Life as a Land Girl during WW1

Women played a huge role at home during the First World War and it was the first time that many had stepped into roles traditionally held by men. From the Canary Girls in munitions factories to women taking up roles in banking, transport and farming.

Olive Crosswell was in Essex when war broke out in 1914 and decided to sign up for agricultural work. It seemed to her that Lord Kitchener’s now infamous poster was hung up everywhere, and ‘being young’ she felt that he was always pointing at her.

Olive received her training on the farm where she was stationed, and said that the farmer hated her to start with, because she was useless compared to the experienced workers he was used to.

Despite this she was determined to prove her worth.

One of the earliest tasks Olive faced was learning to milk a cow, and rather unfairly she felt, she was given a cow that was running dry. She said that it was such hard work it made her wrists swell right up to her elbows.

Once she was deemed a ‘good milker’ she was allowed to milk the ‘proper cows’ but quickly learnt she had to keep an eye on the animals. Just as Olive proudly filled a large bucket of milk, the cow struck out and sent the contents flying. Another time a cow kicked her so hard she flew out of the cow house door and lay sprawled in the farm yard muck.

© Topfoto.co.uk

The work was exhausting and could take its toll on the women’s bodies.

Olive was suffering from painful boils when it came to her turn to feed the pigs. Feeling unwell Olive went to bed, ignoring the pigs which by 5pm were making a terrible noise. Olive’s overseer entered her room demanding to know what was wrong with the pigs and whether she had fed them or not.

Rather than enquiring after Olive’s well-being the overseer’s objective was the efficient running of the farm and offered her worker no kindness. Olive commented that for the overseer it was all work and nothing else.

Terrified of admitting that she had neglected her duty, Olive said perhaps she had not fed them enough. The overseer’s response was to tear off Olive’s bed covers and insist she went back to the pigs and fed them more.

For some women, agricultural work provided an unexpected education.

Later on in the war, Olive worked for a lady who bred goats. One-day Olive passed a pregnant goat who was lying on the ground heaving in pain. Olive was so alarmed by the animal’s distress that she ran to her employer declaring something was terribly wrong with the goat. Her employer dismissed her for being ridiculous and said the goat was only giving birth.

Olive’s conclusion was that if that was childbirth, she didn’t want to have any children.

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If you're a teacher, why not get children involved in learning about WW1 with our female bus conductor lesson plans for key stage 2?