Even youngsters below the school leaving age of 12 had their lives shaped by the conflict. Their lessons were disrupted or abandoned as they collected eggs for wounded soldiers, grew fruit and vegetables or picked blackberries to make jam for soldiers. School logbooks record that girls knitted and sewed scarves, socks and other items for the troops which delayed their usual needlework classes. Girls also helped put on plays and pageants to raise funds for the Red Cross or provide entertainment for wounded troops in convalescent hospitals across Worcestershire.
Food was a weapon of war, as the country sought to feed the nation and the army despite the U-boat attacks on ships attempting to transport the food which Britain had traditionally imported from the USA, Canada and other countries. In the Vale of Evesham and the fields around the market town of Pershore, growing fruit and vegetables became vital war work. Most famously they grew the Pershore plums which were used to make jam that troops were supplied with as part of their daily rations.
Schoolgirls and young women from Birmingham University helped harvest these plums. They also picked strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, hops and peas during their holidays. In 1917 one student complained her memories of six weeks working in the fields were: ‘blurred – by vistas and vistas of green. …Green peas!’ For she explained: ‘we picked peas of all varieties and peas in all directions’.
Many young girls took time off school – with or without official permission – to undertake agricultural work. Alternatively, in August 1915, Henry Pitt was fined for not sending his two children, Alice and Annie, to school. His wife explained she kept the children away to mind her other younger children while she went to work on the land.
Working in the fields was no rural idyll; the labour was long, arduous, and sometimes dangerous. As the war came to an end on 1918 a sixteen-year-old girl languished and died in Evesham hospital as a consequence of an accident with agricultural machinery. She was as much a tragic victim of war as the boy soldiers many of us have heard about in the Great War.
By Maggie Andrews