World War One remembered: the role of farming

Cows and farmer walking along a road c1920s-1930s
Above: Cows and farmer walking along a road c1920s-1930s

Kate Chapman looks back at the end of the Great War and how the countryside recovered from its colossal impact:

This year, 11 November marks the centenary of the end of World War One (1914-18). The conflict raged for more than four years, taking its toll on every aspect of our nation, not least the countryside that was home to hundreds of thousands of male farm labourers who fought and died on the front line.

It fell to the rural communities they left behind to produce enough food to sustain a country at war, and although they valiantly rose to the challenge, this period was to change the face of British farming and rural life forever.

There’s no doubt the World War One heralded a period of great change for the British countryside, its people and agricultural industry. But aside from the personal losses suffered, the war did offer some benefits to the farming industry, says Prof Jeremy Burchardt, an associate professor in rural history at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), University of Reading.

Before the war, Britain was importing around 60 per cent of its food from overseas. Once fighting started, high inflation and threats to supply routes led to increased demands for more home-grown produce and, as a result, farming’s profitability increased and more land was turned over to agricultural production.

“It became difficult for the country to import food due to the threat of the U-boats and this, coupled with new government subsidies, meant prices remained stable for some time after the war,” explains Prof Burchardt.

“Before the conflict, farmers had been left to their own devices, there hadn’t been any subsidies or intervention, but now there was a change in the relationship between the state and agriculture, with the former taking on more responsibility for he nation’s food supply.

Did you know...

  • When WWI began, Britain had enough wheat to last 125 days. Imports accounted for around 78 per cent of wheat and flour, plus 40 per cent of meat.
  • It wasn’t until the final year of the war that rationing of foodstuffs like sugar, meat and butter was introduced. Each person had a ration card including King George and Queen Mary.
  • The Plough Up campaign of 1917 led to an extra 2.5 million acres of land turned over to growing cereals.
  • It’s estimated that almost 500,000 horses were used to help on the frontline.
  • Government invested in machinery – buying 400 British Saunderson tractors, while a further $3.2million worth of machinery was bought from America.
  • Agricultural production of wheat rose from 1.7 million tonnes in 1914 to 2.4 million tonnes in 1918.
  • During WWI, the production of oats increased from 2 million tonnes in 1914 to 2.9 million tonnes in 1918 .
  • In 1916 it became illegal to consume more than two courses for lunch in a public place or to have more than three courses for dinner.

There was a shift in the make-up of rural society too. Previously, it was split into three distinct classes - the landowners/ gentry, tenant farmers and farm workers, but by the end of the war we start to see the emergence of the modern farming model with more owner-occupier farmers.

“Land ownership had always been as much political as it was economic and although the aristocracy didn’t disappear from a lot of parishes, they did sell up,” explains Prof Burchardt.

“Many assumed this was related to heavy death duties; and the fact many owners died during WWI is sure to have had some impact, but many were clever enough to sell while the land prices were high.

“By the time we get to 1921, the majority of farmers are owner-occupiers – the set-up we’re more familiar with today.”

:: This feature originally appeared in Countryside magazine - find out how to get your hands on a copy here.

Last edited:08 March 2019 at 17:19

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