As the wind howls and the rain lashes down at the beginning of August one can’t but help feel for the farmers. They spent June wishing for rain and July wishing it would stop. One hopes that August and September will provide some suitable weather to allow them to bring in a bumper harvest. Such a boon is all the more essential given the cost of living crisis made worse by Putin’s targeting of grain coming out of Ukraine and India’s ban on rice exports. Food has long been used as a weapon of war right back to the days of the siege in ancient warfare.
1942 was a bad year for Britain. Singapore had fallen; Tobruk had fallen; Malta was under siege. Between January and June Britain had lost 382 merchant and cargo vessels and a total of 3000 ships of all kinds. Feeding the population in the third year of the war was going to be difficult. Great efforts had been made to plough up land that had been left unused for years, some of it since the Napoleonic Wars. Evidence of this was seen in Cornwall with fields created in the First World War being reused for the first time since that conflict at Langstone Downs and Sharptor on Bodmin Moor or strips of coastal heathland being used to farm potatoes such as at Mawgan Porth. The harvest of 1942 was going to be crucial for the survival of the nation.
The Emergency Powers Act of 1939 empowered the Ministry of Agriculture to control food production, including taking possession of farms or terminating farmers’ tenancies if, in the Ministry’s view, the land was neglected or inefficiently farmed. War Agricultural Committees were set up for each county charged with increasing home food production. The ‘War Ags’ had seen an extra 1.7 million acres put under the plough by April 1940. Farmers had ploughed through the night, the numbers of tractors had increased and the Women’s Land Army was used to replace the young farm workers called up to fight. By 1942 an extra six million acres had been cultivated. But now the country was reaching the make or break point.
August started and it rained. And it rained. And it continued raining. The farmers were concerned that every day lost would reduce the time to get the harvest in. So on 3rd September 1942 at the King’s call Britain held a National Day of Prayer. George VI had instigated these ‘national days’ in 1940 when our forces were facing wipeout on the beaches of Dunkirk. What Churchill termed as a ‘miracle of deliverance’ followed and Britain was able to rescue many of its fighting men (and a good number of the French as well) to continue to stand up to the advance of Nazi tyranny. The idea of a national day of prayer goes back to the tenth century when King Aethelred called for the kingdom to pray in response to the Danish invasion and have been held at nearly 900 key points in Britain’s history since. Now in 1942 the King called for a special focus on the need for a good harvest.
So on Thursday 3rd September 1942 the nation prayed. Every church, chapel and cathedral was full. Leading the way was Prime Minister Winston Churchill who attended the prayer service at Westminster Abbey with his wife Clementine and his daughter Mary. Even essential war work in the factories and offices was halted by order of the government so workers could listen to a special 15 minute service broadcast by the BBC. In the Order of Service used in Anglican churches (and copied by many others) the reading was from 1 Peter 5 with a call for the nation to humble itself under God’s mighty hand.
The weather in September was fine. The people rallied to the fields to bring in the harvest. People gave up their holidays & their weekends to help out. 80,000 British & Commonwealth troops were made available to help out. US troops in Britain who came from a farming background were drafted in to help. School children went on harvest camps such as the schoolboys from Bodmin County School who travelled to farms near Penzance to gather potatoes, or the girls of St Angels School from Forest Gate, London, evacuated to Newquay, who helped with potato picking on the cliffs at Mawgan Porth.
Not everyone was so helpful. The West Briton reported in August that two starry-eyed lovers had been fined for damaging wheat in a field. Fred Farrell of 9 Railway Cottages, Falmouth and Lily Quintrell of 39 Tresillian Road, Falmouth were each fined £1 by magistrates for going into a wheat field owned by Norman Dale of Eastwood, Penryn, and lying down on the wheat damaging the crop. They had been caught by Special Constable Cole. The defendants expressed their regret.
1942 saw a record harvest. Pathe News reported on a record yield of corn with barns and ricks filled to overflowing. In an unprecedented postscript to the BBC nine o’clock news on Old Michaelmas Night, 10th October 1942, Robert Hudson, Minister of Agriculture, acknowledged that God had answered the nation’s prayers: “This also would I say to you in humility and seriousness. Much hard work and technical skill have played their part in these mighty yields, amongst the richest of all time. But I believe we have a higher Power to thank as well, and from the depths of our hearts. Some power has wrought a miracle in the English harvest fields this summer, for in this, our year of greatest need, the land has given us bread in greater abundance than we have ever known before. The prayer, "Give us this day our daily bread," has in these ties a very direct meaning for us all.”
That wasn’t the only blessing either. The siege of Malta was broken by Operation Pedestal and Operation Stone Age. Rommel’s army got bogged down in the desert allowing Montgomery to ready his troops for the decisive battle of El Alamein in October. The Japanese suffer their first reversals of the war in Papua New Guinea. 1942 was viewed as a turning point in the war.
Britain’s soil increased in productivity for the remainder of the war and by 1944 the nation was able to feed itself for roughly 160 days a year compared to the 120 that had been possible at the start of the war. Along with rationing, the increased use of allotments and the ‘Dig For Victory’ campaign that saw lawns, parks, school grounds and sports pitches and every conceivable space turned into a vegetable plot, the British population became fitter and healthier eating a healthier diet, as studies by the University of Southampton have shown.
In a modern world where many are sceptical of those who have faith in Almighty God, two quotations from the Bible may remind us that God has revealed He is involved in what happens in our world.
The Lord appeared to Solomon and said:
“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
2 Chronicles 7 v12-14
The word of the Lord through Malachi:
“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse that there may be food in my house. Test me in this, says the Lord Almighty, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room for it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit, says the Lord Almighty. Then all the nations will call you blessed for yours will be a delightful land, says the Lord Almighty.”
Malachi 3 v10-12
May there be many in church and chapel this year to sing the harvest hymn:
We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land,
but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand.
God sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
the breezes, and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.
All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above.
We thank you, God, we thank you, God, for all your love.