by Jo Spouncer, author of The Lumberjills
After more than seventy years the first commemorative statue to the Women’s Timber Corps of World War Two has been unveiled in England. On Remembrance Sunday in Dalby Forest in Yorkshire, the Forestry Commission made its tribute to the forgotten army of more than 9,000 Lumberjills who did their bit for the war with an axe and saw.
My journey getting to know The Lumberjills started nearly three years ago in 2011 when I was working for the Forestry Commission. I discovered that the first pioneering women to work in forestry were from World War One in the Women’s Forestry Service and then thousands more followed in World War Two in the Women’s Timber Corps. But what was intriguing was that few people had heard of them before.
Wood was needed for everything in the World Wars. Half of it went down mines to keep the coal seams open fuelling wartime industries. The other half of the wood was used for anything and everything from aircraft, ships and high explosives to railway sleepers, telegraph poles, gun butts and cannon wheels. The Forestry Commission was set up in 1919 to preserve and expand our forests after the heavy felling of World War One, so the history of the Lumberjills is closely linked.
But it seemed extraordinary to think that a hundred years ago women were fighting for the right to vote with the Suffragette movement in peacetime Britain. But at war, a few years later, thousands of women were readily recruited to fell, chop and saw trees by hand while men were away at war. A job that previously no-one ever thought women could do. Similarly in World War Two women left domestic work, secretarial or hairdressing jobs for the Timber Corps, swapping scissors and a comb for an axe and saw, and the attitude was much the same.
I discovered in my early research that, like the Land Army, the Lumberjills received no recognition for 65 years. Until in 2007, Forestry Commission Scotland commissioned a statue for Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, near Aberfoyle, and a Women’s Land Army and Timber Corps veterans badge was issued by the government.
But when I visited the National Archives in Kew to find out more I found all the records except one sample folder had been destroyed. At the time it felt like someone wanted the story to be kept quiet and stay forgotten, because after all who would believe that the women could fell trees as well as the men all those years ago.
Yet to me this was an incredible story about the gentle and quiet, yet powerful force of women and nature working together to support men on the front line at war, which had to be told. So I have written about it in the form of a novel entitled, The Lumberjills.
So three years later, the book is progressing well and it is wonderful to see the life size statue up in front of the glorious autumn colours at Haygate on the main drive into Dalby Forest. I really admire the Forestry Commission team and the sculptor, Ray Lonsdale, for their dedication to achieving something really beautiful and capturing so well what life was like for the Lumberjills – VERY hard work but a lot of fun.
I have met many amazing, spirited women during the course of my research, who never imagined that their wartime contribution was of interest to anyone. In my next few blogs I will share some of their stories, so many more people realise what important work was done in our forests.