Farming in the First World War

Agricultural workers and soldiers near Yeovil, c.1917. Image kindly loaned by Jack Sweet

Agricultural workers and soldiers near Yeovil, c.1917. Image kindly loaned by Jack Sweet.

“In view of the grave and increasing peril of the submarine campaign that national safety demands that at the earliest possible moment the United Kingdom must be made self-sustaining in the matter of food supplies.”

As part of our research into the county during the First World War, we have been reading the minutes of the Somerset War Agricultural Executive Committee. Established in 1917 the minutes of the committee show activities in the rural areas of the county.

The lack of labour meant many farms were not being fully cultivated and the committee ensured that soldiers were granted furloughs to help plant and gather harvests. The committee also requested that members of the home service units, with agricultural experience, particularly ploughing, were sent to Taunton Depot for employment throughout the county.

In May 1917 the Government stated that for the 1918 harvest 5,000,000 acres of grass needed to be cultivated – Somerset’s percentage was to be 90,000 acres. The parishes of Somerset were surveyed to find un-cultivated land which could be broken up for food crops.

Throughout 1917 the committee received many complaints about rabbits, sparrows, deer and pheasants ruining crops. Fred Parsons of Montacute was given exemption from military service to carry on his full-time employment as rabbit trapper, deer were hunted and trapped and Mr H F Popham of Hunstrete House, Marksbury, was asked to collect and dispose of pheasant eggs in his coverts in order to avoid an increase in population.

However, not everyone was in favour of breaking ground for cultivation. Revd J Dalton, vicar of Creech St Michael, was ordered to cultivate 15 ½ acres of Glebe (church) land in the parish. In July 1917 Mrs Bonham-Christie of Marston House, Marston Bigott, was issued with an order to cultivate, ready for cropping the kitchen garden at Marston House. Not complying with the order, in October 1917 she was called before the local magistrates and fined £10 (equivalent to around £600 today), and ordered to start cultivation before the end of the month.

Marston House in 1965

Marston House in 1965.

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One thought on “Farming in the First World War

  1. Further reading of the minutes of the Somerset War Agricultural Committee minutes shows, that at a meeting on 26 March 1918 Mrs Bonham Christie, was again in the spotlight. A complaint had been received by the Ministry of National Service and forwarded by them to the Food Production Department, bemoaning the number of soldiers employed by Mrs Bonham Christie on the cultivation of her garden at Marston Park. It seems that she had compiled with the order to cultivate her land, but could only do it by using soldiers from the labour battalions.

    As shortages of food increased throughout 1918, the army labour battalions were in much use across Somerset, replacing the farm workers who had enlisted into the army.

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