The first land girls in World War One

John Freeman made a huge contribution to the recent Rohilla Exhibition at The Pannett and saw the current exhibition Reflections of the Great War as a natural progression.

The whole experience for John was an enormous inspiration. “In all my career the Rohilla was one of the most emotionally moving things I’ve done

In hindsight the drama and heroism of the Rohilla rescue hightlighted how a similar tragedy now would have played out.

“For a start Peart (one of the most heroic of rescuers) would not have been allowed to wade out to sea. This individual act of heroism would have been quashed by health and safety.”

John has submitted three works in the current exhibition, two of which continue the theme of the Rohilla rescue. It was the historical details and nuances that fascinated John.

“Women went along to the Scaur and with food and tea. There was a collective sense of all Whitby wanting to be involved in the rescue, doing whatever they could.”

His initial response to finding new subject matter for the Reflections show was to attach some meaning that had a resonance with him.

“I didn’t want to depict the trenches for example as I had no experience of that. I do alot of walking in the landscape around here and after thinking about women’s involvement in the Rohilla rescue, I wanted to highlight what women did in WW1.”

“Prior to popular belief women did actually sometimes wear trousers.”

As more women started to work on the land their wardrobe changed often wearing gaiters, boots and pale linen smocks. It took the Second World War to see the Land Jills as they were known in the First World War, into a more organised and acknowledged work force. Subsequently there was little visual reference for their earlier sisters for John to work from as he imagined them doing logging work in the forest.

What can be imagined is the shock of women working alongside lumberjacks. “There’s still echoes of discomfort now with modern society, women doing things traditionally associated with men. So it must have been quite a shock for men back then to see women doing forestry work. But they did.”

Through his research John discovered how Canadian Mounties were drafted in to advise the newly depleted workforce that had been diminished due to the call up, and wore their iconic Mounite hats to identify themselves.

John’s landscape leads you in with felled tree trunks and lumber to the left, a path takes you in towards the women wearing smocks, past the Canadian Mounties. It looks like people quietly getting on with their work. The environment feels safe and sheltered, though the canopy of tree foliage that puts a roof on this painting is dark and inky in colour, which suggests foreboding. The trees in the distance are stumps and bleakly echo the devastation that was wrought on landscapes affected by the war.

“It is a tightrope as you have your impression of what it was like re-foresting the land at that time, and the concern is that your not getting it right, so it becomes a feeling of what happened.”

Imaging women felling tree’s reminds us of how elements of the war have been forgotten.The Land Jills would have approved of John remembering them.