The “Cinderellas of the forces”, the many thousands in the Women’s Land Army, who were the backbone of the agricultural industry in wartime, are now about to get long overdue recognition with a sculpture by Peter Naylor, who created the hugely-popular tribute to the men of the 158 Squadron at Lissett in East Yorkshire.
The tribute, commissioned by the Land Army Memorial Scotland, a charitable trust made up of NFU Scotland, the Crown Estate and National Museums Scotland, NFU Mutual and The Scottish Farmer newspaper, will go up this spring in a tiny place called Clochan, halfway between Aberdeen and Inverness, overlooking a distant view of the Moray Firth and the Highlands.
It captures seven women perched on the rails of a six-barred gate, on top of a grassy knoll, waving and smiling, their hair done up 1940s-style, wearing Wellingtons or work boots and overalls.
As at Lissett, the viewer will be able to approach the sculpture up a track and walk round it, viewing it and touching it from all angles.
The Beverley-based sculptor says he wants the sculpture to encapsulate the “uncrushable lust for life” of the young and intends the memorial to “bring back a smile rather than a tear” to those who see it.
He said: “It’s the best part of 70 years ago and we are looking at it through slightly rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia. I don’t really see the point of trying to immortalise the sadder aspects. There were some sad stories of girls getting pulled into baling machines and getting killed but the overall feeling was that they were happy,” he said.
Most of the girls who joined the Women’s Land Army, which grew to be 90,000 strong at its peak, were aged in their late teens or early twenties.
Mr Naylor said he would now like to see a “sisterhood” of memorials springing up in the rural counties where the Women’s Land Army were deployed, maybe one in the Dales, in Kent or Lincolnshire.
He said: “They were involved in every sphere of farming life; dairy, beef, pigs, sheep, poultry, arable, horses, fruit and vegetables. They milked cows, fed hens, sheared sheep, raised lambs, ploughed fields, drove tractors, picked fruit and so on. What I wanted to try and record is their youthful, joyful exuberance.”
The sculpture, which will stand some 9ft high and 15ft wide when it is installed, will like The 158 Squadron Memorial be built in Corten steel, a material evocative of War as well as ageing farming machinery, framed by a living hawthorn hedge.
Mr Naylor says he is still suffering “post-natal blues” after the Lissett memorial, because of its significance: “I don’t think I will ever get a commission quite as meaningful. This will be a perfect foil. The 158 Memorial was all very male, it was all about courage, dedication, perseverance and resolution in the face of the enemy and very grim in the sense that there are 851 names on it of the fallen.
“Although some did get killed in Kent, most of them had, from what I have read, a happy, enjoyable experience.
“For some it must have been isolating and some had very tough times, but the more dominant feeling I got was: ‘I had a great War.’
“It was hugely significant in terms of female emancipation in liberation, a major stepping stone in the changing of women’s perception of what they were capable of,” he said.
Sarah Anderson, secretary to the trust, said they had been immediately won over by the sculptor’s vision. They have already had hundreds of donations but are still collecting for the project.
She said: “So many people have written who were in the Land Army themselves, their relatives and friends; the expressions of gratitude we’ve had for the project are utterly overwhelming. We know before it is unveiled that there is a huge amount of public appetite for it, which is really lovely.”
Muriel Berzins, 87, who lives in Aldbrough, in East Yorkshire, was among those from this region who served in the Land Army, spending seven years working from a hostel in Howden, which accommodated a workforce of around 60 young women.
Although under 5ft and weighing eight-and-a-half stone she was quite capable of throwing a bag of potatoes almost her own body weight around.
She said: “We were happy singing all day long. After Hull being so smoky and dusty in the Blitz just being out in the fields was fantastic. I can’t wait to see the sculpture.”
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