Adam Henson: Farmers at war
- Credit: Archant
The harvest 100 years ago saw the start of massive social change
Harvest time in the Cotswolds is full of noise and activity with farm workers in the fields from first light until late in to the night. There’s never any time to sit and think about very much except the job of bringing in the crops. But this year has been different. Even the most hard-pressed staff have had good reason to pause for a short while. That’s because 100 years ago, as our forefathers were themselves harvesting on these famous hills, Britain was sending its first soldiers in to action in World War One. From Chipping Norton to Chipping Sodbury, the recent centenary commemorations have been moving and thought provoking. Services to mark the anniversary have made all of us consider the way that Cotswold farmers and their families responded to the crisis.
The war started with serious concerns that there would be food shortages. At the time we were far from self-sufficient and in the years leading up to 1914 around 60 per cent of Britain’s food came from overseas. So when war broke out there was a real fear of starvation here. The response of farmers and the Government of the day was swift and agriculture actually went through a boom during World War One.
There was massive social change too. For many people it was the first time they had seen women working in the fields and woodlands of the Cotswolds. With so many men going off to war, their jobs were taken on by their wives and daughters. Then in 1917 the Women’s Land Army was created and soon more than a quarter of a million women were working as farm labourers. There’s a fascinating film in the Imperial War Museum archives of a recruiting march for the Oxfordshire Land Girls. The flickering black and white footage shows hundreds of people rallying in St Giles before a procession of flag-waving volunteers and hay wagons makes its way along Cornmarket and Broad Street.
I’m really impressed by the way the wartime anniversary is being marked with a series of local exhibitions and events. The Royal Agricultural University at Cirencester has a very poignant display in the chapel foyer telling the story of the staff, students and governors who went to war and never returned. The College was closed from 1915 until 1922 and like so many large buildings and country houses in the Cotswolds, it was used to re-house a school from the south east of England. Just a mile away at the Corinium Museum, an exhibition of objects and mementos tells the story of how this rural market town was affected by the shattering events of World War One. The National Trust has also been tracking down interesting artefacts for its display at Newark Park in the countryside near Wotton-under-Edge. The building was used by the Red Cross as an overspill convalescence hospital for wounded soldiers. Then a whole array of stories about Cotswold people and places was uncovered at the BBC ‘World War One at Home’ tour in Gloucester. Visitors made their own ID permits, tried their luck as war reporters and searched their families’ war connections with help from experts. But the event also explained the little-known history of the agricultural workers who appealed against conscription. They believed that they shouldn’t take up arms because farming was essential war work. Nevertheless they were forced to attend local tribunals to plead their case to stay at home. The team from the Gloucestershire Archives has uncovered rare documents from the period revealing what happened to the local farm workers involved. All in all it’s a touching reminder that we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the 1914-1918 generation at home and abroad.
This article by Adam Henson is from the October 2014 issue of Cotswold Life.
For more from Adam, follow him on Twitter: @AdamHenson
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