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REMEMBER THIS: Local war brides came to love their adopted country

In week's column, History Hound Richard MacLeod further explores the story of the war brides, most from the U.K., who came her after the Second World War when their new husbands returned home
A war bride and her child arrive in Canada. National Library and Archives photo

This article is part of continuing series on the historical demographics of Newmarket and area. The previous article featured Monica Sisler and her experience as a war bride. Let's take a closer look at the wave of war bride immigration in our area.

There has been a great deal of analysis as to the causes for this wave of immigration that accompanied our troops' return home. Many historians attributed it to the life-and-death environment our troops endured, while others point to the loneliness of men being away from home. While I am not sure why this phenomenon occurred, it is part of our local history and being a romantic at heart, I would like to believe it was linked to true love.

The arrival of these war brides was sometimes met with resentment locally. My mother’s fiance was killed during the war, as were many local lads and I think that the idea of our men returning with established families in tow was a bitter pill for some to endure. Somehow, initial displeasure was put aside and we soon welcomed these new Canadians.

Many of the women I have interviewed who were war brides indicated they experienced tremendous trepidation during their long journey across the Atlantic. One woman spoke of how she was just 21, scared and lonely, and missing her family and friends so deeply. She added to that day she still missed her large close-knit family. Each of the women to whom I spoke emphasized they came to Canada for love.

Nearly 48,000 Canadian servicemen married overseas during the Second World War. I was surprised to learn that relatively few war brides arrived before the war's end. They began arriving in earnest when the RMS Mauretania, carrying 943 women and children, docked at Pier 21 in Halifax on Feb. 10, 1946.

I can remember my dad, who served overseas, telling me that the heightened emotions of war, fostered by anxiety and nurtured by fear, made local romance especially poignant. Young soldiers, airmen and sailors, many away from home for the first time, were lonely and homesick.

The exuberance of youth was not completely dampened by the demands of war. It was only natural that the men would find companionship with the war-weary young women who were often deprived of necessities, whose boyfriends were often far away and who hadn't had much fun in a long time.

The war brides generally travelled to Canada without their husbands, who had already been repatriated or were still on overseas duty. Most of the war brides, 44,886 of them, were from the U.K. The rest came from the Netherlands and other European countries, as well as Africa, Russia, India, Australia, and the Caribbean. You will note that typically the place of origin is usually included with the war bride description, hence British war brides.

Transporting the dependents was initially the responsibility of the Immigration Branch of the Canadian Department of Mines and Resources. In August 1944, the Department of National Defence took over, establishing the Canadian Wives Bureau. The Red Cross also helped women and children on their journey to Canada.

The war brides were taken care of from beginning to end of their voyage. The Canadian Wives Bureau arranged the women's passage, delivered them to their ships and distributed information. Red Cross volunteers tended to their needs in the hostels where they stayed awaiting departure.

Once aboard ship, the women and children were under the care of the Army Conducting Staffs. This included doctors, nurses and orderlies from the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps. Volunteers from the Red Cross Corps provided crucial assistance as well, making the crossing many times with the women.

Upon arrival in Canada, women travelling beyond Nova Scotia (Pier 21) continued by train, escorted by the Red Cross. I would imagine that it was quite nerve-wracking, coming to a new country to join husbands whom they barely knew and whose families they had never met. Many feared their arrival would not be well-received.

Canada was a culture shock for many, especially those big-city girls who suddenly found themselves in rustic farmhouses without running water or indoor plumbing. For some, the dashing soldiers they had met in Europe were now broken by war, strangers to their families and new wives. Post-war housing shortages left many brides living with their husbands' families, outsiders in an unfamiliar environment.

Most war brides found a warm welcome among the families of the men for whom they had left home and kin. Most that I spoke to over the years made a home for their family, adjusting and persevering, growing to love their adopted homeland.

As we look more deeply into this whole phenomenon of immigration to our area over the years, I can not help but be struck with the number of people who were forced to relocate here due to war or natural disasters. I can't even begin to imagine what it must be like to be forced to pull up stakes and move to a faraway land, not knowing what you will do, how you will live and whether you will be welcomed when you get there. To all those who have endured this I simply tip my hat and say welcome to Canada, welcome to your new home.

In the coming months I shall return to this theme as I am absolutely fascinated with the resilience of the human spirit, and I want to celebrate it. If you or someone you know has a story they want to share, please consider sending it to me. I would love to feature it as part of this series.

Sources: War Brides: The Stories of the Women Who Left Everything Behind to Follow the Men They Loved by Melynda Jarratt ; Oral history interviews conducted by Richard MacLeod; War Brides,  an article by Rebecca Priegert Coulter; Arrival of the War Brides and their Children in Canada, an article by Laura Neilson.

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with NewmarketToday, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews. [email protected]