At 7 a.m. on any given day in 1942, as R.A.F. pilots sped back from skirmishes over the English Channel and shopkeepers doubling as Home Guard militia were hanging their tin hats up after the night’s watch, a truck would swing down a British country lane to pick up a crew of women and ferry them deep into the forest.
The women piling into the truck sported berets, bright green sweaters, belted corduroy breeches and coveted badges emblazoned with a fir tree or two crossed axes to indicate they were an elite part of England’s civilian defense efforts: the Women’s Timber Corps, playfully called “lumberjills.”
Coordinated by the Home Grown Timber Production Department, lumberjills were Rosie the Riveter’s counterparts across the Atlantic. Seen here in photographs from The New York Times archives, they harvested timber for telegraph poles, rails for D-Day splashdowns and the pit props that bulwarked vital British coal mines.
While it was the first time that many of the women had hauled logs or stripped branches, it was often not the first time that they had held jobs. Of the 6,000 workers who toiled in the lumber fields at the peak of the corps’ staffing, a good number were “city bred” — former shop assistants, dressmakers and factory workers. The New York Times assured readers, “It has been found more often than not that the girl whose previous knowledge of tree life was often limited to the telegraph post can swing an axe just as efficiently as a farmer’s daughter.”
In fact, in her thorough account of the Women’s Timber Corps, “The Forgotten Army of the Woods,” the historian Emma Vickers noted: “In terms of physicality, there is little evidence to suggest that women were recruited on the basis of their stature or physical strength. Enthusiasm, resilience and good humour were deemed to be more important.”
The lumberjills were part of the Women’s Land Army, which numbered some 80,000 at the height of World War II. As early as the First World War, the W.L.A. had fanned out across the island to decrease its dependency on imports, lending a hand at dairy farms, shearing sheep, and plowing fields to open new land for farming.
The organization was called back into action in the summer of 1939, roughly three months before Britain declared war against Germany. Though, as Lady Gertrude Denman, the honorary director of the W.L.A., told recruits, “The Land Army has had to encounter much prejudice against the employment of women’s labour.”
The first members of the Women’s Land Army were volunteers; it wasn’t until the last male farmers were called to the front that conscription began, in 1941. Because the male sawyers and fellers who had been reserved to maintain the valuable timber industry were some of the last to be drafted, the lumberjills were not formed until 1942.
Touting the idea that joining the corps was a chance to take a country vacation, the press cheered the image of the bare-armed and betrousered woodswoman, flourishing in the sunshine. “Perhaps the happy communal life in some of Britain’s loveliest forests adds glamour to the work, or maybe their invariable improvement in health and good looks makes them appreciate woodcraft and fresh air,” mused The Times reporter Muriel Laurence.
This idyllic description, however, overlooked the discomforts of working outdoors during dark winters, fingers lost to squealing circular saws, bronchitis caused by sawdust inhalation, and the women who were killed when a rogue tree fell in the wrong direction.
Lumberjills earned, on average, significantly more than a typical Land Girl. And once they joined the corps, they were prohibited from withdrawing from the vital timber industry. They were not the only workers who couldn’t leave. In addition to the 6,000 lumberjills, the British had thousands of prisoners of war working in timber. At one point, the P.O.W.s received a new order of Wellington boots before the female workers were outfitted.
By 1942, the Land Army’s potato crops reportedly spread to cover 70 percent more land than they had in 1939, and England went from importing two-thirds of its food supply to less than half. But the Land Girls did not rest on their legumes. Even after the war, the organization continued to tackle food shortages, until 1950. The lumberjills, however, were disbanded in 1946.
The Land Girls as a whole were not recognized as an equal branch of civilian service so, unlike other branches, they did not get postwar placement support or payouts to smooth the transition back to civilian life. When even the women’s request to keep their uniforms as the only mementos of their services was denied — among other indignities — Lady Gertrude Denman, who had led the Women’s Land Army through two world wars, resigned in disgust. “Blow, blow, thou winter wind,” wrote contributors to Land Girl Magazine, “thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude.”
Over the course of the war, the number of women working in British industry shot up by roughly a third, from 5.5 million to 7.35 million. By 1951, the numbers had nearly returned to their prewar level.