An Excerpt from The Volunteers: How Halifax’s women provided help, hope, and healing to win the Second World War by Lezlie Lowe
Lezlie Lowe’s second book brings us the untold story of Halifax’s volunteer women — who kept the western end of the North Atlantic front stable, strong and supported through the Second World War. In this excerpt, the author discusses the importance of bringing women’s war stories to light.
As a child I knew nothing about the Second World War in Halifax. Nothing about the clamour and chaos of its population explosion. Nothing about the glamour, the glory, or the grind of the times. My grandparents met during the war, lived through the war, recovered from the war. But the war wasn’t part of our home. I find this odd in retrospect. After all, these events weren’t mere passing clouds in history. The Second World War rocked populations—and decidedly Halifax’s. But that’s just the thing: no one got out unaffected. No one in the city at the time avoided the impact of the war. It was, literally, what it was. The ubiquity made it benign. I knew my grandfather saw terrible things, but I only ever caught whispers of the details. My grandmother didn’t seem to know much more, though I caught her once telling the story of a stranger showing up at her door one day while my grandfather was at sea. The man had been rescued from the water and over tea he’d reported to Marie that my grandfather had taken the blankets from his berth to cover him, soaked, shivering, and reeking of spilled fuel.
There are battle stories. So many battle stories. And there are the stories of those left at home. These parallel stories fall decidedly along gender lines, though it wasn’t strictly true during the Second World War that men went to fight and women stayed at home. After all, there were some seven thousand wartime members of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS), who provided operational support to the Canadian Forces. The Army and Air Force each had their own women’s branches. By mid-war, in June 1943, the WRCNS training centre in Galt, Ontario, became the first female commission in the Canadian Navy when Lieutenant- Commander Isabel Macneill took the reins. Macneill, one of those three formidable and challengingly named sisters, was a Halifax native. We’ll get back to Isabel; don’t worry.
In our home, the battles went unheralded and the at-home tales unrepeated. Why bother talking up what’s universal, I guess…?
This turned out to be a theme that came up time and again with the women I got to know writing this book. None dared declare the volunteer work they’d done was something important. They shared a similar version of the same line: they were only doing what everyone was doing. Some trained in voluntary nursing aid. Some were dedicated amateur musicians. Most gave simply by extending their usual routines and tasks to the many strangers in their midst—making meals, sewing buttons, visiting the wounded, or greeting trains. The so-called soft skills of kitchen and domestic competence, of sociability and small talk, don’t particularly rate today against hard skills and trades. And they were likewise devalued in Halifax during the war.
But these women volunteers did a collective job no government could have organized or, frankly, afforded. This army of volunteer women helped win the war. Yet their contributions remain largely invisible in the documentary history of the conflict. The volume of help has been chronicled piecemeal, through scant archival material, personal photos, and oral histories. The small-but-mighty Halifax Women’s History Society has done the heavy lifting in daylighting women’s war stories since its inception in 2013. The organization also spearheaded the funding, design, and creation of a monument dedicated to women war volunteers. When they were unveiled on the Halifax waterfront in 2017, The Volunteers/Les Bénévoles became Halifax’s first statues featuring full-sized figures of women. (Real women, not headless or armless or naked; and not fictional women, like the three exceptional Victorian statues in the Halifax Public Gardens of Roman goddesses Ceres, Flora, and Diana.) The media attention around The Volunteers/Les Bénévoles was the first time many Nova Scotians had ever heard about Halifax women’s volunteer contributions during the Second World War.