This weekend we will be making our way to the cenotaphs or, at the very least, bowing our heads for a couple of minutes, to say thanks to thousands of people we have never met who have made such a significant contribution to our lives.
Most of us who have trouble grasping at the decision that someone would make to leave home and family and intentionally put themselves in harm’s way. What about the wives and mothers and brothers that had to stay behind?
The poet John Milton wrote, ‘They also serve who stand and wait,’ and while the topic of his poem was not necessarily about war, the sentiment was encouraging to all of those who had to endure long days and nights without the ones they loved.
I was reading some excerpts from a book, They’re Still Women After All — The Second World War and Canadian Women, by Ruth Roach Pierson. She tells us about the changes Canadian women had to make on the home front and eventually how they were expected to change back once the war was over.
As homemakers, women were called upon to abide by and enforce rationing, prevent waste, and save and collect materials that could be recycled for use in war production. As one poster put it, women were to ‘Dig in and Dig out the Scrap.’ Metals, rags, bones, rubber and glass were all reused. In the countryside, Women’s Institutes helped farmer’s wives and daughters who took over on the land in the absence of husbands and fathers. They drove tractors, made hay, picked fruit, raised gardens and increased the country’s egg and poultry production.
The largest contribution made by Canadian women to the war effort came through their unpaid labour in the home and in community volunteer work. Local Women Volunteer Service Centers participated in a wide range of national programs, distributing ration cards, recruiting and training volunteer staff in wartime day nurseries, promoting the sale of war bonds and encouraging sewing, knitting, quilting and packing ‘ditty bags’ for service men and women overseas.
We have all seen the posters of Rosie the Riveter or the Bomb Girls with bandanas and jeans. Certainly, many women became involved in the industrial world of ship building or manufacturing parts for airplanes or munitions, replacing absent manpower. Many young, unmarried women were recruited into the forces and recruitment of married women and others grew as the war continued. The women who stayed behind often provided child care for them if needed.
The communications between home and the front were less than reliable. Letters from home would often take weeks or months to find the recipient, and black and white pictures of newborns often arrived crinkled and creased.
Letters home from the soldiers were often censored , blacking out words or phrases that might reveal troop positions. Too often, the letters from the soldiers arrived after a message of their death had already been received. Not knowing was always the worst.
Recently I spoke to the mother of a Canadian soldier serving in Afghanistan. She talks to him once a week, face to face in real time, on Skype.
“I can see he is losing weight, I can see his smile and I can hear his voice and his laugh. “ Technology has erased the miles.
This week when you shake the veteran’s hand, give his wife a hug too. She did her part. At least that’s what McGregor says.