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Publication: Vancouver Sun
Issue: 5 September 2014
Title: Julia Henshaw: A unique woman of the war
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Julia Henshaw: A unique woman of the war
Most of the few women who went to battle in the First World War were nurses. Henshaw, of Vancouver, was not. She proved fearless, winning the French Croix de Guerre as an ambulance driver
By Daphne Bramham, Vancouver Sun September 5, 2014
Few Canadian women went to the front lines of the First World War and there was no one quite like Captain Julia Henshaw.
The product of an earlier age, of a culture of class and privilege that the war would draw the curtain on, she was 45 years old when the war began.
Unlike the 3,141 nursing sisters in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, Henshaw had no medical training. In fact, she had none of the usual qualifications.
A high-society matron, the British-born Henshaw was an accomplished writer and renowned botanist. Her only qualifications for war were an audacious sense of duty and adventure and, later, a proven fearlessness under fire. For her service in France as a Red Cross ambulance driver, Henshaw received the Croix de Guerre with Gold Star for ?evacuating and recuperating inhabitants under shell fire and aerial bombarding with a devotion and courage worthy of the highest praise.?
She was awarded the British, Allied and Canadian war medals and other honours..
Born in Durham, England, Julia Wilmotte Henderson was one of eight children. She was educated in France and Germany; it?s not clear why she came to Canada or even when.
What is known is that in 1887 in Montreal, she married Charles Henshaw, a well-connected investment broker and the progeny of United Empire Loyalists. Their only child ? Doris ? was born in Montreal in 1889.
That?s the same year that Julia?s first novel, entitled Hypnotized, was published under the name Julian Durham and was acclaimed by one critic as ?the Canadian book of the year.?
The Henshaws moved west, setting up residence first in New Westminster in 1890, then in Vancouver?s West End and finally in Caulfeild in West Vancouver.
?My first recollection of Vancouver is of a quaint little, wooden town,? Henshaw wrote.
A restless spirit, she and her husband travelled to the headwaters of the Columbia River in 1896.
Julia published a second novel in 1901 using her male nom de plume. Why Not Sweetheart? was set at British Columbia?s insane asylum overlooking the Fraser River.
By then, she was also working as the literary and theatre critic for the Vancouver Province newspaper and writing a column under the pseudonym G?wan. When she wasn?t writing, Julia was organizing what at the time passed for high-society. She was a founding member of the Canadian Alpine Club, the Vancouver Musical Club, and the Georgian Club, Vancouver?s first women?s social club. She was on the executive of the Imperial Daughters of the Empire and the Women?s Canadian Club.
In 1906, Julia published Mountain Wildflowers of America, after having worked with botanists Charles and Mary Shaffer. She wrote two more books on wildflowers and is credited with the discovery of the Cypripedium acule or pink lady?s slipper.
She mapped the interior of Vancouver Island between 1910 and 1911.
In 1914, the Henshaws were the first couple to drive a motor car across the Rocky Mountains. Whether that was before or after Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and Canada went to war is not clear.
Their son-in-law, Grant Morden, immediately enlisted in Prince Edward Island, while Charles Henshaw headed the Vancouver Recruiting Centre. He was never commissioned, but received the pay and allowances of a lieutenant-colonel for his services.
In 1915, Julia was commissioned by Lt.-Gen. Sir Sam Hughes as a lieutenant in the Canadian Militia with vague duties concerning recruiting and promoting the war effort in general.
(Hughes, Canada?s militia and defence minister from 1911 to 1916, was a talented but erratic man. His biography on the Canadian War Museum?s website describes him as ?prone to cronyism and patronage,? noting that among his great failures was championing the purchase of Canadian-made Ross rifles, which were not up to the task.)
Henshaw made her first trip to France before Christmas 1915 to distribute gifts to the Canadian troops. On her return, she did a lecture series across the country, reporting on what she?d seen and urging women to support the war effort.
Henshaw was formidable a campaigner, ?a clear and fluent speaker,? according to a September 1916 report in the Crag and Canyon newspaper about her speech in Banff.
Her presentation was illustrated by a series of ??lantern slides? that Henshaw had taken and slipped through the censors.
?Her description of how the work is carried on at the front, tracing a wounded soldier from the trench to the ambulance and thence to the dressing station, the field and the base hospitals until he recovered sufficiently to go back to the firing line or be invalided home, was most complete and comprehensive.
?Her word pictures of life in the trenches were vivid and compelling and many in the audience gained a new understanding of what our soldier boys are enduring and came away with awakened consciences as to their duty along the line of financial aid.?
At the end of her lecture, they passed a hat and netted $40 ? roughly the equivalent of $670 today ? which was turned over to the field ambulance fund.
Two years later and once again on the lecture circuit, she spoke in Winnipeg, urging women who had been granted the right to vote under the 1917 Wartime Elections Act to vote in favour of conscription.
That act extended the franchise to women in the armed forces and to female relatives of military men. But it also disenfranchised thousands of citizens naturalized after 1902 because the government feared that citizens who were not of British descent ? especially those of ?enemy alien? birth ? would oppose conscription.
Whether Henshaw appreciated the irony of exhorting female voters to cast their ballots in favour of conscription, we?ll never know.
But the records show that Henshaw was dismayed by suffragettes and had spoken out against extending voting rights to women for at least as long as another author and journalist, Nellie McClung, helped organize the Political Equality League in Winnipeg.
Among the women Henshaw spoke to on her tours, there would almost certainly have been some of the many members of the War Auxiliary or members of the Women?s Home Guard to bolster defences at home.
She would also have spoken to some of the 30,000 who worked in munitions factories or the uncounted thousands who tilled the soil and brought in the crops.
Many of those hard-working women ? unlike Henshaw ? didn?t do it solely by choice. Many of those left-behind women went to work in factories and on farms out of necessity.
As John Herd Thomson wrote in The Harvests of War: The Prairie West, 1914-1918, ?The task of caring for a family on the pittance provided by the Patriotic Fund to soldiers? dependents became more and more difficult.?
Wartime inflation had doubled the cost of living. But the war also coincided with the largest harvest ever recorded on the Prairies.
?Luxuriant? was how the Dominion Department of Agriculture described the 1915 crops in its Agricultural War Book.
The writer went on: ?If the Garden of Eden looked as enticing as did Saskatchewan this past summer, it is difficult to understand why the Garden of Eden was forsaken so soon.?
Bringing in that crop meant farm women had to add harvesting to their already long list of chores that usually included tending gardens, milking cows, slaughtering animals, canning and preserving what they?d grown and, of course, child rearing.
Most took it in stride.
?There are harder things than fighting ? suspense is one ? and so perhaps while we are waiting, let us do our bit by farming,? a farm woman named Topsy wrote to the Grain Growers? Guide in the summer of 1916.
A few weeks later, MDK wrote the newspaper about her denim, ?overall dress? that she wore for her outdoor work. ?It seems so suitable for resisting winds and does not tear easily. One dress lasts me almost two seasons.?
By November 1917, the Battle of the Somme had been fought. But the defining battle at Vimy Ridge (when for the first time the Canadian Corps attacked as one unit under Canadian command) lay ahead as did the decisive victory at Passchendaele.
Henshaw was discharged by the militia. It barely slowed her down.
She joined the French Red Cross as ?directeuse? of an ambulance unit, serving in France from March to November 1918 when the war ended.
Despite the changed world around her, Henshaw seems to have transitioned easily back into her old life. She resumed her position in Vancouver high-society and her newspaper work and renewed her interest in botany and geography, for which she was rewarded with the prestigious designation of Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
In 1920, she gave two lectures on the Canadian Rockies at the Allied Congress of Alpinism in Monaco complete with slides.
?A charming lecturer, her talk attracted very favourable comment and was greatly appreciated, particularly by the Prince of Monaco, who created her an Officer of the Order of St. Charles and conferred upon her the Cross of the Order,? according to the Canadian Alpine Journal.
She travelled frequently to Europe, often for extended periods to visit her daughter who was living in London.
After her husband?s death in 1928, Henshaw became increasingly frail due to a ?heart ailment.? Cataracts blinded her. But, with the help of her longtime friend May Judge, she carried on writing two ?Note Books? a week and a full ?Book Page? every Saturday for The Vancouver Sun.
Ever the adventurer, Henshaw took a one-in-100 chance on cataract surgery in 1937 ? six months before her death. It was successful and, as Judge told the Canadian Alpine Journal, ?Her friends were thankful that for six months she had the joy of seeing them again and the beauty of land and sea and sky, all of which meant so much to her great-hearted self.?
When Henshaw died in November, one obituary said her death left ?a gap in the structural foundation of Vancouver?s social and cultural life, which can never be filled.?
The Canadian Alpine Journal also noted approvingly, ?Mrs. Henshaw was a fine Imperialist.?