Jeff Heuchert, Stratford Gazette
Sadie Cole’s contribution to the war effort in the 1940s was made not on the front lines but on farmers’ fields as a labourer.
After Britain declared war on Germany in January 1939, Cole joined what was known as the Women’s Land Army (WLA), a civilian organization that was formed during the First World War to help free up men from their agricultural responsibilities to serve in the military.
At age 22, Cole was given a uniform and sent to a farm in West Wales, not far from her home in South Wales.
“I had to learn everything from the bottom up,” Cole told an audience last Friday at the Discovery Centre in Stratford.
She was the guest speaker during the annual remembrance ceremony held by the Friends of the Stratford Normal School/Teacher’s College Heritage, and spoke about her life as a “land girl” during wartime and coming to Canada as a war bride after marrying her husband Fred.
She said things on the farm weren’t too bad except for the language used by the men towards the women.
“I thought to myself, I don’t have to listen to that. So I decided I wouldn’t. The next day I told the farmer I was leaving.”
Cole was sent by the WLA to a new farm in a seaside village. Shortly after she arrived, another “land girl” named Peggy came to work on the farm.
“We shared a nice bedroom and the food was great, even though it was wartime and food was rationed,” she said.
The two would wake early each morning and go out into the field to round up cows for milking. After breakfast, Cole would help hitch a horse and load the milk onto a cart, which Peggy would take into the village to sell. Cole would stay behind and clean the cow sheds and, once Peggy was back, unhitch the horse, wash and sterilize the milk cans and hose down the dairy floor – all before lunch.
In the afternoon she would work on the land, where one of her jobs was mowing the lawn with a hand mower.
Sometimes Cole and Peggy would be invited to a nearby hospital for injured troops where there was entertainment. They would also take a bus into a nearby town.
“We went there on our time off, maybe to browse through the shops, have a snack or go to the pictures,” she said. “All in all, life was good on the farm.”
Cole got a glimpse of what the future had in store for her when she and Peggy visited a fortune teller, who told her she saw her crossing a large body of water.
“I was certain she was wrong because I didn’t like traveling by ship,” said Cole. “However, I proved her right.”
Cole would eventually be sent to another farm “as different from the other one as chalk is from cheese.” She worked for an older woman she described as “class conscious” who expected Cole to use titles like madame, miss and master when referring to her and her children.
The woman who ran the farm had relatives in Canada, one of whom had two sons in the army who were sent to England and would visit the farm when on leave. They had a friend in the army named Fred, and suggested to him that he visit the farm, which he did for the first time before Cole had arrived.
“I was there on his next leave,” said Cole, “and one night we three girls were going to the pictures and invited him along. “He joined us, and things progressed from there.”
It was the start of a whirlwind courtship.
Cole said her parents weren’t too happy when she told them she was getting married, not because they didn’t want her to marry, but because she would be moving so far from home.
The two married in early December while Fred was on leave over the holidays. Cole was also given time off from the farm, and they spent Christmas with her family.
When Fred’s leave was up he went back to the base and Cole went back to the farm.
Fred was shipped back to Canada in January 1945, and Cole joined him in April, around the time the war was coming to an end in Europe.
After Fred’s discharge from the army, the two started their lives together in Stratford, where they would raise three children.
“I have been lucky in that I was able to visit home many times,” noted Cole. “This country has been good to me and my family.”
Last Friday’s ceremony, held annually at the site of the former Stratford Normal School, attracted well over 70 people – one of its largest audiences in many years. Friends of the Stratford Normal School member Jeannette Dyer credited the exceptional turnout to the fact the Coles are so well known and liked in the community.
“I’ve never seen so many people here for our ceremony,” she added. “It’s heartening to see.”