Men's roles on the home front

Woman ploughing a paraffin 16 h.p tractor, specially-built for war time agriculture, capability of ploughing five archers a day. A farmer was lucky if he could get a specially-built tractor for wartime farming to help plough his fields. Here a farmer and his wife are at work

Teacher and pupil helpers

School children do their bit helping to grow food for the war effort
  • There was such a shortage of people to harvest crops that teachers were expected to pitch in to help alongside their pupils.
  • In some rural towns and villages, the timing of school holidays was rearranged so pupils were able to help with the corn and potato harvests.

Before the war, work in the countryside often meant low pay and back-breaking manual labour shared by men, women and sometimes children who would all work long hours.

Horses had been used to plough fields but so many were required at the Front that farmers had to do without many of their horses. A team of horses could plough in an hour what it took a man a full day to plough by hand. At harvest time country schools would be empty as the children all had to lend a hand and some would have to help at market every week.

Meanwhile, the fishing industry was growing and new trawlers (a boat used for fishing) were being built to keep up with the demand for fish. Thousands of men were working as fishermen and they and the women, (known as fishwives) got the fish ready to sell in the shops. By 1917 the fishing industry was employing far fewer men since so many were fighting at sea.

Improved railways, refrigeration and canal systems meant that food could be sent all over Britain and exported to foreign countries. It also enabled goods to be imported from other countries. But when war broke out supplies of food coming in from abroad fell alarmingly as German U-boats (submarines armed with explosives) attacked ships carrying food and supplies to Britain to try to starve people at home. This was an important reason why British farmers' were needed on the home front; growing more food was vital.


An illustration of a farmer's head and shoulders

Elephant helpers

Elephant helping to plow a field
  • When horses went to war, elephants were drafted in to help farmers with the heavy work.
  • In Horley, Surrey, elephants from a nearby circus filled-in for the horses, ploughing fields and transporting hay.

Before the war a typical farm was usually worked by a farmer with the help of his family. He might also employ labourers to help with the heavy work such as ploughing, planting and harvesting. If the farm had livestock he would probably employ men to help look after his sheep, cows or pigs.

When war was declared some farmers and farm workers applied to be excused from fighting in the war so that they could look after their land and livestock. But there was still a big shortage of workers to help on the land.

A year after the start of war, women volunteered to help and members of the new Women's Land Army (WLA) known as 'land girls' helped on farms. At first farmers were not happy to have women working with them, they thought they would not be strong enough for all the heavy work. They were soon proved wrong as the women got on with the ploughing, digging and harvesting.

Wheat shortage

By April 1916, German submarines had sunk many ships bringing food to Britain from other countries. As a result Britain only had six week's supply of wheat left.

It was clear Britain needed to grow even more food at home.

Education authorities passed by-laws to let children work on farms during school terms as well as holidays and some 15,000 children were employed by the autumn of 1916. In summer many public school boys came to help with the harvests of 1917 and 1918. They would usually live in tents on the farm.

Every free piece of land was used to grow food including gardens, which were turned into vegetable patches. Many people learned how to keep bees for honey to replace imported sugar. Others kept chicken and pigs in their back gardens.

Teachers' notes

Teachers' notes and classroom ideas looking at men's roles on the home front during World War One.

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