Remembrance Day 2015: Women and the emotional toll of 'total war'

While Remembrance Day offers the opportunity to think of the sacrifice made by soldiers on the front lines, an exhibit at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa is focusing attention on the many ways women contributed to the country's efforts during the First and Second World Wars.

Exhibit at Canadian War Museum focuses on role of women during First and Second World Wars

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      Get Barbara McNutt going on her experiences growing up in Nova Scotia as the carnage of the Second World War was ravaging Europe and she can hardly stop.

      Even though the battlefield conflict was an ocean away, her life as a child in the early 1940s was tangled up in the tentacles of war. There was an army camp across the street from her home in Dartmouth, and, nearby, an anti-aircraft gun pointed at the sky.

      She could see the ships moving up the Halifax harbour, on their way to dropping their anchors in the Bedford Basin, where they would wait before crossing the Atlantic.

      Some of the British Navy sailors that her family entertained at the dinner table were never heard from again, presumably lost at sea.

      McNutt's own war efforts meant she went door to door with other young girls collecting kitchen fat and metal for salvage. Later, she sold war savings stamps, donning a red "Miss Canada" apron complete with pockets for stashing the stamps and the money she gathered.

      "Raising money to help win the war was a very responsible job and we took it seriously," she says. She was six when the Second World War began.

      Barbara McNutt remembers selling war savings stamps to raise money during the Second World War. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

      Seven decades later, McNutt's apron is on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa as part of an exhibit focusing on contributions women made to every aspect of the country's participation in the First and Second World Wars.

      Half the population

      For McNutt, now 82 and living in Toronto, remembering those contributions is vital.

      "Otherwise, half the population is left out. And half the work that was done is not recorded," she says.

      Barbara McNutt wore a bright red apron as she went door-to-door in her hometown of Dartmouth, N.S., selling war savings stamps on behalf of the government during the Second World War. (Canadian War Museum)

      "Certainly during wartime, traditionally men fought the wars. They made the decisions and did the fighting and signed the treaties. But always there had to have been women in the background providing support services so the men could do those things."

      For the war museum, that work is an important chapter in understanding the way war made its way into all aspects of Canadian life.

      "It's important that when we think about war, we think about everybody who was affected," says Stacey Barker, the museum's historian for art and war.

      Obviously, she notes, it's important to think about the soldiers who did the fighting, many of whom lost their lives in the conflict. But there was family left behind at home. There was the worry and anxiety they faced every day.

      Researchers at the museum had been looking into the roles of women in war for several years, and the First World War centenary period seemed like a good time to put on an exhibition delving into that.

      In addition to examining the contributions women made through volunteering and in the military itself — the museum says more than 50,000 Canadian women served during the Second World War — the exhibition looks at work they did on the home front, the domestic pressures they faced and the impact of worry and loss on their daily lives.

      Socks and guns

      Some women knitted socks, which were sent in care packages to soldiers on the front lines. Others saw their lives profoundly changed as they took up jobs in munitions factories, making the submachine guns that found their way into soldiers' hands.

      Propaganda posters not-so-subtly urged women to save food and scraps of metal for the war effort. Letters and diaries on display in the exhibit reveal the emotional toll war took on some of an estimated 100,000 Canadian women who lost husbands, sons and brothers during the two world wars.

      "I'm not entirely sure that people realize the extent to which the war impacted women," says Barker.

      "Total war gets into society in different ways and nobody can escape it. So I think people probably will come to this exhibit and think, 'Oh yes, all of society was impacted by war....'

      "It's just a different way of looking at war."

      Connie Laidlaw brought Charlotte, the ventriloquist’s dummy, to life in Hamilton, Ont., during the Second World War, giving 266 performances for servicemen on the home front. (City of Toronto Archives/Canadian War Museum)

      It is also a way of looking at war that involves learning about McNutt's apron or the ventriloquist's dummy Connie Laidlaw used to entertain servicemen in Hamilton, Ont., during the Second World War.

      "We chose objects that belonged to an actual named woman," says Barker. "We can trace her history, her personal war story and use that to tell that story."

      In that, the museum hopes, those who see the exhibit will make a personal connection.

      "You might look at these women and see your grandmother, your mother ... your aunt. Somebody you know had a war story but maybe you don't know the details," says Barker.

      Anxious times

      Beyond the ways in which day-to-day lives were changed, there is also the mental toll war took.

      Barker notes women were "were operating under this overwhelming sense of anxiety" during wartime, dreading the arrival of telegrams telling them a father, husband or son wouldn't be coming home.

      The exhibition focuses attention on Nellie McClung, widely known for the many ways she advanced the rights of women. But in this case, the museum looks at the personal impact of her son's service in the First World War.

      After Jack McClung headed over to Europe, his mother wrote to him: "What have I done to you, in letting you go into this inferno of war? And how could I hold you back without breaking your heart?"

      Jack McClung eventually came home again, later giving his war diaries — now held by the museum —  to his mother.

      "He didn't really talk about his war experiences, but she felt he came home a changed man," Barker says.

      "He killed himself in the '40s. She thought that was due in part to the trauma he suffered during the First World War."

      More than medals

      The stories told of McClung and McNutt and the other women the museum has chosen are a welcome focus of attention for Elsa Lessard, who was recruited by the Royal Canadian Navy in 1942 and served as a wireless operator.

      Elsa Lessard, 93, served in the Second World War with the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service. (CBC)

      "It's a wonderful exhibit," says Lessard, now 93 and living in Ottawa. "It really does pay tribute to all the women who didn't wear medals."

      Lessard has devoted a lot of her time to spreading the story of the women, like her, who served as Wrens during Second World War. She feels it's important to remember the stories of those women.

      "If you don't know your history, you're bound to repeat it. If you can't learn from your history, you're inventing the wheel all the time and that's when the civilization stops."


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