It was not only our men who signed up for the War Effort. A number of women did too. They were a welcome addition to military hospitals near the fighting zones, where they worked tirelessly and courageously under primitive and dangerous conditions. Many lost their lives and are remembered as heroes of the War, along with those who fought.
As younger men went to war, women took over their jobs in industry and communications, and many were posted to rural properties as ‘Land Girls’. Women also had challenges at home due to the Depression, and scarcity of many goods. These are the women whose contribution is not often remembered. Today I honour them.
From the commencement of war in Europe, the NZ Government imposed rationing on food, clothes and other consumables, to ensure the maximum amount was diverted to UK, to help ‘Mother Britain’feed her population. As part of our War effort. In New Zealand, we went without, for their sakes. Here, rubber and leather goods, including shoes, were in short supply. People learned how to repair things, remake things and make do with bare necessities. For as several generations we lived by our ‘No 8 wire’ survival instincts. To this day, those who lived through these years of deprivation are horrified with the waste of today’s ‘planned obsolescence’ culture. We made things last, adapted and repaired , shared and re-made every garment.
Petrol was rationed; to about two gallons a month, depending on the size of the car. Some cars were fitted with gas producers to provide an alternative type of power. Petrol rationing was introduced in 1940, and continued for ten years. My father, a Flying Officer in the RNZAF, acquired a motorbike; and Mother became his pillion passenger. It became more difficult with young children, and mother used to bounce up and down on the pedals of her old blue bike. My bother sat on the seat, clutching mother’s waist, while I sat on the metal clip carrier behind him, holding onto the seat springs. My baby brother was in a cane basket strapped to the handlebars. This was our mode of transport for some years.
For food and clothes rationing, everyone was issued with a coupon book. Women generally took control of all the family’s ration books. These consisted of flimsy coloured sheets of paper, marked T (tea), S (sugar), M (clothing) & X (stockings) Only one pair of stockings per woman was permitted every three months. Knitting wool was also rationed. Patriotic committees convened knitting groups, to make scarves, balaclavas and socks for the troops overseas. It was illegal to swap coupons, but many people did. My parents were married early in the War; Father resplendent in his Air Force uniform. Mother wore her best outfit; a cherry red woollen dress with big shoulder pads, and a cherry red broad- brimmed hat. Their wedding gifts consisted of rationing coupons, which subsidised their wedding feast, and enabled them to buy their first linen.
Food rations included 6oz of butter per person per week (except infants), 2 oz of tea per week, 6 oz sugar, and 1/9d worth of meat per week for adults, with a half rations
for children up to 5 years. Cream was not available. 3 eggs per week were rationed for children up to 5 years, & 6 a week for expectant and nursing mothers.
Such restrictions tested the women’s ingenuity in producing palatable meals. Lard rendered down and beaten with lemon juice replaced butter in shortening for baking. Pale powdered egg replaced fresh eggs in baking. Beetroot juice was used for food dye; par-boiled swedes were dyed in beet juice, and used as cherries. If one could acquire kidney fat, it was whipped with honey to supply fat for baking. People dug up their back lawns to plant vegetables and potatoes grew among the flower beds.
Of necessity, wartime influenced fashion. Each person was allowed 26 coupons for clothing every six month. A knee-length coat of tweed or garberdine took 12 coupons, a gym frock 4, and a blouse needed 4 coupons. Women wore practical dresses, with gored skirts to just below the knee, using as little fabric as possible.
Beetroot juice was used as lipstick, and young women dyed their hair with henna.(I recall my mother rubbing her lips and cheeks with a cube of cooked beetroot, and getting more on her fingers than her face.) Men’s trousers were cuff-free; their lapels were narrower than pre-war styles; and single-breasted jackets saved material. Post-war celebrations saw women copying the Christian Dior ‘new look’, with long full skirts and platform-soled shoes.
Tobacco and cigarettes were in short supply, and much desired. There was little awareness of the health risks of smoking. Pipes and roll-your-own ciggys were popular, and tobacco was sent to our soldiers abroad, in their ‘care parcels’ from home. Some doctors, themselves smokers, advised their patients to smoke to calm their anxiety! I still have the brass box imprinted with Gallipoli dates that my great grandfather received at Christmas 1914, gifted by NZ Government. Our thoughts about the dangers of smoking have surely changed.
Toilet paper was in short supply, and especially in non-flush toilets, crumpled squares of newspaper were used instead. I remember a loop of string holding newspaper wipes, hanging from a nail on the toilet door. Matches were also scarce, so twists of newsprint were used to start fires, and to light pipes and candles.
Pre-War, University of NZ exam papers were both set and marked in Great Britain. During the War, a ship was sunk which carried papers to be marked in Britain. Those candidates were made to re-sit the exams the following year. In subsequent exams, all candidates had to make carbon copies of their answers, and only the top copy was sent overseas. There was no photocopying at that time. By 1945, the system of overseas marking had been abandoned.
The end of the War saw street parties around the nation on VE Day (Victory in Europe,) 6 June 1945, and on VJ Day (Victory over Japan Day ) on 15 August, 1945. For several years later, posters continued to remind people such things as “Food is a weapon. Don’t waste it! Buy wisely, cook carefully, eat it all.
Health Camps were established for impoverished children, Sanitoriums were established to deal with Tuberculosis. Soldiers returned in poor health, suffering malnutrition. Many were traumatised, and had terrible injuries. Sadly, I never met my grandfathers, who died before I was born; casualties of two world wars. I was grateful for years with my two Grandmothers. They patiently answered my interminable questioning, and these remembrances are thanks to their experiences.
It was many years before all the restrictions imposed on Kiwis were lifted, as normal supply routes re-opened. Almost every family and community had lost loved ones during the War, and life was tough for families.
As we continue to commemorate these grim times on ANZAC Day, we pray that our young people will never again be caught up in such devastation as war. Let us also give thank for the perseverance of our women, who took up the burdens of keeping life going in the absence of their men.