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First World War: Countryside at War

Historic England is working with partners, especially at local level, to document, the role of the countryside during the war.

Patriotism, the lure of adventure, better wages and the lack of governmental restrictions all meant that many skilled farm workers left the land to join up in the first months of the war. Soon it became clear there was a manpower shortage, and equally that the country needed to grow more food rather than rely - as it had for years - on imports, especially from America and Canada. Timber, too, was in short supply. After the Germans introduced unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 - attacking merchantmen at will - the country faced starvation, and losing the war. Drastic measures were necessary

Few traces of the response to this crisis remain visible today. Photographs are one way we can see what happened as land was ploughed up, tractors became commonplace, and women joined the agricultural labour force via the Women's Land Army. Parks, too, were ploughed up or became army camps.

Poster ‘Men for Hay Harvest’  Private Collection
Poster ‘Men for Hay Harvest’ (Private Collection). As early as June 1915 the Army Council agreed that furlough - leave of absence - should be given to a limited number of men to work on the harvest, and that no further skilled men would, for the time being, be recruited.

Furlough arrangements were made in the war. In 1916, ploughmen were released from the forces to help with the spring cultivation, farmers were allowed to hire horses from military camps, and more men were sent to help with the harvest.

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Countryside at War

Please click on the gallery images to enlarge.

  • Baling straw, near Hodnet, Shropshire, 1917 As more and more horses were requisitioned by the army, so its demand for hay and straw grew. For efficient transportation, these bulky crops had to be baled on the farms and numbers of balers, like the Ruston example pictured powered by a traction engine and manned by a mix of army and civilian personnel, were bought by the War Department.
  • Forestry work, Bucknell, Shropshire, about 1917 Forestry was an area where women played an important part in the latter stages of the war and a Women’s Forestry Corps, separate from the women’s Land Army, was established. The organisations favoured women ‘of a better sort’, ‘sufficiently high in character
  • Harper Adams Agricultural College, Shropshire, tractors about 1917 The disruption of food imports in the war and the exodus of working horses to assist the army on the Western Front meant that agricultural production at home had to increase. This gave the tractor - mostly American-produced machines - the first chance to prove itself on British soil. Tractor driving was very much a female occupation in the war. The Land Army women pictured had been brought to the college to learn driving skills and basic maintenance from the male instructors standing on the right.