Few of us have not been touched by war. Parents, grandparents, siblings, past and present relatives and friends have known through anecdotes accounts of conflict, tragedy, horror, loss and poignant moments of peace and muted success.
My mother Irene Harris, who served in the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) in England, remembered vividly the day the Second World War started on 1st September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. As much as it was an ominous event that launched worldwide reaction, it fuelled tormented emotions of anger, deep fear, apprehension, and anxiety over the dire consequences of Hitler’s actions.
Her father, my grandpa ‘Pop’, had served in the First World War and was away fighting in the Battle of the Somme when mom was born in August 1916. That battle, which endured from July to November, came to symbolize the abysmal horror of war. The appalling casualty figures totalled more than a million soldiers who died, were wounded or went missing (Britain 420,000, France 200,000 and Germany 500,000). It was known as the battle of a lost generation of young soldiers. Pop was one who came home injured.
In the Second World War, mom and my mother-in-law Jessie Evans joined with thousands of women who stepped up to the plate. They would do their part to support the war effort and protect our values.
In Canada, women first entered the Canadian military as nurses when they served in the Northwest Rebellion in 1885. That continued during the South African Boer War of 1899 to 1902 when they became a permanent part of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. In 1906, nurses were admitted to the Regular Force.
During the First World War, more than 2,800 women served with the Army Medical Corps. The majority were overseas in hospitals, on board medical ships, in several theatres of war and in combat zones with mobile field ambulance units. But that war also saw women emerge in full military capacity, undertaking training in small arms, drill and vehicle maintenance.
More than 50,000 women saw military service during the Second World War. And their support for the military was just as passionate among those still at home. At the peak of wartime employment, 439,000 women worked in the service sector, 373,000 in manufacturing and 4,000 in construction. They excelled in fine precision work in electronics, optics and instrument assembly.
Despite the macho attitude of the times (not all men welcomed women into the workforce), women drove buses, taxis and street cars. They worked in factories, on airfields and on farms producing food. They built parts for ships and aircraft, and assembled ammunition. They worked with lumberjacks where, no surprise here, they were tagged as lumberjills.
And then there was Canada’s Elizabeth Muriel “Elsie” Gregory MacGill, the first woman in the world to graduate as an aeronautical engineer. Born and raised in Vancouver in 1905, she joined Canadian Car and Foundry in 1938 where she designed the Maple Leaf Training ll aircraft. When the company got the contract from Britain’s Hawker Aircraft to build the Hawker Hurricane fighter aircraft for the Royal Air Force, MacGill oversaw 4,500 workers, and streamlined and troubleshot production of 1,400 Hurricanes known as the Mk X by 1944. Talk about girl power…
Since the Second World War, women have steadily advanced in the military. In 1944 Elizabeth Smellie (a nurse in both world wars) was appointed a colonel in the Canadian Army. She blazed the way for women to excel at the highest military level. Today women make up 15 per cent of the Canadian military with many serving in the regular combat force in all levels and specialties.