The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
During the past year Fergus and Elora have commemorated the 50th (in 2018, the 73rd) anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
The focus has been on events in Europe, with much less attention to the home front. War also affected Canadian civilians, and at no time more strongly than at the Christmas season in the later years of the war.
For the first three Christmases of the war – 1939, 1940 and 1941 – there were only minor disruptions to the availability of Christmas goods. For many servicemen, the war had not really started. They were still undergoing training in Canada, and their goal was to get home on leave for Christmas.
Most people were profoundly grateful that they were not enduring the scarcities and dislocations in England. In these first years, Christmas was characterized by a feeling of anxiety. Families and friends wanted to be together; no one knew what the new year would bring.
Everything changed in 1942. Rationing began early in the year, restricting purchases of sugar, tea, coffee, butter, and later other foods. Virtually every able-bodied person was either employed or had enlisted. Money was plentiful, but consumer goods were becoming scarce.
A week before Christmas, Beatty Bros. of Fergus announced their best year ever. Sales topped $11 million, but 80% of this was war production. Profits totalled almost $2.2 million, and the payroll also reached a new high. The firm had ceased the production of washing machines, and closed down its national distribution network.
There was money to spend in Fergus and Elora, even after workers purchased Victory bonds. Many people scrambled to buy luxury items, which were disappearing from the market.
A large number of men had proceeded overseas, and most sent home letters and cards. For example, Fergus native Ian Stewart sent greetings from Egypt. Others were in Canada, and sought a leave to get home for the holidays.
Christmas fell on a Friday in 1942, and holiday traffic was very heavy for the entire weekend. With the shortages of gasoline, tires and car parts, much of the travel was done by train and bus. Families and friends made every effort to get together.
Railways and bus lines recorded record levels of passengers. On the evening of Dec. 27 Canadian National ran two special trains from Palmerston through Fergus and Elora to Guelph, and Gray Coach scheduled five buses from Fergus.
Civilians had to cope with continuing shortages and rationing, but it was a small price compared to that paid by civilians in Europe. Christmas brought a continued feeling of anxiety, which was combined with weariness. This was the fourth wartime Christmas, and everyone knew it would not be the last.
There was less Christmas travel in 1943 than a year earlier. Many more servicemen were overseas. As well, domestic travel had become more difficult. The railways discouraged unnecessary trips, and were deploying their passenger equipment in troop movements. Bus travel was restricted to trips of less than 50 miles, but this was lifted for servicemen over the holiday season.
Enlistments had continued during the previous year and by Christmas 1943, there were few who did not have a husband, brother, son or nephew in the service.
Women had assumed roles in previously all-male domains in factories and banks. At the Fergus News Record, the entire staff, except for editor Hugh Templin, was in the armed forces, and women put out the paper and did the job printing: Erma Peart, Helen Currie, Mrs. Andrew Forster and Mrs. Fred Masson.
There was a shortage of Christmas trees in 1943 due to a shortage of labour. The railways would not transport trees that year, and trucks were only allowed to ship them 35 miles or less. The shortage was less severe in Fergus and Elora, but for thousands of city dwellers it meant a tree-less Christmas.
Scarcities and rationing continued, and many luxury items were not available at any price. In 1943 there was a shortage of toys. Dolls were available in plain, standard styles, and made of wood. Cardboard and wooden guns and tanks amused young soldiers.
Enlisted men from Elora and Fergus made every effort to get home. Among those from Elora were Bill Henderson, Jim Kerr, Jay Noonan, Ray Plyley, Morley Aitchison, Harold Weadick, Stuart Playford, Jack Laidlaw, Claude Mosure and Jim Rogers. Fergus men home for the holidays in 1943 included Victor Wilson, Allan Wilson, Robert Phillips, W.G. Dix, Ian Fleming and Don McHardy.
Those already overseas sent cards and letters. Private Ivan Dix from Fergus topped them by sending a Christmas cable from the Mediterranean.
There was also mail the other way – a lot of mail, including Christmas parcels. During the 1943 Christmas season, the Canadian Post Office sent 179,000 bags of mail overseas. Much of it was parcels: to servicemen, to prisoners of war through the Red Cross, and to civilians in England.
Just before Christmas, someone conducted a poll of service people. The preferred Christmas gift by far was a subscription to their hometown newspaper. For men from Fergus and Elora, and other small towns across Canada, the paper was a regular link with home, even when overseas deliveries were late and erratic.
Editors frequently received notes from overseas. Ridley Hall of Elora wrote to Kay Marston of the Elora Express just before Christmas in 1943, as follows:
“I received three copies of the Express today. I must say I am most pleased to receive them. It is most gratifying to see by the Express that good old Elora went over the top in their Fifth Victory Loan.
“In our troop there are the following boys from Elora: Harry Pritchard, Jim Scott and Lew Hornsby. We see a lot of George Wissler. He is stationed in the same city as we are. All the boys in and around Elora whom we have seen are well and fit, but hoping this war would end so we could get back home. Must close for now, and wish you all the best in the coming year.”
In 1995 less than a quarter of the population has any memory of the war years. We would all do well this Christmas to ask someone who went through this period to talk of their experiences and memories.
*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on Dec. 20, 1995.