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October 2017

This month's Document of the Month is chosen by the Archivist, Gillian Bardsley. During the Second World War, British manufacturers of all types stopped their regular production and turned their facilities over to the war effort. The motor industry was no exception and Britain's car factories produced an astonishing range of products and mechanical parts – tanks, ambulances, field cars, aeroplanes, gliders, tin hats, jerry cans, machine guns – all left their assembly lines on the way to the battlefields of the world. Today, there is much interest in this period of British history, but the spotlight is generally on the theatre of war. Less attention is paid to activities on the Home Front, except perhaps to laugh at the perceived incompetence of the Home Guard. The atmosphere of the time was, however, very different. By 1944 Britain and its allies seemed to have turned a corner and a hard-won victory was within reach. That year, the motor industry published a series of magazine advertisements to raise awareness of their contribution, and also perhaps to remind people that they were still there after five years when civilians had no hope of getting their hands on a motor car unless they had an exceptionally good reason.

Why this document?

This advert is part of a series of 'The Motor Industry, Production for Victory' posters from 1944, each featuring a different product such as guns, tanks, a glider and a Mosquito aeroplane. I like this one, however, because it isn’t about a weapon or war machine. Instead, it shows a tractor being driven by a 'Land Girl' and its theme is the essential activity of food production. By the end of the war, shortages of all kinds were becoming acute and food rationing was no exception. 'My own particular battle-ground is all the length and breadth of Britain’s fertile land' the caption reads, explaining how feeding the nation is as important as fighting U-boats.

At the beginning of the war, the Government relied on calling up reservists and recruiting volunteers to all branches of the armed forces, but it quickly became clear that conscription would be needed to fight a war on this scale. At first all men aged 20 and 21 were called up but by 1941 the age range had been extended to those between the ages of 18 and 41. Even this was not enough and in December 1941 the government passed the National Service Act which allowed the conscription of women into various types of war work. One option was the women’s auxiliary branches of the armed forces - the WRNS (navy) the ATS (army) and the WAAF (air force).

There were civilian options too, including the Women's Land Army (WLA). The origins of this organisation went back to the First World War when there was a similar need to replace men who had been called up to fight. They became known as Land Girls, and although many already lived in the countryside more than a third came from London and other cities all over Britain. It was not just a question of replacing absent agricultural workers. As food shortages began to hurt it was essential to increase the amount of food produced by reclaiming pasture and any unused land for growing crops. The poster tells us that 'In this fifth year of war, I'm proud to say that 17 million acres of Britain's green and pleasant land have now been ploughed'. By 1944 there were more than 80,000 Land Girls on Britain’s farms. Female conscription ended in 1945 whereas it continued for men until 1960, but volunteers continued to serve in the WLA until its official disbandment on 21 October 1949. Food rationing was not completely abolished until 1954.

Interestingly, in the poster, the voice which is addressing the audience is not that of the Land Girl, but of the tractor, and it ends with a promise that when the war is over: 'Britain's sons in Britain's motor industry will go on making me for Britons working the land'. A companion poster in the series makes the message even clearer: 'When Mr Hitler has been licked and the boys who licked him return to civil life, the motor industry will put many of them into the good jobs they deserve'. So although manufacturing and agriculture had been kept going for five years by the country's women, it was clear they would be expected to step aside when the husbands and brothers who had been conscripted into every branch of the armed forces were demobbed and came home. Many women did give up their jobs and return to the role of 'housewife', but a significant number did not. The election of a Labour Government led by Clement Attlee in July 1945 marked a drastic change in the social order and there was no going back to the status quo of the 1930s.