Saturday 20 August 2011

The Forgotten Army

When in 1942 an emergency appeal was made to recruit members for the Women’s Timber Corps, a branch of the Women’s Land Army that is now barely remembered, critics didn’t believe it possible for young girls, many of them typists, hairdressers and shop assistants, to tolerate the cold and mud of winter, the long hours and heavy work involved in the vital task of timber production. Timber was needed for pitprops and telegraph poles but with young foresters having been called up, there was insufficient manpower available. Training centres were set up to which volunteers came at a rate of 250 a month, and after a general introduction to crosscutting, sawing and felling, clearing and measuring, as well as haulage with tractors and horses, the girls specialised in the branch for which they were found to be most suited. They could not be expected to learn all the tricks of the trade in a month but were taught the basic skills, a respect for their tools, and an understanding of the importance of sound timber to the extent of being taken down a mine to view it in situ.

The two women I interviewed: Elsie Taylor and Betty Kirkland, joined as young girls, Betty only 17, because she was too young to get in the WRNS. This is Betty, standing right at the front. Elsie simply fell for the uniform. This comprised corduroy breeches with a green sweater to work in, and alpaca for best. ‘The overcoat was lovely and warm,’ Elsie remembers, ‘in a reddish brown with a fleece lining.’ Both women felt proud to wear the crossed brass axes stitched on to it, and the Timber Corps hat which was later changed to a green beret. They wore halfway boots which laced up over wool socks, turning these down when it was fine, up when it was wet.

Of those first days in training, Elsie remembers huts of corrugated iron, accommodating up to thirty girls in each. She was provided with a blanket and a pair of sheets and matron insisted on hospital corners which she didn’t know how to do, so was made to do them over and over until she got it right. Every morning they would be woken by a loud bell followed by a bellowing voice telling them to, ‘Stand by your beds’. It made Elsie feel as if she truly had joined the army.

At the end of the month of training, qualified candidates were formally enrolled in the Timber Corps and sent to work up and down the country, some to timber merchants, the rest employed by the Home Timber Production Department, often far from home so that they had to be billeted with farmers or forestry workers. The farmer provided the tools, which must be kept sharp. Blisters were common, as were aching muscles but there was little time for sympathy or pampering.

Elsie shows me her hands, happily explaining that they have been scarred ever since. ‘Mother had a fit when she saw them. But over time the skin went hard and you never felt it after that,’ she told me. Neither Elsie nor Betty had any complaints but rather recalled with good humour back aches, chopped fingers, sun stroke, and spiders in their clothing.

They undoubtedly loved the work, and claimed to be stronger and feel fitter for being outdoors, ailing little in the way of coughs and colds. But undoubtedly it was a hard life, and many Timber Jills were not so fortunate, suffering much worse problems, even attacks from unsympathetic farmers or foresters.

The Timber Corps recruits were taught how to take trees down, how to use a bushman saw, and a longer cross-cut type which needed someone at each end. Betty explained how the tree must be cut close to the ground, leaving no stool that you could trip over, or a tractor bump into. She used a 5lb Ellwood Felling axe which she still uses to this day, for all she is passed eighty. On all of my visits there was always a good stack of wood standing outside her cottage, that she’d chopped herself. ‘At seventeen, and quite small, it was a hard job to peel off all the bark, and take out the knots with a draw knife,’ she said. ‘The final task was to burn all the remaining small twigs and leaves, known as brash, to avoid bugs which could infect the remaining trees.’ Elsie recalls her first felling with some amusement. ‘I was so excited I called out timber, and one of the men working nearby shouted, ‘Look out, there’s a match-stick coming down.’ She furiously informed him that when she was as big as him she’d take a big one down.

Betty worked for most of the war in Grizedale Forest close to the German POW Camp, which was strictly for officers. She remembers the PoWs used to march up and down the road for exercise. They’d make comments to the girls and the guard would shout at them: ‘Eyes front.’ There was a machine gun trained on them the whole time, much to the outrage of the prisoners. ‘We are German Officers, and if we say we will not escape, we will keep our word.’

In my book Gracie’s Sin, an escape is attempted, based on a true incident. The three girls struggled to do their bit in the war. Lou sees it as a way to stay near her lovely new husband. Instead it brings heartache and tears, fear and betrayal. Yet it is she who holds the friends together when the going gets tough. For Rose it means escape from her bullying brother. But her desperate search for love and acceptance leads the fun loving girl to change and be willing to inflict the same cold hearted treatment upon others; even her closest friends. And Gracie commits the greatest sin of all, by falling in love with a German officer.

Gracie’s sin, now available in the Kindle Store

1 comment:

Rosemary Gemmell said...

What a fascinating post, Freda - forgotten indeed!