“Police as Ploughmen”: temporary release to help farmers in the food crisis of First World War Britain


Mary Fraser, writingpolicehistory.blogspot.co.uk

My new open access article for Cultural and Social History develops the surprising and, to date, untold story of the release of policemen across Britain to help farmers plough the fields. Britain faced starvation in March 1917 due to the German blockade which sank increasing numbers of ships bringing essential foodstuffs. Britain was reliant on imports for 81% of wheat from which we made bread, a staple for around 80% of the population. The other staple food, potatoes, were unavailable for several months from February 1917 due to the severe weather and farmers removing them from sale due to government price fixing. The national food supply was in crisis, portrayed by Prime Minister Lloyd George in a letter to a county council chairman:

In view of the grave perils which threaten our food supply at the present time, there is no other kind of county work which could compare either in importance or urgency with the campaign for increased food production.”

Britain’s vulnerability was seen from the start of the war. When the crisis emerged, Government response was to implement the recommendations in the Milner Report (1915) which encouraged wheat growing and organising farming at district and county levels, so that Britain could become self-sufficient in crops. Whereas Britain was self-sufficient in milk, 12 times more land grazed cattle than grew crops, as imported crops were cheaper and easier to transport by sea. For Britain to become self-sufficient in crops, Government took control of farming mandating farmers to plough fallow and disused land, and later to plough pasture. The few farmers who resisted had their land taken over and re-allocated to a competent farmer using Defence of the Realm Regulations 2L and 2M.

‘Soldiers Released by the War Office for Land’, The Illustrated War News’ 4 April 1917, page 31

But farmers were initially unable to help, as many labourers had been recruited into the army. The Department of Agriculture set up the Food Production Department under Sir Arthur Lee to provide farmers with manpower, fertilisers, equipment and supplies. By agreement between the Army and the Board of Agriculture, thousands of soldiers from the Home Defence Force were released to farmers, but initially many were found to be either incompetent or unsuitable, farmers complained they were sent piano tuners, artists, dancers and journalists! Although said to be selected for their agricultural skills, many soldiers made false claims to minimise their risk of being sent to the Front to fight. In desperation, all other avenues of manpower help to farmers was explored including local authority staff and businesses not designated as high priority in wartime, such as commerce.

Local authorities, including Chief Constables, examined their workforces, identifying policemen as the most likely source of latent agricultural skills, around a third of police forces at that time recruited from agriculture. It was well known nationally that the most sought after recruits were from a rural background, as they had the ideal qualities for the police, being robust and easily amenable to discipline. Many local authorities lent policemen to farmers from early 1917, many remained on the land for the remainder of the war, as in Birmingham. The numbers found to date are shown in Table 1 below:


Table 1.

Release of policemen to plough, 1917 (found to date)

England Approximate numbers Scotland Approximate numbers
Cheshire 25 Glasgow 90
Colchester 4 Motherwell ?
Norfolk ? Berwick, Roxburgh & Selkirk 40
Birmingham 100 Greenock ?
Metropolitan Police 150 Edinburgh 50
Birkenhead 4 Dundee 40
Preston 3 Kincardineshire ?
Liverpool ? Ayr 2
St Albans 2 Coatbridge ?
Newcastle 2-3 per division
Sussex ?


The numbers in Table 1 can only be viewed as approximate, for example Glasgow showed different numbers depending on the newspaper or report, and in some locations no numbers were given. All reports show the policemen provided a good service to farmers and were praised for their work:

The hundred or so members of the Birmingham City Police who are now working on the land are giving every satisfaction to their employers”

The above quotation was published in the weekly police journal The Police Review and Parade Gossip, organ of the British Constabulary, where many columns headed “Police as Ploughmen” were found. There is no indication when they returned to police duties, but many were initially released for around two months in March/April 1917.

The question is, why would police forces release policemen to farmers, when they were already hugely understaffed due to many being released into the army? In a time when men of military age (18-41) were pilloried by the press and the public for not signing up, the police benefited as those temporarily released from the service were out of public view, indistinguishable from others, able to provide welcome help to farmers in an industry of high national importance and were more likely to return unharmed afterwards. By their release, fewer younger policemen were noticeable on the streets. Furthermore, those substituted into agriculture remained under police control, usually allocated close to home, easily recalled in an emergency, which the replacement Special Constables were feared unable to control.

Government strategies of self-sufficiency in food resulted in few food riots in Britain. Feeding the population was handled better in Britain than in many other combatant nations.


About the author: Dr Mary Fraser researches the history of the police, particularly during 1900-1920. Her latest book, Policing the Home Front 1914-1918: The Control of the British Population At War, was published by Routledge in 2019. Her latest article, ‘”Police as Ploughmen”: temporary release as to help farmers in the food crisis of First World War Britain’ has recently been published in Cultural and Social History. She runs the Writing Police History blog and is an associate of the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research.

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