Starting to write a new novel is both an overwhelming and, contrarily, exciting experience for me as I never know which path the book will take me. In my latest novel, The Orphan’s Secret, Lily Armstrong, enlists in the Women’s Timber Corps – something of which I had no knowledge. But I soon became both absorbed and overawed at the life of a Lumberjill during WW2. They were the forgotten army.
While her husband was in the army and serving his country abroad, Lily became discontented with the drudgery of life on the home front. With no signs of starting a family, she wanted to do her bit for the war effort. It was the speech the minister for labour, Ernest Bevin, gave in spring 1942 when he’d declared that one million wives were wanted for war work. that Lily became unsettled and decided to register for war service.
At the time, it became compulsory for single women between certain ages to register for war service. Lily was exempt because of domestic responsibilities, and being married to a serviceman she was only expected to do local war work – nevertheless, she desperately wanted to do her bit and join the forces.
It was after the news report that the Second Battle of El Alamein marked a turning point in the North African front and Winston Churchill’s speech, ‘This is not the end, not even the beginning of the end, but, possibly, the end of the beginning.’ that Lily, determined to count in the war, took herself off to the labour exchange and enlisted.
‘You’ll be drafted to the Women’s Land Army and join the Women’s timber Corps,’ she was informed by a recruitment officer.
With a critical shortage of both timber and labour – as men were away fighting – the government reluctantly opened lumber work for women to apply. In April 1942 the Women’s Timber Corps became a separate organisation from the WLA. Girls from all walks of life, hairdressers, university graduates, domestic servants, office clerks, sales assistants, were required to report to the local labour exchange and found themselves drafted into the WTC.
Thousands of young girls left the security and comforts of home to do gruelling and arduous work in wintry elements – felling trees, driving tractors and lorries to haul timber, operating circular saws. Some found themselves living in appalling conditions in billets in rural areas with no electricity, outside hand pumps and make-shift lavatory down the garden. There was a brighter side, working outdoors in the beautiful countryside, the camaraderie with the other girls, a sense of achievement at contributing to the war effort, and last but not least, the friendship for many that lasted over a lifetime.
Lumberjills were known as the forgotten army and estimates put their numbers at between 6,000 and 13,000 at various stages of the war. They were officially disbanded in August 1946 and the women were requested to hand back their uniform. It was not until 2000 that members of the WTC were allowed to take part in the annual Remembrance Sunday parade in London.
It wasn’t until more than sixty years later in 2007 that members of the WTC received their richly deserved first formal recognition for their war effort. A life-sized bronze sculpture of a Lumberjill was unveiled by the forestry commission in Scotland, dedicated to the members of the Women’s Timber Corps.
Though the time Lily spent as a Lumberjill in The Orphan’s Secret was brief, the research required for the life and times of a Lumberjill, proved a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening experience for me.
The forgotten army