- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Marguerite France Dommen
- Location of story:
- Various - England - New Forest, Cromer, Sussex
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 18 October 2005
Marguerite France Dommen and horses.
‘My real name is Marguerite France — but they couldn’t cope with that so in England I was always known as Peggy. When War broke out I was in Switzerland with my parents, but I was British, because I was born there, and my Father said to me, stay in Switzerland because it’s neutral now, but my Mother said, ‘I quite understand you wanting to come back to England, because she knew I always wanted to stay in England, and I knew Hitler was a bad fellow, and we’d got to do everything we could to stop him invading.
So, I had joined the land army before war broke out in case there was a war, so I was straight away taken to Suffolk at a place where I trained and then I was sent to work on the farms in Suffolk and Norfolk. I knew about horses, and I was brought up to ride a pony, and I couldn’t have gone into any of the army services, it wasn’t in my nature, and my father came from farming stock actually in Switzerland, so it must have been in me.
The Land Army was the perfect thing for me, but because I’d done well at school and I’d passed all the matric exams and everything, they said, well, why don’t you do something which is going to employ you academically as well, so I went to the New Forest and trained as a timber measurer. And then I was sent to a sawmill in the New Forest.
On the farms I went to, there were perhaps three or four other girls there… and on the sawmill it was men who worked the machines but all the other people who kept the books and that were women who had been called in. The men were marvellous, I think they thought it was a bit strange at first, but we got on fine with the men, and of course most of my boyfriends were in the army or airforce…of course I lost a lot. And, it was difficult to keep in touch with my parents in Switzerland but we managed…the letters went through a censor, the German censors, so it was quite difficult…especially when France had been over run. My Mother actually died during the War but of course I couldn’t get back.
The other land girls had all been doing other things, office jobs, music and other things…it was a wonderful mixture. I was in a hostel quite a long time, and then I went into digs. I was quite strong physically and I’d always done a lot of physical work, riding, lifting…we didn’t actually do the stacking of the timber, that was done by men, but we did all the office work and working out where to put things, working out the cubage, arranging for the timber to go to people who needed it. It went to ship building and all those sort of things….hard and soft timber, oak and ash. And then with the farming it was the farmers who dealt with all that.
I got on very well with the horses, I learned to harness them…I remember harrowing, I didn’t actually do any ploughing. This is me with the oat harvest…I had my picture taken by a professional photographer called Douglas Glass. I’d met his wife, Jane at art school, and so they kept in touch with me and they came to the Farm. I think the picture was used in something or other — I was bringing in sheaves of oats. It was all done by hand, with the land girls, very little automatic work. I was in very good billets, I was very well looked after.
I had to get up pretty early, and…but the meals were good and being on a farm we had local produce and we were very well fed. The men were all away you see, so they had to use women. Some of the older men stayed…it was a reserved profession, farmers, and they didn’t have to turn up, some of them.
There was a lot of bombing, especially when I was in Suffolk. They came over the coast to London — lots of bombing around there. We were told, we had to get out of our beds and into underground places, bomb sanctuaries. There was food stored and mattresses and so on — it was primitive but it was needed, very good. And of course we had blackout, we weren’t allowed to have lights after a certain time.
There were lots of parties, lots organised for us, and we used to be invited by army camps and things round about. Really quite a good social time.
I remember my boyfriends that were killed, it was really very sad. I met my husband at the end of the War, he had been in Burma. I was spending a leave with the Barclays in Cromer as I couldn’t go back to Switzerland, and Haig had come back from Burma, and they invited him for supper one night. He asked if I would like to come up to Scotland to see what the farming was like, and I said, yes, I’d love to. So, I came to the Borders, and it was all Douglas’s and Scott’s and Elliot’s, and they said ‘Who’s this extraordinary girl Haig’s brought up from Cromer, she speaks French and drinks wine, she’ll never do!’ However, a week later we got engaged and we married…it was just towards the end of the War.
I got married at Cromer Church…I had a white broiderie anglaise dress which I’d made for myself in Switzerland, to wear at the Royal Academy, for social functions. We had quite a lot of parties there, it was quite grand. So, I had a white dress, and borrowed a veil from the Barclays, and plenty of flowers, and Haig was in uniform. I never found it difficult to get supplies with the coupons, you know, we lived simply and we made things last. I’d been brought up in quite a simple way, and I used the coupons. Women wore trousers then, and we had some nice blouses and jumpers.
And of course at the end of the War, the Land Army got recognised and we got medals.
My husband was in Burma….a very brave man. He was behind the lines and his job was to look after the mules, because he was a farmer, so he knew about that. And they had to have their chords cut out so they didn’t make a noise. They took all the ammunition and the vehicles, you know, so they used mules instead to go behind Japanese lines.
It was quite difficult to get back into civilian life I must say, at the end of the War, because we’d had a regimented life. There were lots of bands and dancing outside at the end of the war…a lot of bagpipes up here. A lot of awards were given, it was very moving really. Haig and I bought a farm after the war, Glendarg, between Galashiels and Melrose, so my son’s there now.
It was so sad, when the war started I was 21, and a lot of my boyfriends that used to take me out to dances and things were 24, 25, a vulnerable age…and a lot of them were killed….Peter Cushing was killed flying over France. But one had to get used to it, had to get on. I think it was a very good training actually, having gone through that, other difficulties don’t seem so serious.
After D-Day we knew that that was the beginning of the end. I knew it would finish, but I never saw my Mother again. I always felt British, I never wanted to go back to Switzerland. We had a very just cause, I knew we had to get rid of this Hitler man.
When I came to England, we had to cross France, all blacked out. All the trains were blacked out, and I had to get help from the British office to get myself back to England. And when we crossed the sea, we had to do zig zags because of the U boats — I mean, it was quite a dangerous journey, and my father didn’t want me to go…but my Mother, who always felt British although she was Swiss, she loved England, quite understood. Anyway, my brothers and sisters were all involved some way, I couldn’t keep out of it. I never had any thought that Hitler might win.
I was afraid with bombings and things, but we were all in it you know. We were afraid but everybody was suffering the same way…it brought us all together, I think. There was great solidarity, then.
I had something like a stocking, as a band round my head, and I used to tuck my hair into it…you can see in the photo. We got enough shampoo, or we just used soft water and soap. We had dungarees and shirts, and I used to wear a silk scarf round my neck. I loved the horses! We were better paid as lumberjills, and because I had exams and things, I got a slightly higher status, but I liked working with the horses. Even in the New Forest I used to go out riding.
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