
They decide to send me to Pembrokeshire in Wales. It was one of the loneliest places and much too far away for any trips home. So off I went with my brand new uniform and some strong boots. My heart sank when I arrived at this very lonely farmhouse. It was like going back a century in time and the whole place seemed lonely and neglected.
The farmer and his wife weren’t particularly pleased to see me, but as it was becoming impossible to get local labours I suppose I was the next best thing. They spoke to each other in Welsh so I wasn’t included in any conversation and I retired early to bed with a sense of foreboding. The morning came and I listened to the rain beating on the windows. Lying in the estrange bed I looked around the room which was to be my home for some time to come. It was cold and uninviting, there was just an old brown wardrobe in the corner with my case containing my belongings. On a small table was a jug and basin for washing. I felt sad and lonely, but knew there was no going back.
The rain continued running in riverlets down the window. I pulled the coverlet up around my ears and turned over in my bed. At 6 o’clock there came a knock at the door “Time to get up Maggie” said the farmer’s wife also called Margaret. It was decided the previous night that I would be called Maggie as there couldn’t be two people called Margaret on the farm. I can’t think why as the farmer never called his wife anything but “Mrs” all the time I was there.
Feeling nervous and ill at ease I quickly dressed in my overalls and taking my mackintosh and gum boots went down stairs to start the day. The farmer was putting in his boots by the kitchen range “Morning” he said, taking his cap off the hook by the door he strode into the rain and I hurried after him. We made our way over the uneven ground to the cowsheds, my mackintosh flapped against my legs and the new gumboots squelched through the muddy puddles. Reaching the shelter of the cow-shed I paused for a moment to take in the scene. Two oil lamps were hanging high on the roof casting shadows on everything below. The smell of the oil was mingled with the sweat of the cows as they stood waiting in the stalls. One or two of them looked round with mild curiosity as we arrived.
I watched carefully as the farmer sat down on his three legged stool and started to milk the first cow. How on earth was I going to do the same? The bucket stood firm between his knees and the milk squirted steadily down into the pan. “Ping, ping, ping” it continued with regular precision, a layer of white foam collected on the surface.
Then it was my turn and I sat down gingerly under the cow. After fixing the bucket between my knees I put my head down and prepared for action. Nothing happened! I pulled and squeezed but nothing came forth. The hot brown body fidgeted in the stall and a tail swished around my face. My nervousness increased, realising this the cow moved sideways and the bucket fell to the ground. I shifted position and tried again. I pulled and squeezed and this time my prayers were answered and a faint trickle slid down the side of the bucket. My fingers ached intolerably as I grew hot and uncomfortable. Determined to do better with my second cow I kept repeating to myself “squeeze and pull” very slowly the bucket filled. Time dragged on and I started the third cow. I don’t think she liked me as her tail lashed out and hit me across the face like a whiplash.
By now was daylight creeping in and I noticed another figure moving about the shed. I learnt later this was Arthur, a real country bumpkin and a bit in the simple side. He gave me a grin as I tipped the contents of my bucket into the milk churn. I was beginning to feel decidedly hungry by now and after untying all the cows and sending them into the yard, I was told it was time for breakfast. Off came the gumboots and wet mac and I went expectantly into the kitchen.
The table was laid for four people and each plate lay two slices of very fatty cold bacon. My heart sank; it would have sunk even lower had I known it would always be the same. On the ceiling over the range, strung across with ropes to keep them in position were two sides of bacon. The smoke from the range had made them black and dusty. Yes, the mainstay of our diet was hanging aloft.
The Mrs was a tall angular woman who seldom smiled. She asked how I had got on with the milking, “not too bad for a first attempt” I replied. She turned to her husband and they conversed in Welsh, I was embarrassed that they were talking about me. Arthur sat opposite me smiling vaguely throughout the meal. The meals never varied, it was bacon, bacon and still more bacon.
After breakfast the mats had to be taken outside, hung over the garden wall and beaten with a stick. I thought of our ‘Hoover’ vacuum cleaner at home as the clouds of dust swirled around. As I went back inside there were a bucket of water and a brush waiting for me to scrub the floor. The hot water was soothing to my hands which were aching from trying to milk the cows. On the range there was a pan of bacon broth which we had for lunch, bread and butter and a cup of tea followed and that was it. It seems incredible to me that the meals never varied in all the time I was there. I was beginning to feel depressed; it was all such a contrast to the comfortable home I had left.
I was then told to tidy my bedroom with a blessed hour of freedom. As the rain had stopped, I threw up the window and looked out at my new surroundings. The farm was situated near the road with a cobbled yard stretching behind where the chickens scratched about for food. The was a large pile of cows manure in the corner which smelled abdominally. Two small farm cottages were down the road, but apart from these no other houses could be seen.
It was brighter now the rain had stopped; as soon as I went back downstairs things did not seem quite so bad. The next job was to clean out the chicken houses. There were a couple of broody hens who let out a shriek of protest when I disturbed them. Their wings flapped and I lost all confidence quickly jumping out and slamming the door. I think some of the fleas jumped out with me as I felt distinctly itchy for the rest of the day.
Milking time came round again and I persevered with the squeezing and pulling. By the time I had finished my hands ached intolerably, but I had the satisfaction of knowing that the milk was flowing more easily. The cloths used to wipe the cows were hung out to dry, the chains removed from the necks of the cows and they were sent out into the yard. I had a stiff broom and shovel to clear the gutters, load it onto a wheelbarrow and trundle it outside to be emptied on to the muck heap. The milk churns had to be taken up to the crossroads to be collected by the milk lorry, so we rolled them on their rims across the yard and up the road.
It was warmer now and I noticed all the pleasant smells of the country after the recent rain. We went back in for tea, I told myself there couldn’t possibly be bacon again, but I was wrong. On each plate were two slices of bacon and the usual bread and butter and tea. In the months that followed I often longed for fruit and vegetables or anything to break the monotony, but they were set in their ways and things were never any different.
Not everything was against me, the summer continued with many warm and sunny days. Out in all weathers my skin became very brown and I gained weight at an alarming rate.
Washday proved to be quite an eye opener. The old wooden tub in the yard was lifted onto an old table. We then sorted the dirty clothes; it was quite amazing to discover what the others wore underneath. Poor Arthur had just one proper shirt for Sundays, the rest of the week he wore sacks which had holes cut for arms and neck. We poured several kettles of boiling water into the tub and filled it with cold water from the nearby pump. I was allowed to wash my things first while the water was a good colour. There was no soap powder just two bars of yellow soap and a rubbing board, I felt I was living in Victorian times as we rubbed and scrubbed. The water was dirty long before we had finished but we carried on until the last sock had been done. It wasn’t a pleasant job but we were out in the sunshine. After a final rinse with pump water everything was taken to the garden and laid on the grass to dry.
At the far end of the garden was the ‘loo’. It took five or six minutes to reach it from the house so it was always best not to leave things until the last moment. The thought of our bathroom at home filled me with nostalgia.
The days grew long and warmer; it was a gorgeous summer so I made the best of things. Soon it was time to hoe the cabbage field and the farmer and I set off with a bottle of cold tea and a cheese sandwich in our pockets. We went over the yard to the next field where the cabbages were growing in straight rows up and over the hills as far as the eye could see. I worked slowly up and down each line cutting away at the weeds, how my back ached in that stooping position.
As the day wore on I grew hot and tired and longed to stretch out on the grass verge. I rolled my dungarees up to my knees which felt cooler for a time. To cheer myself up I started to whistle my favourite tunes. The farmer took a dim view of this and reminded me of an old saying. “A whistling woman and a crowing hen is neither good to God nor man”. I was sure God did not mind as it helped my day along.
The hours dragged with a short break for refreshments under the trees. Then I was told to carry on, on my own, until it was milking time. This gave me a little freedom and I gave myself a rest whenever I wanted. It was lovely to kick off my boots and lie on the soft grass and daydream for a while. It took most of the week to clear the field and by the time I had finished the bend in my back seemed permanent. There was nothing to do in the evenings when the work was done. We continued working until dusk then I sat swinging on the front gate, hoping something would happen, but it never did.
There were two cart horses on the farm and together they made a splendid team. The farmer told me I was to learn to plough, so we set off to a field not far away. The horses were harnessed together with the plough between them; I watched the farmer guided them up and down the rows. Then it was my turn to take over, taking the plough handles and reigns I set off. Up and down we went with the horses straining my arms to their limit. Turning each corner then back down the straight again where I could relax a little while the horses led the way. Their muscles rippled as they strode ahead with their long black tails swishing from side to side. I was left alone to finish the field so I took my time and sang aloud all the good old songs.
Some days I spent muck spreading usually alone in a field with a few cart loads of manure tipped here and there. The idea was to fork it and scatter it evenly all over the field. A nice leisurely job, but rather lonely. While I was doing this I heard a van driving down the road behind me. Suddenly there were loud shouts from the driver and his companions. Two land girls jumped out of the van and came to where I was working in the field. They were rat catchers and how I envied them as their day started at 8 o’clock and finished at 5 o’clock. They went round the farms leaving bits of bait in the rat holes and returned the next day to pick up the bodies. It seemed an easy job with plenty of time to spare for fun. We all stretched out in the sun for a break and swopped stories of our experiences. They had a good laugh when I told them that Arthur wore sacks instead of shirts and they refused to believe I had bacon for three meals a day.
The small dairy in the yard was where the farmer’s wife made the butter for the market. It was all sent away except for one small packet which was kept in an outside food safe under lock and key. I longed to taste the cream from the dairy. One day when I knew everyone was out I took a cupful from the nearest churn, it slipped down a treat. It is still a delicious memory even after all these years.
On Sundays I was expected to attend church with the rest of the family. The farmer believed that his crops would die if any of us failed to go. We took up one pew near the front. The Mrs wore a long black coat, mauve hat, black shoes and stockings, all very proper. The farmer wore his best breeches, well polished boots and a check cap. When he removed the cap I was fascinated to see his white bald head against the brown of his complexion. Arthur looked uncomfortable wearing a suit and his boots creaked each time we knelt to pray. We sang all sang the hymns with gusto!
Sometimes the work needed all my concentration as it did when we spent the day at the sheep wash. After milking time we loaded the sheep onto the hired lorry and set off to the sheep dip some five miles away. They were put into a large pen where they were checked for maggots. Something quite strong was rubbed into the bald patches to remove them. I was glad when this part of the job was done. There was such a noise and commotion and they were dashing about all over the place. One by one they went through a corridor to a small pool of blue water. This had a very unpleasant smell of disinfectant. Here they floundered about until they found the shallow end, where they bolted up the side of the bank to join the rest.
Soon it was time for haymaking to begin. This seemed to be one of the big events of the year and the work on each farm was shared by all the neighbours. The hay was cut and left to dry in the sun and then turned by hand with a long fork. Of course when it rained it had to be dried all over again. When it was finally judged to be just right, it was built into a hay rick. I enjoyed being in the sun all day long inspite of the permanent back ache.
News came one day have you heard, have you heard? Everyone was saying. There’s any army of Grenadier Guards coming here” how interesting I thought – that should make life much more fun. They came with their jeeps and lorries dashing along the quiet lanes, laughing and singing as they went. They were stationed two miles away.
I found I had to allow more time when I fetched the cows for milking. There were 25 cows and one bull; it used to be a simple matter keeping them in a tidy group as they ambled along to the farm. This all changed when the Guardsmen were about. As they drew near in their lorries they would sound their horns and drive through the centre of the animals scattering them to the left and right. Sometimes I would just get them back together and the same thing would happen again but in the opposite direction. It made us all laugh and found the days passed more quickly with these mild distractions.
Swinging on the gate in the evenings was different now. Small groups of Guardsmen would be out strolling and we would pass an hour or two chatting to each other. I was pleased to meet their chief cook; I used to meet him at the corner where he would hand over cakes and other delicacies from the kitchen.
Dances were started at the village hall and this gave me something to look forward to each Saturday night. After an afternoon with dozens of pipe cleaners to frizz my hair into lots of curls, I would set off in my best uniform to dance the light fantastic. All those lovely old tunes – I remember them still. I sometimes wondered if the smell of cows was still about me, but hoped the carbolic soap would counteract it.
Suddenly one day came the news that I had been granted compassionate leave as my mother was ill at home. It was a relief to know that I would not have to return. The work had been hard and the hours long. It was an experience I would never forget.
Sometime later I was sent to a farm at Dunton Green in Kent where I spent a happy two years. With the good company of another Land Army girl and all modern equipment, a contrast to all that I had experienced before.
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