The story starts in spring 1939 with ARP gas-mask drill. The girls Lorna and 'Nibbs' do not take this exercise seriously, or are nervous of it, although Lorna tells Nibbs to just do it. They report ordinary activities replaced with First Aid, Home Nursing and Anti-gas lectures. They practice treating shock and using triangular bandages. The anti-gas training involved going into a van with gas masks on - and for reality the lecturer instructs them to let a little in (Chlorine?) to smell what they had been saved from. This made the eyes sting. Lorna was upset:
Her usually bright face had changed, and was looking grim. So that was what war, if it ever really did come, would be like! - poison gas, for instance (and she knew it was one of the milder kinds which had been used for the demonstration) was something one could not get even that tiny sniff of without it hurting; it gave one some idea of what being caught in a real gas-attack, without one's mask, would be like - and gas was only one fiendish war-invention out of endless others.
Notice how much 'one' is used. This is an upper middle class cast. We have a senior monitoress (what is she monitoring, and what does her junior do?) and the Head of the Debating Society. Lorna is nicknamed Dux, ‘leader’. The class read the National Service booklet which gives DP a chance to survey the jobs on offer. Lorna and her friend Nibbs choose the Land Army. The form is filled in, and Lorna is very bossy ('great-grandmotherly') leading Nibbs to acquired dependency. The film The Good Earth (1937 film of the Pearl S. Buck Pulitzer Prize winning novel of 1931 about a Chinese family) led to thoughts that the beauty of nature would remain even when "all the cultured, highly civilized sort of things were to be simply smashed and done for" . Nibbs, we are told, sees the prospects of outdoor work through rose tinted spectacles, and readers are warned of troubles and discomforts to come.
The scene then moves to Sedge Fen farm in Suffolk run by Farmer and Mrs Brode, he a veteran of Flanders and Gallipoli as his wife unnecessarily reminds him. Neither speak Queen’s English, unlike the other characters. Ted, his lad was “a thorough man every inch of his still-growing six-foot-one (land-girls and readers beware) unlike Andrew the quiet younger boy who was “a queer fish” and a mother’s pet . The farmer was preparing for the day when all his young men would be “called up”. Andrew is at school with “prep.”, probably a grammar school and plays out the typical tension between scholar and worker, his father warning him that he will leave school if he needs to work on the farm . A scholarship to go to college is “high-flown nonsense” when “there is a real man’s job waiting for you on the farm”. Thus class tensions tumble over rival masculinities. Andrew is enfeebled in the eyes of father by aspiring beyond his class through educationhe farmer acknowledged that it is the war that makes a difference, but complains that he has to have land-girls “because my own son ain’t man enough to stand by and help”. Men are not scholars, and scholars are not men. “Oi’d a deal rather he’d the makin’s of a man”, Brode retorted.
Andrew is a bit of a snob, the only one in the family with brains, with a clod-hopping brother. He passes some Czech refugees working on a farm, and reflects that they too might be doctors or musicians, and ill-suited to labouring work in a foreign country, “just because Hitler had taken theirs” . Andrew reluctantly fetches some new sheep back home, but through inattention one is run over by a car. We discover that his father was fond of using his belt, but his time he tries persuasion – leave school and help on the farm if war comes. Andrew reacts bitterly. There will be no war, and school work is real work. His ambitions were different, and would be stifled by the farm. The girls would be coming into a fraught family atmosphere.
They are accepted and their names “entered on the Roll” . There is an interview, and invitation for a fortnight’s training in the summer holidays. Lorna asks to be placed with Nibbs. All this is in spring 1939. The Women’s Land Army was headed by Lady Denman who ran the Women’s Institute. She bullied a slow bureaucracy, and just managed to move into the new headquarters five days before war was declared. She had managed to launch a national publicity drive a little earlier, and the opening of this story seems to refer to this. Lorna marches in the National Services parade in London on July 2nd wearing the WLA uniform [74,79] with khaki jackets [79-84] which they have to pick up with other kit from an address in Westminster. Much enthusiasm was devoted to dressing-up and the novelty of dungarees. By coincidence, Ted Brode is representing Suffolk Territorials, and Andrew, up for the day, sees Lorna, is impressed, and decides that if she can do farm-work, he can also.
Historically, the first land-girl to enrol, Valerie Hodge from Bristol was presented to King George VI in a July National Service Rally in Hyde Park. She explained: "Here was the thing for me - the service to serve England - the service to keep this land alive - and also a service in which one could help in the everlasting process of creation, instead of helping in destruction" (Tryer: 37).
On the journey to the training fortnight, the first other recruit met, Polly, was “not over-refined”, a nursery nurse who had not stayed on at school, in service in Kensington. The Pines turned out to be a commandeered country house, basic, and “not like a conventional hotel or boarding house”  that the middle-class girls were clearly used to. Betty Hawkins used “too much lipstick”, had red finger-nails on coarse hands, and was assumed by Lorna to be a shopgirl : “she looked the sort Miss Buckley [the overseer] might have trouble with”. With red hair, she claimed the nickname ‘Carrots’.
Doris Pocock might have read Sherwell Cooper's Land Army Manual: "The WLA volunteer should therefore be prepared to 'tone down' her lips, complexion and nails considerably.... long nails are quite unsuited to work on a farm, especially when covered with bright crimson nail varish".
Dora was a pale, shy, roundshouldered young girl who had been in dressmaking, clearly a Londoner deprived of sunshine and fresh air. (The narrator comments how a fortnight’s fresh air would transform her). Marjory Brown was a cook in a café, a perky soulmate for Polly. They were a mixed bunch: the author has sorted out their class credentials to a tee. Although they are not ‘ladies’ (this is Lorna thinking) Lorna is “perfectly able and ready to fraternise with them” , but thought that ultra-refined Nibbs would find this less easy – she seemed scared and bewildered. Nibbs’ failure has been set out from the beginning. Polly, Nibbs’ room-mate sums it up: there will always be people to make a baby of Nibbs, and she will go through life being looked after .Nibbs of course does not last out. Lorna gets her badge and uniform and a permanent place at Sedge End Farm, where she helps to continue Andrew “that queer boy’s" education.
“Come what might in the months ahead, England would still remain. The waves would still break on the sandy shores, and the shadows skims over grassy downs; the woods would still be misty-blue with bluebells, and the fields golden with buttercups; the larks would still sing over the blazing gorse-fields, and the nightingales in the moonlit, honey-suckle-scented glades. Roses would still bloom in old-world gardens, and there would still be the little thatched cottages, the mellow red-tiled farms; the lambs would bleat, and the kine would low, when the roar of the guns was silent. A good land – a land worth working and fighting for – . She thinks she has a wonderful job, unlike people doing “horrid” jobs indoors in munitions factories. In reality, the job of the landgirl was foul, hard, remorseless. The middle class author has, though her alter ego Lorna, glamorised it and made it suitable for the likes of the Dux, the born leaders of the present and future world. Her working class colleagues just get on with it, unsentimentally, with humour, solidarity and grit.
Interestingly, the action ends in 1939, with little hint of the horrors of war that was to follow, though there is some evidence of early war casualties among airmen and others known to the girls. I think the novel was written then, by Christmas 1939, to encourage recruits and it shares the romantic image of the early advertising posters showing shapely girls clutching lambs. But it was published in 1946, with the cover showing the green uniform rather than khaki jackets, a time when landgirls were still needed, to be true (WLA was not disbanded until November 1950: there were still 54,000 land-girls at work in 1946), but nevertheless at a time when the early work of recruitment was over.
See also Nicola Tyrer, They Fought in the Fields: The Women’s Land Army. The Story of a Forgotton Victory Sinclair-Stevenson 1996/ Tempus Publishing 2007.
I am reminded of the section of the Women's Land Army called the Women's Timber Corps and the autobiography of 1942-45 Lumber Jill by Mavis Williams; and in the same series Anne Hall's Land Girl (Ex Libris Press).