Socks for the Boys: Marion Simpson and the Knitters of the First World War

Canadian War Contingent, Card, [1914-1918]

Marion S. Simpson of Hamilton, Ontario was one of many women who played an important role on the home front, knitting socks for the soldiers during the First World War. The socks were invaluable on both a psychological and practical level: gifts of socks from home both raised morale and helped keep the men in the trenches warm and dry.

Many patriotic women’s organizations emerged during the First World War. Called working “bees”, these groups of women gathered to knit or sew small items which would provide comfort for soldiers in the trenches. This handwork provided the women with a therapeutic distraction and a practical way to help at a time when few women played a role outside the home. In January 1915 Hamilton officers in England sent an S.O.S. call for socks for the first contingent. In February they went to France and a medical officer, writing from there to his sister in Hamilton, begged for assistance to improve the soldiers’ physical and mental state. Soon, in Hamilton and all across Canada, needles were clicking and the making of vast quantities of socks became a major preoccupation.

00000995.jpg Marion Simpson volunteered for Associated Field Comforts, a local branch of a national society, the Canadian War Contingent, formed in Hamilton by Mrs. W.C. Hawkins. It was originally established in England at the beginning of the war, by request of the British War Office, to care for the needs of the Canadian contingent overseas, specifically to distribute comforts to Canadian soldiers in France. Socks were the chief item in demand. It acted as a forwarding agency for about 30 different patriotic societies and continued in operation until the end of the war.

The trenches of France and Belgium were muddy and constantly filled with water. As a result, soldiers were prone to a painful condition called Trench Foot. The only cure was for them to keep their feet dry and change their socks regularly. Soldiers in the trenches were supposed to have at least three pairs of socks and change them at least twice a day. Since hand knitting was time consuming, Associated Field Comforts began to supply knitting machines to people who would try to turn out from seventy-five to one hundred pairs a month. Assistance from the people of Hamilton was regularly acknowledged by the overseas contingent. In November 1915, 27,892 pairs of socks were sent to the Front from the city. By 1916 there were Four Canadian Divisions at the Front, resulting in a greater demand on the Association for socks. Various church clubs and volunteer groups began contributing to the output of Associated Field Comforts by supplying large quantities of knitted articles for the men overseas.

00000996-2.jpg Notes were attached to each parcel to let the men know that the gifts were not Government supplies. Marion Simpson sent parcels of knitted socks to homesick soldiers at Christmas and wrote letters of cheer which she enclosed in parcels. Christmas parcels were wrapped in white tissue paper and tied with red and green string, often with cards attached. Simpson also enclosed a self addressed envelope, encouraging the soldiers to write back, and many did. The letters clearly reveal the emotional isolation suffered by those who were spending a bleak Christmas, far from home. Simpson came to be regarded as a good friend by the troops, and one soldier even took her encouraging words as being prophetic, as he miraculously recovered after reading her letter. The soldiers appreciated Marion Simpson’s notes almost as much as the socks which warmed their feet. She reached out to warm their hearts.

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