by Mary Fraser (Associate, The Scottish Centre for Crime & Justice Research, University of Glasgow)
This blog is part of our EHS 2020 Annual Conference Blog Series.
That policemen across Britain were released to plough the fields in the food shortages of 1917 is currently unrecognised, although soldiers, prisoners of war, women and school children have been widely acknowledged as helping agriculture. A national project is seeking to redress the imbalance in our understanding.
In March 1917, Britain faced starvation. Massive losses of shipping, which brought around 80% of the population’s requirements of grain, mainly from America and Canada, were being sunk by enemy U-boats. Added to this, the harsh and lengthy winter rotted the potato crop in the ground. These factors largely removed two staple items from the diet: bread and potatoes. Together with soaring food prices, the poor faced starvation.
To overcome this threat, the campaign to change the balance from pasture to arable began in December 1916 (Ernle, 1961). Government took control of farming and demanded a huge increase in home-grown grain and potatoes, so that Britain could become self-sufficient in food.
But the land had been stripped of much of its skilled labour by the attraction of joining the army or navy, so that farmers felt helpless to respond. Also, equipment was idle due to lack of maintenance as mechanics had similarly signed up to war or had left for better-paid work in the munitions factories. The need to help farmers to produce home-grown food was so great that every avenue was explored.
When the severe winter broke around mid-March, not only were many hundreds of soldiers deployed to farms, but also local authorities were asked to help. One of the first groups to come forward was the police. Many had been skilled farm workers in their previous employment and so were ideal to operate the manual ploughs, which needed skill and strength to turn over heavy soil, some of which had not been ploughed for many years.
A police popular journal at the time revealed ‘Police as Ploughmen’ and gave many of the 18 locations across Britain (Fraser, 2019). Estimates are that between 500 and 600 policemen were released, some for around two months.
For example, Glasgow agreed to the release of 90 policemen while Berwick, Roxburgh and Selkirk agreed to release 40. These two areas were often held up as examples of how other police forces across Britain could help farmers: Glasgow being an urban police force while Berwick, Roxburgh and Selkirk was rural.
To release this number was a considerable contribution by police forces, as many of their young fit policemen had also been recruited into the army, to be partially replaced by part-time older Special Constables.
This help to farmers paid huge dividends. It prevented the food riots seen in other combatant nations, such as Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia and France (Ziemann, 2014). By the harvest of 1917, the substitution of ploughmen allowed Britain to claim an increase of 1,000,000 acres of arable land, producing over 4,000,000 more tons of wheat, barley, oats and potatoes (Ernle, 1961). Britain was also able to send food to troops in France and Italy, supplementing their local failed harvests.
It is now time that policemen were recognised for their social conscience by helping their local populations. This example of ‘Police as Ploughmen’ shows that as well as investigations, cautions and arrests, the police in Britain also have a remit to help local people, particularly in times of dire need, such as in the food crisis of the First World War.
Ernle, Lord (RE Prothero) (1961) English Farming, Past and Present, 6th edition, Heinemann Educational Book Ltd.
Fraser, M (2019) Policing the Home Front, 1914-1918: The control of the British population at war, Routledge.
Ziemann, B (2014) The Cambridge History of the First World War. Volume 2: The State.