Canadian Women and the War

By Richard Spillane

[The Outlook; May 10, 1916]

War kills off the best of a nation's manhood, therefore extra care must be exercised to save the child—not for its own sake or for its parents' sake, but for the sake of the nation. It has got to be saved—saved from infant mortality, then from ill health, and finally from drifting into being waste human material. Each individual must be made healthy and strong, endowed with character for becoming a valuable citizen for the state. Women have here as big a national work open to them behind the scenes as the men have who are playing their part so gallantly on the stage in Flanders and elsewhere.—BADEN-POWELL.

In all that has developed out of this war or any other war, perhaps nothing is more remarkable than what has been done and is being done by the women of Canada. They have taken Baden-Powell's idea and broadened it and added to it and improved upon it until to-day they are doing a wonder work. Canada has sent 60,000 of her sons into the battle-line in Europe; 60,000 more are in training in England; 130,000 are being fashioned into soldiers in Canada, and the Dominion is raising 250,000 more. Think of it, an army of 500,000 out of a population of little more than seven millions!

The women of Canada have taken upon themselves the duty of caring for every Canadian who offers his life in defense of the Empire. They care for him in the trench, in the hospital, in the prison camp. They have studied his every need, and provided for it. Theirs is a labor of love and tribute to the brave. Greater, far greater, is what they are doing for the women and children who are left at home. They have taken upon themselves the care, the protection, and the support of the wives, the widows, the children, and the dependents of the men who have been killed or maimed. They have done more. They have built up the greatest organization Canada has ever known. They are wiping out waste. They are making character. They are spending millions to save tens of millions. Ten thousand women or more who never suspected they had ability beyond the narrow lines of their homes have shown a business capacity, an organizing strength, and a perception far beyond anything men have demonstrated. Canada is giving an example to the whole of the British Empire—to the whole world, in fact.

To tell the story in detail would take a volume. It can be sketched only here.

There are a multitude of women's organizations in Canada. Among them are the Daughters of the Empire, the National Council of Women, the Canadian Red Cross, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Young Women's Christian Association, Queen Mary's Needlework Guild, the Soldiers' Wives League, St. John Ambulance Association, and numerous smaller bodies. These practically have co-operated and are working under one general plan. The whole Dominion is districted. There is a ward head in every city. There is an organization in every town and every village. They have grasped the great problems of the war as no other people have. They are not providing for the present alone, but for the period of readjustment when the war-worn men return. They have studied the psychic effect of war upon the soldier who returns able-bodied, just as they have studied the effect upon the soldier who is brought back wounded or with shattered nerves. They have studied the effect upon the mothers, the wives, the widows, and the children. They have brought order and system out of disorder. They have raised an unbelievable amount of money, and they have made provision to have the flow of money continue as long as the war lasts and longer. No problem is too difficult for them to solve, no work too hard for them to perform. What they are doing is voluntary.

Through what is known as the Patriotic Fund they care for the wives and the children of soldiers. There are some small towns in western Canada that have sent practically all their available young men into the army. This has left these towns with very little employment. It has been the women's problem to care for the families in these places. In the larger cities there has not been the same proportion of enrollment, but there the phases of the question have been more complex. In what they have done and what they are doing the women have been careful to show that their work is not one of charity, but an expression of sympathy and protection and love of Canada for the family of its soldiers. Their work is one of service, of intimate social contact. They see that no one wants for food and clothing or medical attention or friendship by reason of the breadwinner's having gone to the defense of the Empire. They try to give to the families a new outlook upon life, and their endeavor is to build up a strong, self-reliant group of each and every family. Their work has proved wonderful in unifying Canada. They have brought all of the people, French Canadians and English Canadians, closely together. They have broken down class distinction. Race and creed mean nothing. The Empire, liberty, justice, free institutions, and free people mean everything. They are teaching the great lesson that if the Empire is worth dying for it is well worth living for, and that out of this great struggle there comes the opportunity for development into a higher citizenship of better men and better women.

Let us look at the ramifications of their work. First let us consider what they do for the fighting men. They have studied the needs of the man in the trench. They have records of every man who has entered the service of the King. They have records of every relative of that man. They keep a record of that man from the day he enters the service, through every move in his life as a soldier. They send, to him his home papers, magazines, tobacco, games, puzzles, clothing, candies, anything or everything to lighten the burden of his days and to make him know that those at home across the sea are watching over him with loving devotion. In conjunction with the Red Cross they watch over and care for every wounded man. They have hospitals in France and in England. They have scores of ambulances. They have scores of lorries. They have studied the need of the wounded man as the subject never was studied before. They have found that one of the first things the man who is wounded desires after his wounds are dressed is to write, so they have fixed up a portmanteau which contains a writing-pad, pencil, a few delicacies. They have provided also a kit to be put at the head of his cot which he can reach with ease, and into which he can place any little personal belongings that he treasures. They provide envelopes, postcards, everything the mind can suggest for him.

Throughout Canada many thousands of women are working day after day for the comfort of the well and the wounded. They make sheets, bedding, towels, socks, surgical shirts, nightshirts. They cut up and put up into packages, gauze, cotton, lint, ligatures, bandages, splints, chloroform, ether, hot-water bottles. They have established great storehouses at Boulogne, in London, and in Canada; to draw on in case of emergency, such as comes with the urgent call after a great engagement where the number of wounded to be treated is tremendous. They have advance storehouses near the fighting lines. To the wounded men they send magazines with all the advertising sheets torn out so that they can get light reading, stories, etc. They see that each man gets a scrap-book in which the news from his home town is pasted. They send harmonicas, piccolos, and games to divert the mind in hours that otherwise would be dreary. Every wounded man has a supply of chocolate. He gets a tooth-brush, a safety razor, shaving soap, comb and brush, and toilet accessories that he never had in the trench. The women have tried to visualize the condition of the man from the day he leaves Canada until he returns, and out of their great love and their wonderful fund of common sense they provide for him.

It is so, too, with the man who is taken prisoner. Through the Red Cross they have made provision to feed every soldier of Canada who is interned in Germany and in Austria. They have arranged whereby bread is baked at Berne, in Switzerland, and forwarded regularly to the prison camps in Germany. To the honor of the Germans be it said that the Canadians have ample proof that what they send goes to the man for whom it is intended. They even send candy. This is inclosed in special, hermetically sealed tins, and the sweets arrive fresh almost as the day they were made. They have arranged so that parcels can be sent to individual prisoners. They not only send food, but clothing, shoes, etc. They have arranged a system whereby any one in Canada can "adopt" and provide for a prisoner in Germany. They have been told over and over again in the letters they have received that if it were not for the gifts they send the men might starve or freeze. Hundreds of the prisoners have been adopted by kind-hearted Canadians, and their contributions go forward in regular order. The women have worked, out all the details of organization themselves. They don't know how they did it, but it is the most business-like system that ever has been evolved from the necessities of war.

The vast majority of women in Canada are sewing or working for the fighting men and the families of the soldiers. Each province has its Red Cross body. Every town has its organization" for Red Cross work. How widespread this is may be imagined when it is said that in Nova Scotia alone there are two hundred and seventy towns in which practically all the women are doing work for the Empire. They are not doing this in any haphazard way. Each branch gets instructions in every form of its work, and information about the progress of every phase of the work. Bulletins come from headquarters regularly, advising all concerned of the operations of the gigantic undertaking the women are engaged in. The women have systematized their work in every department. They look after the boxing, shipping, the records, the sorting, the packing, the classifying, the stenciling. They have patterns and samples of every conceivable article that would be useful. They do the work for which they are best fitted.

Halifax may serve as an example. In that city there are two manufacturing centers where the women gather to sew. In the Technical College from forty to one hundred women gather each day. There are probably five or six hundred women in that city who sew. Some give one day, some give two or more, and all give one evening a week. Yarn is furnished in immense quantities. It has been proved that the women work better when they work in groups. But, in addition to the work done at the Technical College and at the Women's Council House, many women work in their homes. Every facility is given to the people for working. The Ladies' Aid Society has its group of workers. So have the churches. Any organization that so desires can get material with which to work. In the main, the material is cut by machinery without cost. The local manufacturer does this. These women make suits for convalescents. They make surgical suits, pajama suits, compresses. They tailor and they press and they labor as they never did before. The woman of wealth works side by side with the woman who had been a toiler. The women have studied, too, to eliminate waste. They have studied how to pack stuff in boxes so that every inch of space will be utilized. They, have studied everything.

Montreal affords the best example, perhaps, of how the families are cared for. There are six thousand families in Montreal that are sustained out of the Patriotic Fund which the women gather. The women see that the children of the soldiers do not neglect their schooling. They are the big sisters of the wives, of the widows, of the children, of the soldiers of the Empire. In the kindest and most friendly of ways they endeavor to make the families approach or start on the way to being self-sustaining.

Necessarily the work is slow in development. Regularly each month these six thousand families get a monetary allowance from the fund. The wife or the mother or whoever has had the care of the dependent family calls at headquarters, is identified, gets her check, goes to the bank, and receives her money.

To finance their work the women of Canada have been as thorough as in every other thing. In the first burst of patriotic fervor there was a lot of indiscriminate giving. There were concerts, fairs, general entertainments. That was fine as far as it went, but it wasn't anything to rely on through a long period, so these women have devised a system whereby they have a steady income. They have gone, for example, into manufacturing towns and they have stated their case to employers and to workers. In one small city where the pay-roll amounts to $500,000 a month they held a public meeting, and every workman in that town signed a pledge whereby one per cent of his wages each month goes to the Patriotic Fund. That is $5,000. Consider what that means when this is multiplied throughout the Dominion of Canada. This is what they have done. They have the money coming regularly for their work. In emergencies they can call on the Dominion at large for more, but out of what they have collected thus far they not only have looked after all Canadians, but they have furnished assistance to the Servians, to the Montenegrins, to the French, and even the British Government has drawn on their supplies.

Every family of every soldier is kept advised regarding the soldier. If he is wounded, his family know how and where and when he was wounded. If he is recovering, they are advised of the state of his improvement. The women have worked throughout the official channels of the British Government a system whereby they are kept in absolute touch with all their boys. They have a headquarters in Tooley Street in London—the Tooley Street about which we have heard so much in connection with the little tailors. They have a hospital headquarters at Cliveden on the estate of William Waldorf Astor. They have a headquarters in Paris for the French to draw from. But they are not satisfied. They want to do more. They cut army red tape just as they have wiped out the barriers between the rich and the poor. They have arranged wherever possible to mark the grave of any soldier of Canada who dies in Europe. They care for the sick of the soldier's family and they bury the dead of the soldier's family.

It is not the rich woman of Canada who does all this, or the woman of the middle class. The work is done just as faithfully in the humblest home, on the farm and in the tenement. There is a widow, Mrs. Archibald, of Wolfville, in Nova Scotia, who has very little of this world's goods, and yet she sent six hundred jars of preserves to the soldiers in France. She did not have the money to buy the fruit. She went into the orchards and gathered that which was left on the trees after the picking. Some one gave the sugar to her. She trudged around the countryside to gather jars. She made a workshop of her cellar. She put up these six hundred jars of preserves, boxed them all herself, and then she sent them on, blessed with her labor of love. That woman has a boy in khaki fighting in Flanders.

Mention has been made of the work that Halifax. Some idea of its magnitude may be obtained from the statement that thirty-six thousand pairs of hand-made socks went from Nova Scotia alone, and that in the Technical College at Halifax more than forty miles of material was made up in three months of work by the women laboring there. The children, too, help. The children of Canada have their Red Cross Societies. They send all sorts of things to the soldiers. They maintain a motor ambulance of their own in France. In Montreal and some of the other Canadian cities every child contributes one cent a week at least to the Patriotic Fund. There is a bank in every school-room in Montreal into which the child makes his deposit. Some of the children give much more than one cent. Before long these banks will be in every school-house throughout the Dominion.

The women have done more to awaken Canada to the elimination of waste than the Dominion ever knew before. In every city women of every grade have formed an organization for the collection of material that previously was cast away as useless. They gather the waste paper and bale it and sell it. In one city this brings to them more than $150 a week. They collect old carpets, cast-off kid gloves, shoes, hats—anything or everything. They have established junk-shop. They collect bits of iron, steel, copper, all sorts of metal, and sell it. They make over the carpets, wherever possible, into carpet slippers. They take the old kid gloves, strip them, and make them up for the inner lining; for coats and trousers and such things for men to wear, and it is reported that the soldiers have known no warmer garments than those kid-lined ones which they have received from Canada. The women have old shoes repaired and soled and put to use. They are teaching the people to save in every way possible.

The women of Canada do not propose to have human waste material either. They are establishing schools in which the maimed and the crippled soldiers are being taught useful employments. From two to three hundred Men come back each week invalided and broken. The man who has lost an arm may not be able to do the work at which he formerly was employed. They are preparing to teach him to do something else that will make him self-sustaining, and by which he can maintain his self-respect and not become a burden upon the people. The man who has lost a leg may be unfitted for the task in which he had been trained. He is taught some other line of work by which he can sustain himself. And the blind—and many of the men who come back are blind—are being taught. Instructors from blind asylums are being drawn in to aid in this branch.

These women, with the wonderful vision that they have, possibly have seen what Canada might face if the destruction to human life or the crippling of many thousands of men should bring the burden of a huge pension system upon the Dominion. They are going to avoid that, if possible. They are going to try and have Canada demonstrate to the world that its men and its women, working together, fighting together for the Empire; can care for itself with the minimum of a pension system.

The women of Canada surely have broad sympathies. One illustration will serve for this demonstration. There are some German prisoners in the Dominion. In one of the cities there are two hundred of them. For a time their lives were dull and their-days were dreary. The women pitied them. They thought of their own men in the prison camps of Europe. They did what they could to bring a little light into the dark days. Some of these men were musicians. They asked for permission to have the instruments they played. In a short time there was a band formed in their prison camp, and after a while the German prisoners began to give concerts. The concerts were given in the public square, and they grew and grew in popularity. A Sunday night concert became a regular thing, but it was stopped at the request of the church authorities. The concert was so good and so popular that the churches were deserted. Now the band concerts are confined to week-days.

It would seem that the women of Canada are doing all that could be expected of them, but they are not content. They have been asked to aid in recruiting, and they are volunteering for that work. They are the great patriots of this war. It would be a joy to give the names of all those who are doing valiant service for the Empire, but to do so would require a larger number than The Outlook ever has printed.

Some one has expressed their whole mission, their whole ideal, fittingly as follows:

"Love for Canada and our country does not seem to have really been awakened until this war began. The immortal fruits of life are not material well-being and physical content, but integrity, courage, reverence, and willingness to serve and to sacrifice; and true patriotism means unselfish public service. The volunteer workers are working for the Canada of to-morrow as well as for the Canada of to-day, because they are trying to minimize the fearful waste of infant and child life and because they are affording opportunity—not charity—to the soldiers' families for the fruitful development of the five essentials of normal life: health, education, recreation, employment, and spiritual development. The work is welfare work of the truest patriotic character. Rarely in the history of the world does such a direct call to service come as comes in time of war. In times of peace material things blind us to the needs of others and to our own individual responsibilities and opportunities. If the call to higher service and away from self reaches the many as a result of this war, it will in some degree atone for the ghastly loss of life and the ruin of homes and countries which a misguided brute force has entailed upon mankind. For our soldiers' families, for our King and country, and for humanity we dedicate ourselves, praying for strength and courage to continue to the end, eager to learn, ready to serve, and willing to sacrifice."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —


A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury