Bygone Treasures - On the Home Front

By Michael Rice


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A while back, I found a big ball of butcher’s cord that had been tucked away over 60 years ago in a basement. This discovery made me think about what life must have been like at home in the tumultuous days of the Second World War.

While to some, war meant excitement and adventure, to others it meant sacrifice and “making do” while pulling together and “getting the job done” during years that would change society forever.

Everything significant was needed for the war effort, be it scrap metal, paper and balls of string. Rationing of meat, sugar, gasoline and liquor became a fact of life that lingered through the late ‘40s, and old ration books and little blue meat ration tokens still turn up in drawers and button jars. For a while, our nickels weren’t nickel - they were tombac - a brown alloy of copper and zinc - and later plated steel, which rusted where the plating wore off. There was Morse code around the rim reading “we win when we work willingly,” at a time when our country’s work ethic was at its zenith, down to pails in classrooms where children deposited bits of scrap metal and even precious toys to help keep our soldiers safe.

Posters hung everywhere with slogans reading “Loose Lips Sink Ships” and “Report All Suspicious Persons,” and still others urging women to don coveralls and work in factories (remember Rosie the Riveter?). Mothers worked several jobs to raise kids in days when daycare was unheard of. Many children didn’t meet their fathers until war’s end and looked anxiously every day for a letter from overseas saying their dads were safe.

The most famous Canadian wartime photo shows a five-year-old boy, Warren Bernard, running after his father’s regiment marching off to war down a hill in New Westminster, and which was captioned “Wait For Me, Daddy, I’m Coming Too.” Copies of this photo hung in classrooms throughout the province for decades after the war, and looking at a copy now, as I write this, brings tears to my eyes.

Ladies wore sweetheart pins that were miniature depictions of their loved ones’ regiments, beautifully enamelled in silver or gold. Men who were too old or otherwise unable to serve in active units, joined the Veterans Guard or the Home Guard or ARP (Air Raid Patrol), or like my own dad, the Fire Brigade, which dealt with the aftermath of bombings.

Did your mum work on “Bundles For Britain”? The British War Relief Society received knitted socks and sewn goods from Canadian wives and mothers to help Allied sailors keep warm on the frigid North Sea. Donations of clothing were mended, made over or cut up for woolen patchwork blankets. Much time was spent rolling bandages and packing boxes with chocolate and cigarettes to be sent to troops, while young ladies were encouraged to write to “a soldier overseas” to remind him he was not forgotten.

There were songbooks and sheet music with patriotic words to “White Cliffs of Dover” and “Keep The Home Fires Burning” printed on cheap paper, and signs in windows urging everyone to buy war bonds to pay for tanks and fighter planes. These bonds paid a then high three per cent interest, and surprisingly many of these, as well as booklets of war savings stamps, were never redeemed and often come to light.

Sir Winston Churchill was seen as a hero and souvenirs showed him decked out in bowler hat and cigar with “we shall never surrender” emblazoned on them. Other popular souvenirs included ceramic bulldogs draped in Union Jacks and maps showing occupied countries and the progress of the war.

As the years pass, most mementoes of the home front are gone, burned or thrown away or lost in a lifetime of moves. I’m pleased when I can retrieve them from boxes destined for the dump to research and appreciate what they represent. Everything I’ve mentioned is collected today.

If you have home front items you’d like to know more about, please email me and I’ll share some information. Also, if you are a next-of-kin or a direct descendant of someone who served with the Canadian or British forces during the war who did not receive his or her medals, you should know that these medals can still be claimed. Contact me and I’ll send you the government address you’ll need to start the process.

Oh, and if you still have that ball of butcher’s cord, use it to tie up some clean, good condition warm socks, mittens and winter clothing and drop them off at Our Place in Victoria or a thrift shop near your home. Do this in memory of not just our soldiers but also the mums and kids who kept our home fires burning.

Comments or suggestions for future columns are welcome and may be sent to Michael Rice P.O. Box 86 Saanichton BC V8M 2C3 or via email to fenian@shaw.ca

NOVEMBER 2009 SENIOR LIVING VANCOUVER ISLAND

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