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The Best Socks at the Front Were From Newfoundland

For the week of Monday, August 31, 2015

On August 31, 1914, Lady Margaret Davidson, wife of Newfoundland Governor Sir Walter Davidson, founded the Women’s Patriotic Association (WPA) at a public meeting in St. John’s with more than 700 women in attendance. The WPA provided local servicemen at the front with some of the comforts from home. Membership quickly rose to 15,000 women in over 200 branches. Women of different backgrounds united under a common cause and by war’s end, the WPA had raised $500,000, the equivalent of $6.5 million today.

Lady Davidson
© Memorial University of Newfoundland-Digital Archives Initiative / 1916

To aid Allied forces overseas, dedicated volunteers produced 8,984 shirts, 6,080 mittens with a trigger finger, and 2,422 scarves. Yet it was the 62,685 pairs of grey wool socks that became the most popular. Thick socks prevented ‘trench foot,’ a fungal infection caused by continuous exposure to the damp and cold conditions of trench warfare. In a letter home, Private Francis Lind of the Newfoundland Regiment wrote, “We have been asked by soldiers of different regiments if we had a pair of Newfoundland socks to give them or sell them. They would even offer cigarettes in return.”

The WPA’s enthusiasm spread to other projects. Volunteers made countless bandages, surgical dressings, and other supplies for the Red Cross, which were shipped to overseas military hospitals. With donations, the WPA opened a 17-bed hospital in St. John’s for servicemen with tuberculosis, and a Visiting Committee was set up to comfort and boost the morale of returning soldiers and their relatives.

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Government House in St. John’s, Newfoundland
© Parks Canada Agency / 1993

The WPA also provided entertainment to Allied troops stationed in Newfoundland. Their musical concerts and hockey games offered much-needed distractions from the war.

The Davidson’s residence, Government House in St. John’s, served as the headquarters of the WPA. One upstairs bedroom was used to cut fabric to make clothing for soldiers. Another bedroom doubled as a Red Cross storeroom. The ballroom held enough tables and sewing machines for 50 women, while the billiard room became the War Office responsible for managing the many branches of the organization.

Government House National Historic Site of Canada in St. John's displays a plaque commemorating the women’s efforts in aiding Allied forces overseas and boosting morale at home.

For other contributions of Newfoundland women, see Mary Meager Southcott: “Florence Nightingale” of Newfoundland and NONIA: A Welcome Addition to the Community! in the This Week in History archives.

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