by Claudio Russo
Norah Elizabeth Baddeley, more affectionately known as Betty by her friends and family, was one of thousands of women who made up the Australian Women’s Land Army (AWLA). During World War II, the then Prime Minister, John Curtin, issued a call to Australia’s women to “be at the service of the Government to work in the defence of Australia”.
Like many of her friends at the time, Betty felt the need to contribute and become part of the war effort. At 16, she packed her bags and began a career in fruit picking, which unbeknown to her, would lead to a life full of travel and adventure.
By 1943 Betty had received her first posting to Young, a town renowned for its rich produce and proud history. The days were long and the work was hard, often leaving her with calloused hands and bulging knots in her shoulders. But she never complained, “You didn’t complain back then, you just got on with the job.”
Associate Professor Melanie Oppenheimer, of University of New England, has devoted much of her academic career to the role of women in war. “These women had had enough of the ‘get married, have children’ mentality and saw this narrow-minded view of life as a limitation, they chose the outdoor life, and as 85 per cent of the Land Army girls were from the city; they saw this as an opportunity to travel and get free.”
Prior to the establishment of the AWLA, there were three key women’s auxiliary services that performed stereotypically masculine jobs, such as maintenance and construction of machinery for aircraft, as well as more traditional roles like that of a stenographer. The Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAF), the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) and the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) were made up of approximately 70,000 women and, unlike the AWLA, were recognised as a service and received all the conditions and benefits that came with it.
“The women didn’t know that the AWLA wasn’t an official fourth service. It was advertised and promoted just like the other auxiliary services, so they had no reason to believe they would receive anything less than those in, for example, the WAAF or AWAS,” Professor Oppenheimer says. “Once the war ended, many of the auxiliary services got disbanded, and the women of the AWLA have been fighting for some recognition ever since.”
Peggy Williams, 87, who is President of the New South Wales AWLA, has been leading the charge, telling all who will listen of the plight of “her girls.”
“It was ANZAC Day 2008 when, just before we began our march, there was some confusion about whether the girls would march before the Air Force,” she says, “The girls marched in front of the Air Force because they were told to, and the next day I received an angry call from an ex-servicewoman who told me the AWLA didn’t deserve to be in the march because we weren’t a legitimate fourth service. That’s when I decided that enough was enough.”
Through sheer persistence, and support from “some big people in town,” Peggy and her girls were officially recognised by the Federal Government on Monday 20 August 2012. Peggy Williams does not care whether it was a symbolic gesture. “It doesn’t matter. We don’t want compensation, it’s too late for that now, the girls are too old to worry about money. We just want recognition,” she says. “It’s important for people to know there was a war on, and their great-grandmothers, grandmothers and mothers gave up their feminine rights to support the war effort when the nation needed it the most.”
It came too late for Betty Baddeley. She died, aged 87, on the day of the AWLA’s recognition, one of many Land Army girls whose family members received golden brooches and certificates on their behalf. Betty’s daughter, Julie-Anne Crosariol, attended the special day in honour of her mother. “It was a good day, a great day. There was nothing pompous or snobbish about it. The Prime Minister handed out the brooches individually and didn’t make the girls walk up to the dais. She even had a few special words for Peggy.” Julie-Anne broke off her last comment trying to suppress a laugh over just what was said between Ms Gillard and Peggy.
Peggy explains: “The Prime Minister helped me up to the dais to speak and helped me down. During my speech I declared the girls the fourth official service, because even though we received formal recognition from the Federal Government, we weren’t declared a fourth service. As the Prime Minister helped me down she jokingly said, ‘You had to get that last bit in didn’t you?’ and I said, ‘Yes, aren’t I clever?’.”
Betty Baddeley’s funeral acknowledged a special generation. Peggy and other Land Army girls were in attendance, as well as a representative from the Retired Serviceman’s League and dozens of friends and family. Her coffin was draped in the Australian flag, and a poppy was placed next to an array of wattles and colourful local flora. The Last Post filled the church and echoed away, giving Betty a fitting farewell.