Green Hands by Barbara Whitton – an Imperial War Wartime Classics account of being a Land Girl
Being a Land Girl during the Second World War was not an easy option, and certainly not the clean, picturesque harvesting of the posters. This is a fictionalised memoir of the experiences of Margaret Hazel Watson who wrote under the pen name of Barbara Whitton. This book was first published in 1943 when the War was far from over, and so not celebratory in any sense. It has been republished in the excellent Imperial War Museum Wartime Classics series and made available to a whole new audience.
This is an account of the experience of a Land Girl over a year as she battles with weather, hard back breaking work and uncomfortable lodgings. It also shows her attempting a tricky job and discovering the different tasks connected with harvest. Written with the authentic voice of someone who actually experienced all of the small details of life on the farms as well as the wide range of treatment, Whitton explains how the young women were actually treated as untrained workers and only barely tolerated by some farmers. Indeed two of the girls are greeted by a farmer with the words “Well’, he says in a sort of doleful chant, ‘how do you think you are going to like the land? I doubt if you will last long.” There were eighty thousand women working on the land officially in 1943 after conscription took place, and they were probably subjected to some antagonism as well as gratitude for their efforts. I was really pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this fascinating book.
The book begins with an account of Barbara (called ‘Bee’)and her friend Anne arriving at a Scottish farm called Spital Tongues with a lot of luggage. Asked to share a double and uncomfortable bed is one thing, only having one drawer between them, and depending on candle light is another. Beginning work at six in the morning, they are expected to work until nine without breakfast. It is back breaking work lifting mangolds from the field in freezing sleet, and Anne utters her catch phrase “Any minute now I shall do a roaring pass out”. It is seriously heavy work, and that combined with bad weather and little food makes life difficult. Another girl, Pauline arrives, and the three young women have some adventures together, especially as the son of the house Walter has some designs on Pauline.
Bee and Pauline are then sent to a farm in Northumberland where the work is less challenging but still hard at harvest time. Bee is especially challenged and charmed by her job delivering milk, meeting customers and dealing with calves. There are points of humour and even enjoyment in a job which allows slightly more freedom of movement, even if the work is still hard.
I enjoyed this vivid account of life as a Land Girl at a significant point in history. It is a truthful account of the hard work involved in farming with the minimum of machinery. This is a lively, vivid story of life written with some affection for the people and even the work which must be done. As with other books in the series, this account gives a real voice to people who were there, in all the ups and downs, especially the women. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a first hand account of life on the Home Front, especially women’s experiences, and this is a fascinating book for anyone.
This is the eighth book in this collection that I have read, and I have enjoyed them all. They have been immensely vivid, recalling fictionalised accounts of traumatic and challenging situations, even dangerous times. I have learnt a lot!