Last month the Manvers Historical Society hosted a reunion for local war brides to celebrate their contribution to the country. Thirteen women and a husband representing his hospitalized wife attended from across the province. Many brides bore familiar local names including Tinney, De Mille, Leahy, Condon, Robertson and Lash. Ranging in ages from 90 to almost 100 years of age, these proud ladies walked proudly into the hall following Legion members and piper who provided an official escort to open the event.
The term “war bride” refers to the estimated 48,000 young women who met and married Canadian servicemen during the Second World War. Most came from Britain, but some also originated from other parts of Europe including the Netherlands, France, Belgium and even Italy and Germany.
These unions faced opposition from both sides. Official army policy of the time discouraged these marriages, while the brides’ families recognized that the marriage would result in a permanent separation from their daughters, as transatlantic visits were an expense that few families could absorb.
Some brides hardly knew their new spouses. Hardships and stresses of war led to whirlwind romances and few couples saw reason to wait to tie the knot. In fact, the first marriage of a Canadian serviceman to an Englishwoman occurred only 43 days after the first Canadians arrived in England in November 1939. Other brides arrived in Canada pregnant or with children in tow, having been married for several years. Almost 24,000 children boarded the ships with their mothers to come to Canada.
The highlight of the event was a presentation by Yvonne Leahy, a local war bride who described the circumstances facing young women in wartime Britain. She explained that singing in air-raid shelters was performed for the children to drown out the sound of bombs and machine gun fire above. There were good times as well. As a nineteen year old, she still found time to have fun in the local dance halls, noting the appeal of “all these good looking young guys who had come to help us win this war”.
When it came time to leave, women were usually given 24 hours’ notice to show up at the docks to board their ship. Most war brides arrived in Halifax, where they were assisted by volunteers from the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. The first item on the agenda was to complete the final step of citizenship, transforming these new arrivals from British subjects to Canadian citizens. Among the items they received to help them on arrival was a Canadian cookbook from the government and gifts of food and clothing for the children.
Homesickness was prevalent, but those who chose to come were adventurous and energetic. They faced many surprises in their new homes, particularly those whose destination was in a rural location. Most homes had no electricity and fewer had indoor plumbing. Despite misgivings, most wives were warmly embraced by their new communities.
The magnitude of the impact of this wave of immigration is often underappreciated. Today more than one in 30 Canadians is a descendant of a war bride. Yvonne closed with a message of thanks on behalf of her war-time sisters for embracing them when they arrived. It seems more appropriate that thanks go in the other direction: Canada is grateful for the leap of faith demonstrated by these brave young women and for their contributions to our country. KG