What would your reaction be if a military officer showed up at your front door and told you he was going to billet a dozen soldiers in your home for an indeterminate length of time and you had to provide meals and laundry service for them? And you had no choice in the matter. I was reminded of this prospect as I was watching “Mr. Selfridge” on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre on Sunday night about the founder of the famous Selfridge’s department store on Oxford Street in London, England. In this week’s episode, World War I has started and one of the store employees has a Belgian refugee billeted in her home.
This actually happened to my grandmother’s family in 1914 in Folkestone, England (on the White Cliffs of Dover). My great-grandmother was a widow with sons who had enlisted for service and she was left at home with three daughters, the eldest being my grandmother who was in her early twenties at the time. As a result of thousands of
young men enlisting to train and fight in The Great War (WWI), there was a shortage of barracks. One day an army officer knocked on the door of their terraced house and asked how many soldiers my grandmother’s family could accommodate. Her reply, “Probably three”.
My grandmother then described how “the Major asked to go through the house and then informed my mother that we would be taking 17 soldiers into our home” and they would be receiving a stipend for housing them and giving them their meals every day.
Later on in the war as the various allotments of soldiers were rotated out, their house was requisitioned to provide accommodation for Belgian refugees —women and children. My grandmother had many amazing stories about these experiences. She and her sisters enjoyed the social life which included going to dances with all the soldiers. She described how some of them were illiterate miners from the north of England who had never been exposed to such things as how to use table cutlery and basic hygiene such as bathing and brushing your teeth. One hundred years later, this kind of scenario seems unimaginable. But it was a widespread practice during the war and every family “did their bit”.
I always loved my grandmother’s stories and now that she’s gone and I’m older, I can think of so many questions I wish I’d asked her. She was engaged twice previously—once to an Englishman and once to another Canadian, before marrying my Canadian grandfather on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. She recounted how, when they walked out of the photographer’s studio after their wedding, all the church bells were ringing and people were dancing in the streets. She thought everyone was celebrating her wedding but in fact, the Armistice had been signed while they were in the photographer’s. Both of her previous fiancés and a brother had been killed in France. In 1919 she left England behind and boarded a ship bound for Halifax with hundreds of British war brides sailing to join their new husbands in Canada.
Watching the news on TV today about the horror of nearly 200 schoolgirls being kidnapped in Nigeria, the ongoing wars in the Middle East and the living conditions of other innocent citizens in regions of conflict, we need to always be thankful for being born in Canada. Hopefully an army officer will never knock on our doors and tell us we have 17 soldiers moving in. And for that we can be eternally grateful.