A century ago, a British war bride sailed for Canada. Now her granddaughter shares her story

“The ship was moving at an excellent speed … in the distance we saw a huge iceberg. It looked like a big building with a tower. We passed not very far away. A gentleman standing there nearby called us up. gave his glasses or rather telescope. “

When Annette Fulford read these words from her grandmother, she was immediately captivated.

Grace Clark was a war bride.

She wrote a 68-page letter on the Melita as she traveled from England with her new husband to Canada in September 1919.

Clark was one of thousands of young European women who met and married Canadian servicemen during World War I, which ended on November 11, 1918.

Canada’s military past is honored each year on Remembrance Day, to perpetuate the sacrifice and valor of the soldiers who fought overseas. But the experiences of war brides who uprooted their lives to move to Canada are much less understood, and Fulford wants to change that – let’s not forget.

“There are still so many stories that need to be told,” she said.

By examining letters and family records, Fulford pieced together the story of his grandmother who arrived in Canada in 1919. (Maggie MacPherson / CBC)

Her grandparents had a whirlwind romance. Hugh Clark, a farmer from Saskatchewan, was enlisted in 1918 and went to England. Grace Gibson was a music teacher in England when they met in January 1919. They married three months later.

They sailed to Canada almost a year after the war and settled in Hugh’s hometown of Storthoaks, Saskatchewan. They raised four children and were married for 48 years.

But in 1919, when Grace wrote the letter, she was 21 and was leaving her home in England for the first time.

Grace died when Fulford was five, and Fulford was fascinated by the letter as it provided a unique window into a war bride’s journey.

“We had a sad burial at sea. A blind officer on board lost his three month old baby. He died the day before. The minister on board conducted the funeral and many hearts were touched. father were there, and It was all the sadder to see that the man was blind.

Listen to an excerpt from Clark’s letter.

The story of a Canadian war bride told by her granddaughter

Annette Fulford reads an excerpt from a letter written by her grandmother, Grace Clark, as she sailed from Britain to her new home in Canada. 0:30

A recent Leger Marketing Ancestry.ca survey found that 57 percent of Canadians are unaware of war brides or the meaning of the term, despite the important role women play in shaping Canadian identity.

“They kind of strengthened the bond between Britain and Canada … and there are a lot of people in Canada who can claim a grandmother or great-grandmother as a war bride,” he said. said Glenn Wright, a retired military archivist from Library and Archives Canada.

“Their lives were pretty tough,” says Ancestry family historian Lesley Anderson. “They were in a new country at a time of devastating loss and they only had their husbands to rely on.”

Fulford found little research on WWI brides when she began to delve into her grandmother’s story.

Tens of thousands of women

Since then, the self-taught genealogist of Maple Ridge, British Columbia, has become an avid First World War brides researcher and regularly lectures on the subject. Fulford says the majority of these war brides immigrated to Canada in 1919.

Although the term war brides was not used during the First World War era, Fulford found references in newspapers such as the Calgary Daily Herald to women and their travels. (Maggie MacPherson / CBC)

Veterans Affairs says about 54,000 family members accompanied troops back to Canada after World War I, but it is not known how many of them were women, children or other family members. .

“There are lots of young children and babies, and poor mothers find it hard to try to breastfeed when they should be lying down. However, from what I can see, Canadian soldiers are very attentive to their sick wives and doing their part. nursing. “

Fulford’s research puts the estimate at 35,000 women.

She believes the lack of in-depth research on WWI brides is in part due to the term not being used until WWII.

Wright agrees. He said there were more weddings during World War II because Canadians were stationed in Britain longer before being deployed to mainland Europe.

He added that the Canadian government was much more organized after World War II to bring back war brides and support them once they arrived in Canada – lessons learned from earlier immigration.

Culture shock

“There was a lot of culture shock for these women because it was a whole new way of life for a lot of them. They were girls from the City of London who had never been on farms. “said Fulford.

“It was difficult for my grandmother to come to Canada because she came from a middle class family. She was used to, you know, certain luxuries that weren’t available on the farm,” she declared.

“And of course the isolation.… Farms are quite large in Canada, so the nearest neighbor might be 10 miles away.”

But while Grace has shown any apprehension at the idea of ​​moving to Canada, she has not expressed it as she approaches dry land.

“This is the best part of the trip. There is no wind at all and everything is so calm. Her Majesty the sun is shining to ‘beat the band’. ‘ You see, I’m already Canadian now that we’re in God’s land… We can see a train now. Hugh almost jumped overboard in his joy.

Fulford had to piece together big chunks of his grandmother’s life by poring over family records and photos.

“She was a soft-spoken elderly woman. I don’t even remember if she had a British accent.”

But the letter offered a window into his life and his personality.

Grace Clark wrote a 68-page letter to her family in England describing her trip to Canada. (Annette Fulford)

“She seemed very enthusiastic and young, but also reserved because she didn’t really write about herself. She wrote mostly about the world around her.”

Hugh was a boxer and fought in a few exhibition matches on the ship.

Grace didn’t like fighting, but she made an exception for the prize money in one case.

“Hugh said he was going to pass £ 1 on memories. For me. It is under these conditions that I let him box. He bought me a souvenir spoon for the boat and also a big picture of the Melita that we will have framed when we get home. ”

The keepsake spoon is now a cherished family heirloom.

Grace and Hugh Clark sailed the Melita from England to Canada in September 1919. This keepsake spoon and photo of the ship are among her grandparents’ keepsakes that Fulford keeps. (Maggie MacPherson / CBC)

But there are still many gaps in Fulford’s knowledge.

“I would like to know exactly how she met my grandfather and what she did during the war, if she had volunteered for anything or if it was just to teach music to children.”

Fulford worries that the war brides’ stories will soon be lost, so she encourages others to write them down.

“Write your family history and tell the stories of their war brides, so people have access to those stories and we can learn more about the war brides of WWI. “

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