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The Battle of the Fields

The Battle of the Fields: Rural Community and Authority in Britain during the Second World War

Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 432
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  • Book Info
    The Battle of the Fields
    Book Description:

    The Battle of the Fields tells the story of rural community and authority in Britain during the Second World War by looking at the County War Agricultural Executive Committees. From 1939 they were imbued with powers to transform British farming to combat the loss of food imports caused by German naval activity and initial European mainland successes. Their powers were sweeping and draconian. When fully exercised against recalcitrant farmers, dispossession in part or whole could and did result. This book includes the most detailed analysis of these dispossessions including the tragic case of Ray Walden, the Hampshire farmer who was killed by police after refusing to leave his farmhouse in 1940. The committees were deemed successful by Whitehall as harbingers of modernity: mechanization, draining, artificial fertilizers, reclamation of heaths, marshes and woodlands. We now deplore some of these changes but Britain did not starve, in large part thanks to their efforts. This book will appeal not only to historians and geographers, but to many who maintain a deep interest in the British countryside and its past, and to those who continue to share a fascination for the Second World War, in particular the 'home front'. It will also demonstrate to all who are anxious about food security in the modern age how this question was dealt with 70 years ago. BRIAN SHORT is Emeritus Professor of Historical Geography at the University of Sussex, and formerly Dean of School and Head of the Department of Geography.

    eISBN: 978-1-78204-316-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of illustrations
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction: Writing food security in the mid-twentieth century
    (pp. 1-12)

    In recent years governments in many parts of the world have begun to pay particular attention to a collision of stress factors surrounding food security. As expanding economies in Asia and South America come to demand better nutritional standards, as climatic extremes and uncertainties threaten crops, and as population growth and warfare continue to place great strains on food supplies in much of Africa and Asia, so the western democracies have been forced to look carefully at their policy responses. Biophysical and technological emphases (e.g. GM foods) have been advanced to boost food production and its availability. But at the...

  6. Chapter 1 Prelude: The 1930s and the origins and purpose of state intervention in farming
    (pp. 13-33)

    The formation and subsequent work of the committees did not take place on a blank sheet. They were the products of experience, trial and error and the vicissitudes of interwar economic and political change. So now we set the scene by examining the prewar countryside to see the difficulties within which farming operated and the growth of government intervention and assistance.

    All was not well in the British countryside in the 1920s and 1930s. In comparison with the prosperous later years of the First World War and through to 1921, it certainly seemed to contemporaries that arable farming struggled, and...

  7. Chapter 2 Rural society on the eve of war
    (pp. 34-53)

    This chapter examines the main threads of stability and change as rural Britain entered total war. And in examining the rural societies within which the CWAECs were to operate, we encounter the perceptions of rurality held by different social groups, the tensions internal to rural areas, and the differing contemporary perspectives on farming and on countryside living.

    Despite the increasing attention paid by government to the economic problems of farming, rural working families could reasonably consider themselves as secondclass citizens on the outbreak of war. By 1939 80 per cent of the population of England and Wales was urban, compared...

  8. Chapter 3 The arrival of the county committees and their structures
    (pp. 54-89)

    By the middle of May 1940 Nazi Germany controlled the west European coastline from Narvik to Bayonne, and U-boat attacks impacted severely on British food imports, such that the London docks saw only 25 per cent of their normal traffic. Countries previously supplying such food items as butter, eggs and bacon, as well as timber, were now under German occupation. It is remarkable that 99 per cent of all ships sailing from North America to Britain during the war arrived safely.² But much of that shipping was desperately required for munitions rather than food. Furthermore the infrastructure at British ports...

  9. Chapter 4 The membership of the county committees and their role in farm surveillance
    (pp. 90-127)

    Although the independence of the Minister’s selection of members was emphasised to deflect criticism of undue local favouritism (or the reverse), it is nevertheless true that there was a fairly limited supply of people with the time, experience and ability suitable for membership of the new committees. The tormented Laurie Lee, sitting in on CWAEC meetings and writingLand at Warfor the Ministry of Information ‘in a poverty-stricken vocabulary of about 100 words’, portrayed the members and their meetings as ‘no talk shop but a hard-bitten band of fighters who had a very real and critical battle on hand’.²...

  10. Chapter 5 Networking the rural community
    (pp. 128-153)

    Stanley Baldwin referred to the ‘stability, solid morality, and wisdom of the countryside’ but appeals to rural idyllicism, to organic solidarity, or even to aesthetic considerations were rapidly relegated when the requirement was for swift increases in productivity.² In the harsh conditions of war, even on the rural home front, there would be losers and those called upon to make sacrifices, even if only temporarily and even if such sacrifices were of aspiration rather than life itself. Having detailed their structures and memberships, we now move on to examine the social context of the CWAECs’ work.

    The surveillance and control...

  11. Chapter 6 Dispossessing farmers in England and Wales during and after the war
    (pp. 154-196)

    In this chapter the CWAECs’ role will be discussed in relation to the dispossession of farmers from their land, a contentious issue that, although relatively well known, was little discussed in the heat of war, but whose impact lingered, especially of course with the dispossessed farmers themselves and their relatives. Indeed, even after the war, the issue continued to rankle as powers of dispossession remained in force until repealed in the Agriculture Act 1958. More particularly we focus on dispossession at three different scales: the national, regional and individual. The last level is examined more particularly in Chapter 7. Each...

  12. Chapter 7 Power and tragedy: The sad case of Ray Walden
    (pp. 197-221)

    Having outlined the CWAECs’ powers of dispossession and the various scales at which this power could be analysed, we can now turn from the aggregate to the singular, from statistical abstraction to human frailty. In particular we examine a clash between one committee, that for Hampshire, and one Hampshire farmer. At the local scale, Whitehall policies become meaningful social relations, human feelings and experience. An otherwise unremarkable farmer, George Raymond (known locally as Ray) Walden, was shot dead by police in July 1940, in his own farmhouse. This chapter demonstrates and evaluates the extreme measures available to CWAECs and the...

  13. Chapter 8 Reclamation: Environmental and landscape transformation, 1939–45
    (pp. 222-266)

    Ecocide, or environmental destruction, and the attack on culturally significant buildings, have been highlighted as purposeful elements in wartime tactics, quite different from the impact of collateral damage.² Military commanders have indeed, for centuries, deliberately targeted the environment of their enemies. We may now be witnessing the beginnings of large-scale environmental stresses, such as water shortages, which may play an important role in the causes of war. But another form of wartime environmental impact has been less studied: the transformation of landscapes to meet emergency needs of food. By late 1939 British preparations for a siege economy propelled the countryside...

  14. Chapter 9 Reclamation: The Fenland and coastal marshes
    (pp. 267-297)

    In order to give due weight to the CWAECs’ efforts at reclamation, and the difficulties faced in attempting to change landscapes and agricultural practices as fast as possible, we now turn in more detail to the coastal marshlands and the Fenland.

    We saw in Chapter 8 that many different environments were subjected to committee transformation, and in line with this all around the coasts potential sites for reclamation were sought. Floodplains were inspected because their fertility might now be released for food supplies, although this placed drainage at a premium and impacted on surface water runoff and thereby on soil...

  15. Chapter 10 Wartime farming and state control in Scotland and Northern Ireland
    (pp. 298-343)

    The overall government strategy for agriculture, of setting policies nationally to be implemented by those who understood local conditions, was nowhere better exemplified than in relation to Northern Ireland and Scotland. In the former, however, there were no strict equivalents to the CWAECs, with the Ministry in Northern Ireland being the decisive authority. In Scotland there was also a greater degree of centralisation, with the Agricultural Executive Committees (AECs) functioning in similar ways to their counterparts in England and Wales, although lacking some of their powers. This chapter illustrates the overall organisation of the war effort in Scotland and Northern...

  16. Chapter 11 Representation, memory and fiction
    (pp. 344-368)

    So far we have viewed the CWAECs and countryside largely through the lenses of official documents and oral histories. But we can also investigate contemporary representations, both officially blessed and unofficial, especially since the Second World War saw radio and print media coming fully into their own. The messages from central authorities were actively intended to promote patriotic citizenship, ‘we are all in it together’. They worked either directly or subliminally. Those receiving the messages, however transmitted, were culturally attuned to ‘read’ them in approximately the same way, with a tacit understanding. In many cases they were symbolic of ‘Englishness’...

  17. Chapter 12 1945 and postwar continuities
    (pp. 369-400)

    Amidst the cheering of VE celebrations in May 1945 the unremarked farming routines of the countryside continued. Street’s apposite comments above relate to perceptions of the countryside fostered by the media and by many middle-class and urban people. The reality of postwar rural life was different.

    From as early as 1942 Whitehall officials had pondered how their administrative structures, established to ensure continuing food supplies in wartime, might be adapted to possible postwar outcomes. The end of the war in Europe brought its own tensions for farming but the period immediately after 1945 saw an ongoing level of governmental support...

  18. Chapter 13 Contradictions in a countryside at war
    (pp. 401-417)

    This study has concentrated on the work of the committees who picked up British farming from its depressed prewar state and revolutionised British farming after 1939. The way in which the government achieved this, and the resulting impact on farming landscapes and rural populations were not however necessarily replicated elsewhere. The years 1939–45 were ones of global conflict and anxieties about food security, and there were many parts of the world where emergency powers were enacted to ensure some continuity of food supplies. Across Europe, for example, Allied, neutral and Axis governments implemented their own food programmes, sometimes as...

  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 418-446)
  20. Index
    (pp. 447-468)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 469-469)