Sunday, March 29, 2009

Socks for the Boys

(Click on photo to enlarge for easier reading.)

I became an archivist primarily because I love to read the personal stories of those who lived in another time and place. That is what archivists do--preserve those stories for us all.

Marion S. Simpson of Hamilton, Ontario was one of many women who played an important role on the home front, knitting socks for the soldiers during the First World War. The socks were invaluable on both a psychological and practical level: gifts of socks from home both raised morale and helped keep the men in the trenches warm and dry.

This begins the introduction to an online archival exhibit by McMaster University Archives. It is part of a larger online exhibit, Peace and War in the 20th Century.

Marion Simpson volunteered for a local branch of a national society, the Canadian War Contingent, formed in Hamilton by Mrs. W.C. Hawkins. It was originally established in England at the beginning of the war, by request of the British War Office, to care for the needs of the Canadian contingent overseas, specifically to distribute comforts to Canadian soldiers in France. Socks were the chief item in demand. It acted as a forwarding agency for about 30 different patriotic societies and continued in operation until the end of the war.

The trenches of France and Belgium were muddy and constantly filled with water. As a result, soldiers were prone to a painful condition called Trench Foot. The only cure was for them to keep their feet dry and change their socks regularly. Soldiers in the trenches were supposed to have at least three pairs of socks and change them at least twice a day. Since hand knitting was time consuming, Associated Field Comforts began to supply knitting machines to people who would try to turn out from seventy-five to one hundred pairs a month. Assistance from the people of Hamilton was regularly acknowledged by the overseas contingent. In November 1915, 27,892 pairs of socks were sent to the Front from the city. By 1916 there were Four Canadian Divisions at the Front, resulting in a greater demand on the Association for socks. Various church clubs and volunteer groups began contributing to the output of Associated Field Comforts by supplying large quantities of knitted articles for the men overseas.

Notes were attached to each parcel to let the men know that the gifts were not Government supplies. Marion Simpson sent parcels of knitted socks to homesick soldiers at Christmas and of cheer which she enclosed in parcels. Christmas parcels were wrapped in white tissue paper and tied with red and green string, often with cards attached. Simpson also enclosed a , encouraging the soldiers to write back, and many did. The letters clearly reveal the suffered by those who were spending a bleak Christmas, far from home.

(Click on photo to enlarge for easier reading.)

(Click on photo to enlarge for easier reading.)

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