Sisters in Arms

It’s a woman's Army camp. On parade they're stiff as automatons. But they haven't forgotten dancing, perfume, moonlight . . . and men

LOTTA DEMPSEY April 15 1943

Sisters in Arms

It’s a woman's Army camp. On parade they're stiff as automatons. But they haven't forgotten dancing, perfume, moonlight . . . and men

LOTTA DEMPSEY April 15 1943

Sisters in Arms


It’s a woman's Army camp. On parade they're stiff as automatons. But they haven't forgotten dancing, perfume, moonlight . . . and men


YOU CAN thank the sergeant fresh back from overseas. It was like this.

“I decide I’ll go to Kitchener to see some of the fellows at the training centre where I took my basic,” he said, with the air of a man who’s just had the craziest dream.

“Coming down the road from the station, a jeep passes me. The fellows pull up and take me in. But it’s not fellows at all. It’s girls in battle dress. When we get to the gate, I see troops marching around camp in full kit, and crack me down if they’re not women too.

“‘Say,’ I said to the sentry, T trained here and this was a he-man outfit.’

“ ‘It’s the women’s Army now, soldier,’ she cracked back.”

* * *

The Canadian Women’s Army Corps Basic Training Centre at Kitchener, Ontario, is the first women’s Army camp in Canada. There are two other training centres: a basic at Vermilion, Alberta, and an advanced centre for officer training at Ste. Anne de Bellevue, Quebec. But in both cases former residential schools have been taken over, and the girls have moved into them. Kitchener has the only tar-paper-hut, Quebec-heater, four-acre camp that is all Army. And since the men began moving out four months ago, the girls have been taking over, until today there are just a handful of males, soon to be evacuated.

With ten thousand women in the armed forces in Canada, and another forty thousand needed, it’s a thousand-a-month training proposition for Kitchener. And the staff of two hundred officers and N.C.O.’s (women) put them through their paces and turn them out right up to standard with an extra something thrown in for good measure.

For not only does Kitchener teach the basic elements of good soldiering—discipline, marching, drill, routine—but it gives two-month courses in special trades. The C.W.A.C. has a list of more than twenty-five trades girls can learn today. They’re becoming armorers, carpenters, draughtsmen, driver mechanics, electricians, fitters, instrument mechanics, motor mechanics, shoemakers, tailors, textile refitters, turners, typewriter mechanics, wireless mechanics, welders, spare parts personnel, as well as clerks, drivers, and storewomen.

But as I saw them out on the big parade ground, in the thrilling pattern of near-perfect marching routines, they were soldiers all.

The officer who welcomed me to the camp beamed when I commented on the precision of the troops. I suggested timidly that I hadn’t thought women could be so successfully regimented. Then she smiled.

“Let me finish your sentence for you,” she said. “You thought women couldn’t be so successfully

regimented. .. and still stay womanly. They can— to their well-manicured and lightly tinted nail tips. Take the freedom of the camp and see for yourself.”

Village of Women

SO I spent a day chatting with hundreds of girls and women, listening and watching. What I saw, in effect, was a complete village of fifteen hundred people, which cooks its own food, keeps itself warm, clean, healthy and busier than any civilian town in the world. For there are no loafers or hangers-on. And the village is run, maintained and peopled by women aged eighteen to forty-five.

These women have come from mansions arrd shacks, kitchens and penthouses, east and west, to live in thirty-five tar-paper huts at Kitchener. They have come to long bare bunkhouses, each with its forty or more spartan upper and lower bunks, to great ablution rooms, leading off those bunkhouses,

where dozens of them wash in rows of metal washbowls and where they shower—usually in cold water—standing on cement-floored cubicles. They have come to great mess halls, where they eat, 500 at a time, carrying their own food, cafeteria style. And they have come to work in teams, doing everything from garbage collecting to gas mask drill.

I saw women caring for the grounds (they shovelled all the snow in winter, will cut the grass in summer), bringing in coal, scrubbing, cleaning, cooking and carrying on the general chores of the community. I saw them, too, splashing and diving in a swimming pool, bowling, playing billiards, watching movies, dancing with boys in Air Force blue and in bell-bottomed sailor suits in their own drill hall, with such great swelling crescendos of laughter over their fun that I thought there couldn’t be a healthier, happier company of good comrades in this Dominion.

But all through that camp day and night, I had a sharp sense of womanliness. It’s as pungent as the odor of eau de cologne drifting through the sergeants’ mess; as real as the cold-cream jars that appear like mushrooms out of kits in the ablution huts; as vivid as the rainbow of lounging pyjamas and dressing gowns that blossom in the rows of double-decker bunks, after duty hours.

There was, for instance, the guard on duty at the barrier early that morning as I dropped in. She had to swing her full weight (about a hundred and ten pounds) down on the heavy framework to bring it across the face of the car, and neither fine talk of the press nor promises of favors would budge her from it until passes were forthcoming. (And I’ve wheedled my way past a male sentry a time or two.) Yet as I waited in the cold little sentry box for identification, I found a woman’s magazine turned back at the most syrupy love storyf

Bugler Girl

IT REQUIRES good bugling to wake up fifteen hundred girls at six o’clock, without starting them off on the wrong foot. But the girls are practicing overtime and although the notes are still a little shaky, they’re getting there. And there

are women drummers, garnered from civilian-life orchestras, to lead the way to church parades and other formal marching occasions.

Breakfast comes in a cheerful rush but every girl appears with her hair brushed and her lipstick on straight. The food is extra good, for Kitchener has a special cooking school that trains experts from camps all over Canada. And they’re learning to take in their stride five hundred diners at a sitting. Out of khaki into white caps and aprons go the cooks, baking cakes with fifty eggs and pies with tubs of shortening, and looking as feminine as anything a man ever dreamed of installing permanently in his home kitchen. Meals planned by former dietitians, now Army women, and health surveillance by women Army doctors mean that the thin girls fill out and the fat ones slim into shape.

I watched them do “man jobs” well and efficiently, and while they worked I heard as feminine a patter of woman-talk as I ever found at any tea or bridge club. A new man. . a letter from home.. .a spring hat glimpsed in a window (they talk about ’em even if they don’t wear ’em). . .a movie or a love story. The job may be anything from a sixmile route march to fire drill with hose and ladder but there isn’t a faint-heart-and-helpless type in a thousand.

It’s an old soldiering privilege to grouse at the sergeant major and talk back to the corporal (off duty) but I saw glimpses of the feminine touch in handling units, a touch that carries over into playtime. Every afternoon long files of girls march into town to the Y.M.C.A. for swimming and games. The bowling alley is a favorite centre. When I asked the corporal to hold a flash bulb for the cameraman in the bowling alley (where the girls are perversely feminine enough to vie for the privilege of setting up the pins instead of rolling the balls) there was a general cry of, “We want the corporal in the picture!” And in she had to go. In the swimming pool the sergeant was getting her permanent ducked plenty—all in good fun.

“Tough” Sergeant

OVER AT the guardhouse the camp provost sergeant was sitting at her desk, checking passes as the girls came and went through the barrier. She’s had special training given to men provosts and can handle a pistol and do a neat trick of jujitsu if need be. But it was a very feminine hand that stroked Tom, the camp cat, as he purred at her elbow on the desk. Discipline? Of course it had to be enforced, and sometimes even with a night in the guardhouse. But it waá one of the few remaining men N.C.O.’s who told me the detention barracks were a pretty deserted spot, since the girls had taken over.

“They go A.W.L. sometimes, usually when they’re up against something that seems too big for them,” the provost said. “And do you know where they usually head for? Home to mother to have a good cry ! But we always have a heart-toheart talk about the why and the wherefore, and we usually get it straightened out. The personnel selection staff helps, too. They’re women officers who are trained psychologists, and they help the girls to sort themselves out, and get into the right spots.”

And the provost went off duty, to help the newest bride of the month get packed and pressed and off on leave with her soldier husband from a near-by camp.

“The girls stick together,” one of the officers told me. “When somebody gets in a jam, they cover for each other as staunchly as any group of men. And I’ll bet they’re even better in helping each other with fatigues if one has a date.”

Before supper I went over to the little room where the girls have rigged up a hand press, and are getting out the camp paper, “The Wise Cwac.” I noted this nostalgic little item coming off the press:

“Now that spring has sprung, we of ‘D’ Company are in a spring-cleaning mood, but the catch is there are no drapes to take down, no furniture to paint, and there is no room to rearrange the furniture. (What furniture?)

“The floors aren’t the kind you can wax, so I guess we’ll have to rearrange the dust.”

The paper was full of good-humored wit, with everyone chuckling about the “scoop” on the new officer who was heard by her delighted company to give the command, “At the halt, on the right, form Spittoon.”

Once during the day I came up behind a briskly marching column, and instead of the strains of “Roll out the Barrel” or “Mademoiselle from Armentiers” they were singing in a high, sweet chorus, “So Long as You’re Not In Love with Anyone Else.”

Try it to march time. It can be done.

And again, wandering at random, I stumbled into a barracks where a company was apparently getting a first-class dressing down. The sergeant looked more tearful than blustering. No cussing, no swearing. In a mournful tone I heard her say: “So what have you done to me? What have you made me? Just a worn-out old woman from trying to cope with you. Here I am, I’ll never see twentytwo again—the best of my life’s finished— and I haven’t even the consolation of a good company in my later years.”

Incidentally rumor has it (although no one would

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substantiate it, definitely) that a mouse in the cookhouse caused a near panic among girls who want, ninety-nine and a half per cent of them, to get overseas and into the thick of it as fast as possible.

Masculine? Not on your life!

Hobby—Rifle Drill


the camp had asked a particular favor. They wanted to take rifle drill, in their spare time. Officially

women in the Army don’t handle firearms. But these girls had brothers and fathers overseas. They felt a special sense of responsibility for the people at home, and thought it would be a good idea to learn to handle a gun. Just in case. And so you can see them, in the evenings when most of the girls are enjoying hard-earned relaxation, swinging and carrying the heavy weapons.

Yet they were feminine enough to dodge the cameraman, when I asked for a picture, because they still hadn’t got the hang of the guns properly. And they didn’t want to be seen until they did a proud job of it.

Before supper that night I watched the happy camaraderie of the fifteen minutes in the mess. Someone played the piano; other girls were enjoying a game of cribbage. Others sat around lounging and chatting. Then came the call to supper. Before we had finished, there was a clamor for the most popular member of the group, and in a few moments her place at table was surrounded with teacups. She knew how to read them. Promotions? Commendations? Medals for Bravery? No, ma’am. The leaves told the old, old story of a tall-dark-and-handsome, of new dates and altar-minded acquaintances. Of the matterable things.

Just at sunset I watched the flag being lowered. It was a moving moment, as young faces were lifted high and young bodies stiffened to salute. Then, for a second, I caught the shining look that has neither sex nor name, but is the heart and soul of the Canadian Army which guards and keeps this country safe.

Glamour is Superseded

IT’S NOT a very glamorous setting, the basic training centre with its long-tabled mess rooms, its spartan living quarters, ungarnished ablution huts for rows and rows of washers, its big drill hall and barren acres around the thirty-five drab buildings. But it’s just as the men’s Army left it. And the very fact that out of these quarters have gone, man for woman, hundreds of fighters to battle posts overseas, lends it an aura that you couldn’t touch with broadlooms and baby grands, as far as the girls are concerned.

All in all, the day’s routine had been much like that of any man’s training centre—the drills, the classes, the shiny buttons and spotless huts. But that night, getting ready for bed, the conversation turned to a pair of badly behaved children some of the girls had seen in town.

“Believe me,” one of them said with a determined look in her blue-asheaven eyes, “my children won’t be spoiled brats. I’ve learned discipline, and they’ll learn it too, well buttered with love.”

“When you get them,” mocked a young voice from the upper bunk.

And there was a silence for a moment, as we all thought of the thousands of homes-that-have-towait until it’s over.

“I’ll get them,” she said, softly. “And look after them. . .And so will all of you.”