Australian women who did it ‘for the boys’ during WWII

Victoria Purman, author of The Land Girls, writes about the vital, and often forgotten, role Australian women played during WWII.


During World War II, more than 990,000 Australians served in the armed forces.

The battles they fought in, the sacrifices they made and their heroic deeds have since then become the stuff of legend. The stories of their exploits and adventures fill the shelves of our bookstores and libraries, such is the insatiable appetite Australians have for reading about this aspect of our history. And most of it is men’s history.

But how much do we know about the women who also made sacrifices for the war?

Women were there in almost every theatre of war. More than 66,000 of them enlisted in a branch of the women’s services during the war and thousands more served as nurses, doctors and allied health professionals in theatres of war all over the world.

And at home more than 5000 women answered the call to ‘do it for the boys’, to replace the male farm workers who’d gone off to war or those who’d left farms to take up essential war work. It’s not an exaggeration to say that through their labours, Australia was able to keep its citizens and its troops fed.

When the Commonwealth put out a call for women to fill those jobs, thousands and thousands of them walked away from offices, factories, shops and typing pools to answer the call to ‘do it for the boys’.

They worked in shearing sheds, herding sheep and classing wool. On farms all over the country, they picked grapes and potatoes and oranges and cherries and onions. When Australia was forced to create a flax industry, because European flax supplies had been so severely disrupted, they harvested flax. (Flax was turned into linen thread which made shoelaces and canvas tents and parachutes.)

They drove tractors and repaired farm machinery. Some of them were away from home for years, all the while earning about half of the men they’d replaced.

Researching the work of the women of the Land Army for The Land Girls was a joy. I delved into WWII, reading historical books about the war as well as doing my own primary research. The Keith Murdoch Sound Archive of Australia in the war of 1939–45, held at the Australian War Memorial, was a treasure trove as I was able to listen to former members of the Land Army telling their own stories, which revealed they were far from ordinary women. I was also lucky enough to have access to original letters and other memorabilia – sent by my husband’s Uncle Reg back to his family – from both the Middle East and New Guinea during the war years.

These women not only discovered a new-found sense of freedom, but among the other Land Girls they met friends they could turn to in their darkest hours. For they had loved ones fighting abroad too, and suffered their own grief and losses. After the war, their work and sacrifices were largely forgotten, and I hope my book brings their adventures, toil and sacrifices to light.

When the Federal Government finally recognised the efforts of the women of the Australian Land Army in 2012, the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard officially honoured them with a place in the history of our nation.

She said, ‘You went to take up the work of the men who had left for the front. Some of them were your fathers, brothers, or even sons. In doing so, you brought victory closer, just as if you had picked a rifle yourself. The life I’ve been privileged to lead is only possible because women of courage like you were there first; in the tough years, the desperate years, when the nation faced its ultimate test.’

It was a joy and honour to be in their world while I was writing the book, and to bring their stories to light all these years later.


 

The Land Girls by Victoria Purman 

A moving story of love, loss and survival against the odds by bestselling author of The Last of the Bonegilla Girls, Victoria Purman.

It was never just a man’s war…

Melbourne,1942

War has engulfed Europe and now the Pacific, and Australia is fighting for its future. For spinster Flora Atkins, however, nothing much has changed. Tending her dull office job and beloved brother and father, as well as knitting socks for the troops, leaves her relatively content. Then one day a stranger gives her brother a white feather and Flora’s anger propels her out of her safe life and into the vineyards of the idyllic Mildura countryside, a member of the Australian Women’s Land Army.

There she meets Betty, a 17-year-old former shopgirl keen to do her bit for the war effort and support her beloved, and the unlikely Lilian, a well-to-do Adelaide girl fleeing her overbearing family and theworld’s expectations for her. As the Land Girls embrace their new world of close-knit community and backbreaking work, they begin to find pride in their roles. More than that, they start to find a kind of liberation. For Flora, new friendships and the singular joy derived from working the land offer new meaning to her life, and even the possibility of love.

But as the clouds of war darken the horizon, and their fears for loved ones – brothers, husbands, lovers – fighting at the front grow, the Land Girls’ hold on their world and their new-found freedoms is fragile. Even if they make it through unscathed, they will not come through unchanged…

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Posted on April 9, 2019 by

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"Australian women who did it ‘for the boys’ during WWII"

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