Forest of females - women foresters in World War Two
The role of women in the Second World War has only recently been fully recognised, but their contributions extend to many areas. Barry Matthews outlines the activities of the women who went into the forest when duty called.
When war was declared on 3 September 1939, many people’s lives were changed forever. Men were drafted into military service and women moved into industry. Although many females also joined the military services, it was recognised that the men who had worked the land needed to be replaced, and the Women’s Land Army (WLA) was created. The country needed wood for applications, such as pit props for construction, mining, telegraph poles, roadblocks, ships’ masts, railway sleepers, gun mats, mobile tracking to support tanks, ladders and newsprint.
To meet this demand, the WLA Timber Corps (TC) was formed. Training centres were set up all over the UK – Shandford Lodge in Brechin, Angus, in Scotland was one such camp. Here, the young women were taught the rudiments of forestry, handling axes, saws, vehicles and horses. It was a rude awakening for some, as the majority were city bred and unfamiliar with the wide-open spaces or deep woods.
After a two-week course they were dispersed throughout the country, most of the Scots went to camps in remote areas of the Highlands – Invernessshire, Morayshire, Argyllshire and elsewhere. In England, TC members were dispersed to a variety of private billets and were involved in a more varied type of forestry. They worked in the forests of Great Britain, felling, snedding, loading, cross-cutting, driving tractors, trucks, working with horses, measuring and operating sawmills. These ‘Lumberjill’s’ undertook the tasks before them, learning the skills needed to get the job done to win the war. This was done in all kinds of weather. One thousand women were camped in wooden huts in the north of Scotland, others in rugged billets, far from the comforts of family and home.
Ready for duty
Brechin was originally a shooting lodge, a palatial home, commandeered for the duration of the war. On arrival, the girls were billeted in army huts with army cots, rough grey blankets and outdoor toilets. They were subsequently issued with black leather boots, overalls, uniforms, Wellington boots and a sou’wester.
Time was short, and none was wasted on preliminaries – training began on the first morning so they were advised to get as much sleep as possible. Scrambling around in a wooden hut, washing and dressing in the cold damp weather was something the women had to become accustomed to. At first light, they boarded an open lorry and were shipped off to the woods to begin their first day as foresters.
The female forester was expected to wield a six-pound axe and shown how to ‘lay-in’ a tree and produce enough timber only for crosses for soldiers’ graves. At noon they were issued with a cheese, or grated carrot sandwich. Billy cans of water were boiled on an open bush fire to make tea.
At five in the afternoon, it was time for dinner, after the two-mile walk back to camp. Many girls had blisters from the new boots, although they toughened up and proved that they could handle the job. By the end of the month’s training they were tossing logs, felling trees, crosscutting logs and loading vehicles. Some elected to become horsewomen, while several became tractor and lorry drivers, but the majority were fellers, crosscutters, loaders and measurers. Being a horsewoman or teamster was the most arduous job, running behind a horse dragging trees was dangerous, while the others were felling trees all around. They had to be quick on their feet.
The camps were generally set up in fields far from civilization with up to 40 people sharing two long wooden huts. The ablution shed was in the centre, reached by a long duckboard. A dining hut and cookhouse made up the remainder of their new home.
The women were told that their work was vital to the war effort, but this was not reflected in the treatment they received after the war when they were denied recognition as a service. There were 6,900 members in the WLATC in the UK. No change of occupation was permitted, nor transfers into what were considered the senior services. The uniforms were not theirs to keep and were returned after the war.
Throughout the Second World War, the women were underpaid and most of their earnings deducted for food and lodgings. Promotion to leader-girl, the only ‘rank’ in the WTC, led to a special badge on the uniform and an extra 10 shillings.
Leading horses through brush and around stumps to deliver the tree to the clearing was not easy. Here the trees were cut, cross-cut and loaded. The quota was usually 60 trees a day, five and a half days a week. In the summer, work stopped at six, in winter months, at dusk. Annual leave was one week, whereas the other services received 28 days. It was not long enough to go anywhere, rest or recuperate. The half-day off was a Saturday, when the women rode bicycles to the nearest town to go to the pictures, snack in the café and then go to the local dance, before cycling home again. They enjoyed the scenery and being close to nature.
Towards the end
When the war in Europe ended, the women were engaged primarily in thinning out trees. However, the Corps was not disbanded until 1950. A number of the girls were preparing to marry overseas fiancés, which allowed them to leave the TC. Contrary to popular belief, the TC and WLA farm personnel were not interchangeable, neither could perform the duties of the other without further training, which was too expensive.
Timber Corps members were sufficiently experienced to be sent to Germany after the war to salvage equipment from abandoned sawmills. Although forestry enjoyed a more attractive image than farming, it nevertheless required stamina and expertise. The lumberjills wore the same uniform as the Land Girls, with the exception of the Green Beret and the badge, which, instead of a wheat sheaf, featured a fir tree, surmounted by a Royal crown.
It was not until 2007 that the WTC received formal recognition with a statue and memorial courtesy of the Forestry Commission in Scotland at the David Marshal Lodge, near Aberfoye. A small plaque next to the statue reads, ‘Thankyou’ to the forgotten army.