From two presentations given by Bill Streeter to the Port Elgin Men’s Probus Club and the Chantry Centre of Southampton
As we head toward Remembrance Day, the streets of many communities, such as Port Elgin and Southampton, are now lined with banners that bear the faces and names of young men, boys really, who in their youth went to war never to return, who sacrificed and paid the ultimate price.
What few have realized however, is the role that women played during times of war, both at home and overseas.
War historian, Bill Streeter of Southampton, decided it was time people knew and, as he always does, delved into the history of local women who served – from the time of the Riel Rebellion to the early Canadian Expeditionary Force in the Yukon, to the Boer War, World War I and World War II. It is the ninth year that Bill Streeter has presented a Remembrance Day talk to organizations and, until this year, it has always revolved around the men who served.
“Harry Shildroth brought a book to me, ‘Roots and Branches of Saugeen’, where residents some 40 years ago got together and created a book about the township,” says Streeter. “In the back of the book, was a complete listing of every person who had enlisted in both World Wars, I and II. Going through the book, I discovered a lady name Mable Stowe and then Felicia Colbean and finally found five ladies who had served in the Wars, just from the Township.”
It was then that Bill Streeter became captivated. He knew he had to find out more about the women who had served. He knew personally two ladies who had served in WWII and went to the Bruce County Museum and Cultural Centre Archives to learn more. There, he found three more and, then it was off he went to the Port Elgin Legion to peruse the membership lists where he found three more and on to Southampton Legion where another couple of names were found. At the end of his search, he identified 17 women in total – 15 in WW II and two in WW I.
Initially, the women who served in the military were nursing sisters. The very first who served in Canada were in the west during the Riel Rebellion and then in the Klondike during the gold rush with the Royal Canadian Dragoons the first Canadian cavalry. When the Boer war began, the first Canadian Army Medical Department was formed and, in June of 1899, the first contingent of 1,000 Canadian men and four nursing sisters were sent to South Africa. In the Boer War, 8,372 Canadians served and, the only Bruce County soldier to die was from Port Elgin, Gordon Cummings in 1901.
In 1914, the Canadian army consisted of only 3,000 men with one permanent base in Val Cartier, Quebec but there were also five permanent nurses with a reserve of 57 nurses. By 1917, there were 2,030 nursing sisters, with 1,886 overseas. The total who filled in enlistment papers in World War I was 3,141. With their crisp blue and white nursing uniforms, they were nicknamed the ‘Bluebirds’. Because the field hospitals were close to enemy lines, 26 nurses died.
Nursing sisters were automatically officers at the rank of Lieutenant and were treated with the highest level of respect and were referred to as “Maam”.
By the time of World War II, the Canadian Army Medical Corps, Royal Canadian Airforce and Royal Canadian Navy all had their own nursing sisters as part of their regiments and there were more than 4,480 who served – only one nurse died. She was aboard the ship, the Caribou, when it was torpedoed by a German submarine in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
In 1939, at the beginning of the war, there were no Canadian women in the services other than as nurses, unlike other countries of the Commonwealth. Protests began in British Columbia and spread across the country wanting women to be allowed to enlist and work in other capacities. It wasn’t until 1941 however, when the British Mechanized Army Corps came to Canada to recruit ladies to go to England to serve in the British military that, after intense pressure and protests in the streets, on August 13, 1941, the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWACs) was formed. Initially, women were drivers, cooks, clerks, typists, telephone operators, messengers and quarter masters but later included truck drivers, ambulance drivers, mechanics and radar operators for a total of 55 trades.
Few served in Europe however, until after the Germans surrendered. Then, the women became instrumental in getting things organized for the military personnel to be re-patriated back to Canada. There were 21,000 women in total in World War II with no deaths but some were wounded.
The Airforce was the far more pro-active arm of the service that saw the need for women to be involved in small airports that were being opened up for training where they became parachute riggers and air photo interpreters among other trades. The RCAF women’s contingent by war’s end was 17,000.
The Royal Canadian Navy (WRENs) numbered some 7,000 serving in 39 different trades.
Women who served were paid two thirds of the men’s earnings and, in 1943, it was increased to 80 per cent.
Bill Streeter has many fascinating stories about the 17 local women who served from Saugeen Shores and area. Among them were Elaine Matheson (Southampton), Helen Root (Saugeen First Nation), Vera Eidt (Port Elgin) and Dorothy Longe (Metis).
In 1941, Elaine enlisted in the Royal Canadian Airforce and trained in St. Thomas, Brantford and Picton prior to going overseas where she joined a bomber squadron for a year before being posted to the Canadian wing of the Queen Victoria Hospital that opened in 1944. It was in the hospital that the Canadian Airforce opened a special burn unit to work with pilots who had been injured in aircraft. There was a book written about the unit called the ‘House for the Canadians: A remarkable story of the Airforce Guinea Pigs of World War II’. After the war, Elaine returned home to begin work at the new Southampton Hospital in 1947 and then at the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. She returned home to take up a position at the local hospital again and rose to be Director of Nursing until her retirement in 1977 after 30 years. She died in 1999.
Helen Margaret Root was born in Saugeen First Nation in 1920 and whose father Joseph had served in World War I. In 1941, she enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps (CWACs) and was sent to England where she served as a signaller relaying coded messages. She was known for her smile and the family lore is that, women had to be five feet to enlist, and the only reason Helen was accepted was “because she charmed the enlisting officer with her smile”. In England, she worked in a building in Trafalgar Square that saw regular bombings. After the war, she married and raised a family returning to Saugeen First Nation where she stayed in the Elder Lodge until her family took her back to Burlington where she died this March (2019) at the age of 98. She remained extremely patriotic her entire life and maintained her military friendships.
Vera was born in Port Elgin in March, 1901 and chose a career in nursing that took her to Cleveland, Ohio and then to Nelson, B.C. where she was Director of Nursing. In 1942, she enlisted in the Canadian Army Medical Corps with the rank of Lieutenant Nursing Sister. Her duties including directing nurses in various areas of operation and served in Canada, France, German and the Mediterranean aboard the hospital ship, the Letitia. Her family has submitted much information about her to the Bruce County Museum and Cultural Centre, including letters from her to the Ministry of Defence where she insisted that she receive a medal for serving in Italy and Egypt having received ones from France, Germany and Belgium. The Ministry however, declined as she was only boarding soldiers on to the ship and received the Mediterranean medal In 1960, she was made a Fellow of the American Hospital College of Hospital Administrators. She retired in 1968 and died that same year and is buried in Port Elgin cemetery.
Dorothy May Longe
Dorothy May Longe was born in 1922 in Southampton as part of the large Longe Metis family. She enlisted in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps and rose to the rank of Regimental Sgt. Major and served in England, France, Belgium and Holland. She was part of the group of women who, in 1946, arranged for the return home of Canadian soldiers. She married Bertram C. Smith and lived on the Smith farm until 1956 when they moved to Southampton. After her husband’s death, she moved to Port Elgin and died in 1991 at the age of 69.
While the stories of the many women are more than intriguing, what’s even more amazing is the research that Bill Streeter has done into the lives of these women and the young men that adorn the banners in the streets of Port Elgin and Southampton.
We will remember them ….