Canadian Armed Forces
It was a wonderful experience but I sure grew up fast.
When Marion learned to play the bagpipes as a young girl living in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan she didn’t know that it would take her on one of the most exciting adventures of her life. In 1944, at the age of 18, Marion heard that the newly formed Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) was not only looking to recruit women, they were looking to recruit those who could play the pipes.
For my age and where I lived, it was a great opportunity. I didn’t want to go into nursing, which my mother wanted. Joining the band was my chance to be part of something.
My life in the CWAC involved constant travel. We were sent out across the country as ambassadors to encourage women to join the service, to participate in special events and parades. During my first year with the band, we covered more than 100 cities and towns in Canada and the United States. We were a bit of a novelty. There weren’t any other all women, military pipe bands at that time.
On May 7, 1945 – after Victory in Europe (VE) Day, we were sent overseas to Appledorn, Holland which was to become our home base. We basically were sent there so that other bands that had been overseas for so long could go home. Our primary role was to do a lot of ceremonial things and to give concerts. We visited many hospitals and played for our guys. We saw some pretty bad things and heard their stories. You felt it, you really did. To this day, I can still envision some of them.
We worked very hard. On most days, we’d head out early in the morning and never get back to base until midnight. The band traveled to England, Holland, France and Germany. We sometimes traveled by bus or train, but mostly we traveled in the back of army trucks. We saw the results of the major fighting when we traveled. That was really tough.
In Holland, we lived next to an orphanage and it was filled with many, many children. If we had extra food, we would give it to them. We had our families send us special treats like chocolates and we’d give them all to the children. That was one thing we loved to do, and they needed it too.
One of the most memorable experiences was a huge parade in Paris, France. We were the only ones playing, but the crowds made it huge. Some 250,000 people lined the Champs-Élysées to see us. As we passed them, they would crowd in behind us and march with us. When we reached our destination, they wouldn’t let us go, and we ended up playing for another hour.
When we arrived back in Toronto in December 1946, the band was disbanded. We were sent back to the base where we had signed up to finalize our commitment to the army. By then, I was all set to get married so it was easy for me.
Over the years, we remained close friends. You can’t live that close to people and experience what we did, and not stay in touch. We had two reunions and, up until a few years ago, we did an annual band newsletter that we all contributed to.
I wish our young people could get a broader view of the world. I believe that as part of their education, they should have to take a trip across this country of ours to see all the different cultures that make up our country. On one of my trips back to Europe to mark an anniversary, we went through all the cemeteries where our boys are buried. That was very hard. You look at the ages of these kids, 17, 18, 19, and they were gone without ever having lived their lives. I’d like today’s young people to think in terms of the people who made a lot of sacrifices so we all could have what we have today. I know that for me, seeing the people and what they went through during the war encouraged me to be a better person, and to give a bit of myself instead.