March 8th is International Women’s Day, a day to reflect on women’s empowerment. It only seemed fitting, then, to explore a topic on that very sentiment. This blog is about the courageous, adventurous, and passionate Canadian War Brides of the Second World War. These British women fell in love with and married Canadian soldiers. They then left their previous lives and all that was familiar to them behind in search of a new life.
There are so many things to be considered when exploring this topic. There’s the emotional side (love, marriage, war, and leaving home). There’s the societal side (having to adapt to a new culture). There’s also the family side (leaving family, travelling with children, and meeting new family and not always being welcome).
I hope that this brief (since I’ve been given my limit) snapshot either ignites a spark or fuels a passion for a topic that I am also quite dedicated to.
Love, Marriage, and (Sometimes) a Baby Carriage
The whole world changed with the declaration of war in September 1939. The arrival of Canadian soldiers on British soil set the foundation for a most remarkable phenomenon: Canadian men and British women met and within months some were married and off to the Canadian coast, seeking out the ‘promised land’ their new husbands had so eagerly discussed. In fact, it wasn’t long until the first marriage occurred: “43 days after Canadian soldiers arrived in December 1939, they celebrated the first marriage between a British woman and a Canadian serviceman at Farnborough Church in the Aldershot area.” Over the next six years, 48,000 marriages occurred, resulting in 45,000 British and European war brides. Understandably, 93% of these were British, as this was where the soldiers spent a large part of the war.
Instead of focusing on their origins, I’m going to focus on their journeys to Canada and their experiences upon arrival. Many travelled alone before their husbands were cycled back, sometimes with children in tow. These new families had quite the adventure ahead of them: “[T]he War Brides have the shared experience of meeting and marrying a Canadian soldier during a war time, leaving their home country for a new world by trans-Atlantic ship across the ocean, crossing Canada by war bride train, settling in to their new homes, raising families and adapting to a new culture, language and religion in a time in our history where the future held great promise for new Canadians.”
Canada: New Beginnings, New Homes
War brides arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. From there they embarked on trains to travel to their final destinations all across the country. As they disembarked the train at their new homes, they were greeted with a variety of reactions and challenges. They were usually greeted by complete strangers (Jarrett, 48), with less than average standards of living (compared to what their husbands had said), faced ridicule from women who had already been patiently waiting back home, and encountered a whole new lifestyle. Some women were scorned at for a number of reasons ranging from their seemingly rash decision to marry, to taking someone’s sweetheart, to joining a family they were not welcome to. Peggy Chalkin’s arrival in Toronto mirrored such a fate: “We English war brides were treated horribly in the middle forties. We were jeered at, spat at, and called dreadful names. I guess they were trying to break our spirits, but they were dealing with the wrong people. They hadn’t come through what we had. It made you tough” (Wicks, 156-160). Others were welcomed into society as they eagerly sought to fit in and learn the Canadian ways of living. It was hard, rugged, and traumatizing, but at the same time it was new, exciting and rewarding. War brides faced social restrictions upon arriving in Canada, forcing them to assimilate to the gender constructions of Canadian society. Many women arrived with a romanticised idea of what awaited them: a welcoming family, modern conveniences, land, and riches. A good number of them were faced with a crippling amount of culture shock, as many of their new homes had “no inside plumbing, no electricity, no gas, no facilities of any kind, and a little hand pump outside the house” (Wicks, 119). It was also not uncommon for them to have to adjust to a new religion and/or language, especially if they found themselves in a French community (Jarrett, 63).
For some, it was too much, and without their husbands (or in some cases, because of them), they took the return trip back home. The rest who stayed fought and adjusted to becoming Canadians as a way to survive. Wynne Brink (Alberta) was well aware of this: “I had one foot in Canada and one foot in England, and this would never do. I wanted to become 100 percent Canadian, so slowly but surely I began to shuck off my English ways and began to think Canadian” (Wicks, 179). The brides attended classes held by the Red Cross to teach them Canadian language and terms. They had lessons on how to dress, how to manage through the seasons, and they were also issued a Canadian cookbook (Hibbert, xv). For those who had families and young children, “as their children grew up, [they] became more involved in their communities and schools” (Jarrett, 119) and, in time, they found themselves at home in Canada.
These women uprooted their whole lives at a tumultuous time in history in the hopes of a better life. They overcame obstacles and became solid fixtures within the country. These outstanding individuals created a new generation of Canadians that capture the hearts and fascination of historians to this day.
Melynda Jarratt, Captured Hearts: New Brunswick’s War Brides (Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions & NBMHP, 2008).
Melynda Jarratt, Canadian War Brides: The Authoritative Source of Information on the Canadian War Brides of WWII: http://www.canadianwarbrides.com/intro.asp (accessed 5 March 2016).
Ben Wicks, Promise You’ll Take Care of My Daughter: The Remarkable War Brides of WWII (Toronto: Stoddart Publishing Co., 2002)
Hibbert, Joyce Hibbert, ed., The War Brides (Toronto: Peter Martin Associates Limited, 1978).