Words by Rachael Rickard
The Land Girls
The Land Girls are one of New Zealand’s unsung war heroes. With the service established to meet the shortage of male labour caused by their enlistment in the forces during World War II, there were nearly 4,000 women who came from rural and urban upbringings, working the land and managing farms throughout New Zealand as part of the war effort.
Women’s Land Army
By 1917, as war became more entrenched across Europe, efforts required to support it were mounting. In Britain, to help sustain the effort, a civilian organisation was created, the Women's Land Army (WLA) with its purpose was to organise women to work in agriculture. The Land Army placed women with farms that needed workers, enabling farmers the labour they needed to pick crops and do the jobs that the men, who had been called up to the military, had previously done. The women who worked for the WLA were commonly known as, the Land Girls.
With World War II looming in Britain, 1939, the government took over the administration of the WLA through the then Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. To grow more food, more help was needed on the farms, so again women stepped up into roles not traditionally given them.
In 1942 as provisions became sparse, the Women’s War Service Auxiliary and the National Service Department officially formed the New Zealand Women’s Land Service. The service had to take on the task of providing for domestic and British citizens as well as the arrival of around 100,000 American soldiers in New Zealand and the Pacific. The agricultural industry was an essential component where the service of women was now vital.
Overalls and a killing knife
The call to service for the Land Girls was one way many women felt they could serve their country. Some had grown up on farms, watching their fathers before them, others had never seen a plough. From experienced sheep shearers or novice farmhands, they felt the call to serve, much like the men. Initially, when the Land Service was first formed, women were less inclined to join because other women’s war services provided more stable conditions and support. Efforts were made to recruit more Land Girls by improving wages, providing them with a ‘smart uniform’ and a Service Handbook of Information containing the rules and information for members, including duties, wages, and placement.
The Land Girls worked long hours, often from before sunrise to late in the evening. They seldom had a day off. The work was physically and mentally taxing. Women found themselves shearing, slaughtering, milking, gardening, and working the fields. From rabbiting to gardening, breaking horses, mustering, wool classing and general rouseabouts. From saddling up the ponies for children to ride to school, to helping with domestic chores, much of the work was done without electrical power, and field work was done without tractors but rather with a horse and plough.
Even though women were working with fewer resources and farmhands, the production of wool and most meat was at a record high; somehow nearly 4,000 women replaced 28,000 men and still managed to thrive under such difficult wartime conditions.
In 1943, the First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt, come to visit New Zealand. While here, she visited some land girls on the farms and recognised them for their hard work and dedication.
During the war, New Zealand media referred to the efforts of these women as “excellent” and “splendid”. Sadly, this sentiment did not remain once the war was over. When the men came home, the Land Girls were faced with opposition from both the New Zealand government as well as some of the farmers they worked with. The government did not want to foster the notion that women could effectively replace the men as they were beginning to return from their service. This idea caused the efforts of these women to be subdued in the eyes of the New Zealand public. And it would not be until 2011 when New Zealand women were recognised for their efforts. The land girls were forgotten, and most records discarded. While the men returned from war and were showered with recognition, the land girls were simply displaced.
In contrast, the efforts of Britain’s land girls, were recognised with certificates from the Princess Elizabeth, who would later become Queen Elizabeth II.
Equality begins with war
Wartime changes only partially led to a change in gender equality in New Zealand, as when the men returned, there was pressure for life to return to that of times before the war. However, the Land Girls had set in motion a new mindset about the division of labour between the genders. The years of hard work on the farms had given women satisfaction which came from crossing the barrier. It gave women a strong sense of achievement. The notion that farm work was a man’s job had been set aside during the war, and this gave New Zealand women a chance to assert themselves as equals.
During the war, women were consistently receiving less in wages and recognition than the men. Sheila Smith, a former land girl, expressed in a Radio NZ interview that “because you were a woman you got much less than the men.” Today, New Zealand is seen as a country with progressive ideals and consistently has one of the lowest gender pay gaps when comparing full time employees. Women have had a rich history in New Zealand, beginning with the being the first independent country to where women had the right to vote.
The tenacity of New Zealand women, both in the past and present, to fight for their rights, no matter the adversity, is inspiring.
Lest we forget all our efforts
After the war was over, the Land Girls war efforts were largely forgotten. There was no acknowledgement of their work and the New Zealand Government does not have a record of these women. There is no national monument to the Land Girls, although several woolsheds around the country have bronze bells, made by artist Jai Hall to honour their contribution.
In 2011 that the New Zealand government finally gave former Land Girls an acknowledgement of their efforts with the surviving women receiving certificates in honour of their service.
From the land to the front
Not all women went to work on farms. During the war one remarkable rural woman, Natalie Currie left the farm and went to nurse on the front line. In 2008 the Methven District Heritage Association undertook a project to interview and record the stories of the RSA and Arable oral history of Mid Canterbury. Natalie passed away in 2016 and what follows is based on the transcript of this interview.
Born Natalie Campbell in Ashburton on 31 March 1921, Natalie grew up working on her family farm 'Westward Ho'. She trained as nurse after the outbreak of World War Two, then volunteered as a Red Cross nurse, before joining the army as Voluntary Aid nurse at 23 years old. Natalie spent 10 months nursing in Egypt, Italy, and England.
When war broke out Natalie was impacted by the lists of those killed in action, coming from the news on the wireless and reading in the papers. She decided to volunteer as a Red Cross nurse, training at Methven, Ashburton and Burwood Hospitals. She took a trip to Wellington to be fitted with army uniform and spent time in army camp. Natalie left New Zealand on the 'Empress of Scotland' (formerly 'Empress of Japan') troop ship to Egypt in the nursing division of the 14th Echelon.
The voyage took her via Hobart over the Indian Ocean to Aden in convoy with 'Achilles' and three American Liberty cargo ships. There were water rations for 3,000, shared rooms, and dances on board. Upon arriving at Port Tewfik, Egypt she was driven by army truck and ambulance to the Helwan Hospital nurses’ home, Cairo. Natalie recalled the leave activities, including sightseeing to the pyramids, attending the New Zealand Club in Cairo, going to markets and a race meeting.
Natalie did a stint in Italy arriving at Bari and then to Senigallia. She worked six days a week performing nursing duties in physical and surgical wards at Senigallia. They lived in huts, ate together, and formed strong friendships and at one point the New Zealand hospitals were moved closer to the front line.
During the war Natalie was engaged to Tom Currie. He had trained at Burnham as a sergeant and went with the 8th Reinforcements to Egypt. He worked on the aerodrome with his brother George in Cairo until he transferred to artillery in Cassino and Northern Italy. Tom's role in was with the artillery and he sustained a shell injury. Tom visited Natalie during her time in Senigallia and they wrote each other many letters, with Tom describing the tensions of himself and all the men.
Natalie was drawn in ballot to go to England, the trip was via Naples, after celebrating Victory in Europe (V.E) Day in Caserta. The voyage, on the 'Georgic' ship was escorted with a convoy via Gibraltar, and at one stage there was a U-boat scare. They arrived at the Port of Glasgow; she then took train to London to nurse New Zealand ex-prisoners of war at Haine hospital near Margate. It was here where Natalie met up with Methven boys and visited the New Zealand Forces club in London.
With luck on her side, not long after she was drawn in the ballot to go home. Travelling on the 'Dominion Monarch' across the equator, via the Suez Canal and into Wellington. Fiancée Tom Currie had already arrived home on troop ship before her and from Wellington she made the journey home to Ashburton to find the effects of war on the home front.
Natalie and Tom married in 1946, they had three children Campbell, Catherine, and Russell. They purchased 'Kimberley', on Pudding Hill Road, Methven in 1962. Natalie’s son Russell and his family continue to farm Kimberley today. They farmed sheep, grew cropping wheat, barley and peas, and cattle.
Natalie was given an honorary membership of the RSA in Ashburton and in 1995 she joined the RSA trip and returned to England and Crete to the V.J (Victory over Japan) Day commemorations. She was active in the Methven community, particularly the St Johns Presbyterian Church, golf, tennis, and swimming clubs. She was also on the Ashburton Hospital Board and was part of the opening committee of Methven House. Natalie died in July 2016, having served her country, our land and community.