This Friday, 6th June, sees the 70th anniversary of D-Day. While the day itself reminds us of Mulberry harbours, beach assaults and, possibly, Red Buttons hanging by his parachute from a French church-spire in The Longest Day, it might not have happened at all, had it not been for the Land Army.
"Without the food you help to produce, the bravery of the fighting services would be of no avail and the machinery in our munition factories would be silent and still,"
the Minister of Agriculture, R S Hudson, told the Land Army In October 1940.
Its vital work is rammed home in suitably bracing style in Land Girl, A Manual for Volunteers, written in 1941, and available now in facsimile by Amberley Publishing.
Britain faced a problem. The stark warning on page 1 - "Germany is attempting to starve the British people into submission" - was all too possible. Farming had been run on a shoe-string for years; often hundreds of acres of pasture were tended by only a couple of labourers. Now that pasture was needed for production, with the War Agricultural Committee demanding more acres every year. Around the cities, market gardeners were expected to crop intensively too. Labour was in very short supply.
By 1941, the Land Army had around 10,000 volunteers - not nearly enough. Conscription for women had not yet arrived, so the manual aims at persuasion, calling on women to come to the aid of the overworked countryside. It attracted plenty of attention - Land Girl was one the year's best-sellers.
Dr Wilfred Edward Shewell-Cooper was a natural choice as author. Distinguished horticulturalist, adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture, Command Horticultural Officer for the S.E. and Eastern Command, he was already a prolific writer and his reassuring, friendly style combines a touch of humour with an authoritative tone.
We tend to picture Land Girls on top of tractors and under haystacks, but they were needed in forestry, for timber measuring, in dairying, and for market gardens. Punches about the work aren't entirely pulled: Cucumber houses would be "very pleasant work in winter", but very hot in summer. Market-gardeners would have to endure "the interminable hoeing" and fruit-spraying was "not always pleasant".
But as you'd expect, the tone is upbeat. If cleaning out ditches sounds ghastly, there's the compensation of doing good work for your country. The chapter on Welfare promises that the Women's Land Army (WLA) rep will approve your billet, give info on local services such as library times and postal collections, and invite you to tea.
With hindsight, it all sounds rather rose-tinted, especially in view of some of the Land Girls' recollections in the BBC archive, People's War. Still, by the time 80,000 Land Girls had been enrolled in 1943, it's not surprising that some rarely saw their rep, let alone had tea with her.
Some chapters are full of details of rates of pay, insurance cover and forms that need filling in. No doubt, it was hoped to save time at enrolment. But there are other chapters - on the history of the WLA during WW1, the uniform and Making the Most of the Country - which make interesting reading for the casual reader today.
Volunteers had to be between 18 and 60, of "good physique", armed with a medical certificate, and look to the interviewer as if they were up to the job. Those who'd carried out the manual's suggestion of carrying full buckets of water for half an hour and pitching earth onto a breast-high shelf probably already had their own ideas on that.
"The trainee will not simply be used for the purpose of providing unskilled labour," says the manual reassuringly. The message was lost on some. Contributors to People's War describe farmers who provided barely a bed, little more than sandwiches to eat, and expected girls to work through heavy rain. The chapter, Hints and Tips, with its advice on how to deal with roughened hands, stepping on nails and animal bites conjures a picture of damp shoes, tight gumboots and heavy lifting.
For all the discomfort, however, many enjoyed themselves immensely. I spoke to Ramsay Shewell-Cooper, the author's son. He well remembers working with Land Girls at a market garden where they carried out the specialised jobs of bundling asparagus and forcing chicory.
"They showed me how to dance," he said. "I was an innocent little boy from boarding school. They'd all go home for lunch and you saw them coming back, hair in curlers, scarves on heads, and you knew they were going out later. Watching these girls having dolled themselves up - my education was wonderful!"
It all depended how you looked at the work. No one, points out Ramsay's father, will be a success if she boasts about town life, irritates her rural hosts, parades around in make-up when country girls don't, and pushes herself forward. If you put your best into a job, it'll be more interesting, he says (sounding rather like one's mother), and taking part in country life will make you more popular.
Earlier in the war, a number of volunteers had dropped out, so the manual is not above a bit of emotional blackmail. Training and equipment cost money; if a Land Girl drops out, says the manual, someone may starve. "She must feel that she is feeding the nation."
But, really, that was true. Every Land Girl was a vital brick in Britain's wall of defence. As R S Hudson also said, "Famine could achieve what no bomb or blitzkrieg or invading force will ever bring about."
This facsimile edition comes with photographs of Land Girls at work and the bracingly cheerful score of Back to the Land, the Land Army anthem. There's no doubt that some of this book will only interest those who revel in minutiae, but for the rest, Land Girl provides a fascinating glimpse into the logistics, organisation and expectations of mobilising a huge untrained workforce to keep Britain fed.
This book was provided for review by Amberley Publishing.