As I stood there looking at a more than 62-year-old piece of lace, tears began to roll down my cheek. I however, was not alone in my sorrow. Beside me, two War Museum visitors also sniffled quietly and wiped their eyes as they walked by.
The lace, now slightly yellowed and battered with age, belonged to Minnie Jarvis. It was offered to her by a young, dashing Lieutenant Evan James of London, Ont., before he shipped off to serve bravely in the Second World War. Before leaving, James asked Jarvis to marry him, but requested that she only answer upon his return. Unfortunately, James never came back and a heartbroken Jarvis kept the lace for 62 years before donating it to the Canadian War Museum. Whether Jarvis ever married is not known.
This is only one of the many moving stories you’ll learn about at the War Museum’s new World War Women exhibit. Running from Oct. 23, 2015 to April 3, 2016, this special exhibit looks at the contributions made by women in the First and Second World Wars, in which about 115,000 Canadians perished.
As popular, romantic hits from the 1940’s such as I’ll Be Seeing You by Billie Holiday and As Time Goes By – the theme from the famous 1942 film Casablanca – play in the background, the exhibit invites visitors to see how Canadian women contributed to the war effort. They volunteered, took on paid work and changed the way they lived at home, all while worrying about their loved ones – sons, husbands, fiancés and friends – in uniform abroad. “Each woman had their own personal reasons for participating,” the exhibit states.
In a press release dated Oct. 22, 2015, Stephen Quick, Director General of the Canadian War Museum, noted that women broke through several gender barriers to contribute to the war effort. “This new exhibition tells these stories through their voices and looks at the many ways in which women threw their energies into the war effort, often while grieving husbands, sons and brothers killed in battle,” Quick said.
Along the exhibit’s outer wall, touching female stories of sacrifice are told. In 1917, Lady Henriette Pope’s four eligible sons joined the WWI effort. She had a total of six children. The exhibit quotes a magazine article from that year, which states that “Lady Pope’s gift to the Empire represents her entire family.” There is also the story of Edythe Browlee. Her fiancé, Lieutenant Arnold Fraser Miller, went to war on April 5, 1916 and was killed in the muddy trenches on Sept. 15, 1916. According to the Museum, Browlee kept the letter detailing Miller’s death until her own death in 1990. She never married.
Another particularly touching artifact is Anna Ball’s Silver Cross medallion, which she received in memory of her son who perished in the First World War. According to the exhibit, about 100,000 Silver Crosses were issued in WWI and WWII, meant to be worn over the hearts of those who were left behind. One cross represents the loss of one human Canadian life.
Though many personal stories are told in World War Women – as anxiety, loss and grief became a part of daily female life – the exhibit also examines the active role women played in the war effort. Though 3,000 served as nurses throughout both wars, by WWII, women were no longer content to let their loved ones fight; they wanted to defend their country actively. The exhibit highlights several female military pioneers.
Among the pioneers is Mary Weaver, whose homemade military uniform is on display. Weaver was part of the Wentworth Women’s Auxiliary Corps. This was a group of women between the ages of 16 and 45-years-old – mostly wives and friends of military personnel – who made their own uniforms, learned drills and other military skills. This active group of women actually helped pressure the Canadian government to create branches of the army for women in 1941 and 1942. After this time, more than 50,000 women served in the Canadian Armed Forces.
“Initially, only certain jobs were considered socially acceptable for women. By performing non-combat duties such as cleaning, driving, clerical tasks and food service, women freed up men to fight,” the exhibit says.
Another pioneer you’ll learn about in the exhibit is Wilhemina (Willa) Walker. Walker worked her way up the air force ranks, becoming one of very few women to achieve the title of Wing Officer. As a Senior Staff Officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force, she was responsible for 17,000 servicewomen.
Walker however helped the war effort long before joining the Canadian military. Her husband was captured by German forces early in the Second World War. To help him, Walker wrote letters in code and included escape maps in his Red Cross kit.
Throughout the exhibit, historical anecdotes are accompanied by artifacts, wartime film footage, photos and emotive quotes. Highlighted in the exhibit is a quote from Helen Walter Rochon, as she reflects upon her WWII experience. “We had a very touching experience travelling through the country –everyone stopped what they were doing and waved from the windows or gardens or what have you,” Rochon said. “Most of us had quite a time hiding the tears.” There are also several kiosks in the exhibit, where you can pick up a telephone and hear the voice of yet another inspiring World War woman.
If you’re coming to Ottawa for Remembrance Day or at any time this season, I recommend adding this moving exhibit to your list of things to see and do in the city. Though you’ll learn about the anxiety, hardships and losses that these wartime women went through, you’ll also find comfort in their incredible strength and their capacity to love beyond all boundaries, including death.
After the wars, many young fiancées never married. Mothers who lost sons and wives who lost husbands strove to keep their loved ones’ legacies alive in various ways, including making pilgrimages to their graves abroad. After giving up their children and for many, the loves of their lives, these women were left with scrapbooks, medals and commemorative plaques. Even 100 years later, these treasured artifacts continue to tell their stories of great strength, great loss and even greater love.
“I’ll find you in the morning sun and when the night is new, I’ll be looking at the moon but I’ll be seeing you.” –Billie Holiday
Image credit: Canadian War Museum