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Women Overseas:
Memoirs of the Canadian Red Cross Corps


300 pages,
ISBN: 0921870612


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Girls Friday & Scullery Maids of MASH
by Margaret Higonnet

How a war is remembered has become a hot topic today, symbolized by debates about whether monuments should be realistic or abstract, monumental or minimalist-and over who deserves to be remembered publicly. Increasingly, we also understand that camaraderie and its social forms play an important role, not only in preserving mental balance during the war, but also in preserving memory itself. Women Overseas is a cheerfully modest collection of thirty-one memoirs and 100 photos that records the experiences of one hard-working subgroup of women volunteers: the non-medical auxiliary of the Canadian Red Cross, which sent 641 women overseas during World War II and the Korean War. The volume itself reminds us that intense experience within uncomfortable confines can bind a group together-and that this happened during the war for women as well as for men.

Although these women came from all over Canada, their recollections are strikingly homogenous. In part, this may reflect a common set of questions to which they responded: how much (or how little) notice they had before they had to embark for England; what their motives for volunteering had been (patriotism and the desire to follow their husbands, fiancÚs or brothers); what their working conditions had been like; and what they did after the war. At the same time, their similitude reflects the fact that the Corps was a self-selecting and self-supporting middle-class group: they were all volunteers paid only $5 a week, and were required to put in at least 200 hours of training and volunteer work before being considered for work overseas. Not surprisingly, by the fifties, most of these women had married and had families, although some continued to do volunteer work and a few had professional careers.

War is a leveller: of buildings and of classes, as well as of lives. For Corps women in London, life was punctuated by V-1 and V-2 bombs that literally shattered nearby houses, drove Londoners into the underground stations for refuge, and blinded civilians with flying shards of glass. In the blackout, the constant danger meant sleeplessness, fire-watch duty, late-night returns home on foot from the canteen, and ambulances, their headlights off, dodging down detours.

The bureaucracy took educated women and turned them into scullery maids who peeled potatoes, made 100 beds daily or washed pots and pans after a meal for 200. Some were sent to supply depots to assemble packets of "goodies" for soldiers, clothing and blankets for bombed-out civilians, and layettes for war brides. Some drove (and repaired) ambulances. The majority worked as nurses' aides in hospitals or as "welfare officers" at the Maple Leaf clubs for servicemen on leave, where their primary function was to improve morale by engaging in cheerful banter, doing occupational therapy (teaching handicrafts), and reading or writing letters for soldiers, some of whom were semi-literate.

Good humour marks these memories of latrine incidents, vehicular accidents, and cookery mishaps. As one comments: "we have to have a sense of humor about what happens otherwise we wouldn't survive". Adaptability may also have been a result of the ease with which most of the Canadian women crossed class barriers. In retrospect, another observes, "much of the sadness fades away". Only a few note the shock of photographs from the death camps, the pain of losing a patient after weeks of care, or the difficulties of separation and widowhood.

The Red Cross is a neutral, international organization, but like most volunteers in other national Red Cross societies, these women were motivated by unreflected patriotism: "I wanted to contribute to the war effort". The contradictions of their situation can be glimpsed in their perception of young German prisoners of war as "arrogant, frightened and full of hate". A French Canadian learns English and becomes consciously "Canadian" while on duty in Japan.

While they offer almost no political reflections, a number of these girls Friday found in M*A*S*H a model through which to record the stringent if erratic discipline that forged their sense of belonging: drill-carrying a pack, rules forbidding marriage and pregnancy, strict hours and regulation of dress, "fuddy-duddy" supervisors and overtly hostile British nursing staff. Unlike the exceptional women who served in the French resistance or those who in the First World War went off to nurse in Serbia, this group also enjoyed pub crawls, theatre, and dancing in their limited time off. Their freedoms were social, not political or professional, and their assignment to menial and unskilled tasks did little to shape a future career.

Behind the coherence of the volume, we can detect a common economic background as well as similar wartime experiences. The chipper tone reveals how our experiences are filtered by conventions such as the self-mocking "socks up" attitude that carried many through the war, as well as by cultural artifacts such as films or war novels. Perhaps the most overlooked factor in the formation of women's war memories is the role of postwar institutions: the Overseas Club brought and kept together women who had often served in scattered locations, and provided the site of memory from which this volume grew. 

Margaret Higonnet teaches Comparative Literature at the University of Connecticut. She coedited Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars, and her anthology of women's writings about World War I, Lines of Fire, is forthcoming.

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