It was “V.J. Day plus 1” when two young people, a Canadian serviceman and a British girl attached to the Women’s Land Army, joined the happy throng at an English pub, to celebrate the Allied Forces’ Victory in Japan. It was the first time the couple had ever met, but it wouldn’t be the last. You see, it had been ordained somewhere in Heaven that Michael Stewart and Audrey Edwards would spend the next 56 years together.So when Mike returned to Montreal at the close of World War II, his English bride soon followed. Together, they would write many more fascinating chapters in the story of their lives.
Dunstan Michael Stewart
He was born July 6, 1923 in Montreal, Quebec, the son of Michael Thomas Stewart and Eileen Cooney from Dublin Ireland. Exactly 17 years later, on his 17th birthday (July 6, 1940), Mike enlisted as a Private in the Royal Highland Regiment of Canada, Black Watch 2nd Division (Infantry).
His mother was not happy! The next day, she stormed down to Black Watch Headquarters and demanded that her son be dismissed due to his young age. However, Mrs. Stewart relented when the Major explained the impact it would have on Mike, saying, “You know, if I dismiss him he will never forgive you for the rest of his life...” So he stayed. After basic training, Mike took a course in Signals at Kingston, then was sent to Nova Scotia and from there to England.
Stationed in England during the early ’40s when invasion by Germany was a constant possibility, Mike’s regiment crossed the Channel into France in July, 1944, shortly after the D-Day Allied Invasion. By that time, Michael held the rank of Lance Corporal with the Black Watch. Mike was wounded as they were advancing past Calais and was evacuated back to England with physical injuries that luckily, were non-life-threatening. But at the same moment as he was hit, Mike had seen “Happy”, his best friend in the unit, blown up. This left psychological scars which Mike had to deal with for the rest of his life.
Like many other Canadians who fought overseas, Mike did not reveal many details of the hardships, much less the horrors of his wartime experiences. But this much is certain: Mike was a good soldier although, on a few occasions, youthful hijinks got him into trouble with commanding officers. When that happened, Mike found himself assigned to K.P. (Kitchen Patrol), peeling potatoes by the bagful, or doing other menial tasks around the military camp.
Mary Audrey Edwards
Mary was born August 8, 1926, the daughter of Charles Edwards and Elsie Hall. Like most teenagers growing up during the 2nd World War, Audrey was impatient to join the war effort as soon as she could get past a recruiting officer. She knew that recruits had to be 17 ½ years old and have their parents’ written permission to get into the Women’s Land Army, a volunteer corps whose members were assigned throughout the country, to replace male agricultural and market-gardening workers who had enlisted in the Armed Forces.
Audrey's mother signed for her although she really didn’t want to! Audrey’s father had offered to get her into the WRENs, (a women’s naval force), but Audrey knew that, by 1944, the only jobs available with the WRENs were for office clerks, and she wanted to do anything EXCEPT office work. She reported to a Land Army training farm at Somerset, from where the girls, most of them teenagers, were "divvied up" between farmers needing assistance. Audrey became a milker since she liked to work with animals.
Land Army Women
The Land Army women were not technically military personnel, so they did not receive the “fringe benefits” associated with military service. They did receive a small pay for their services (10 pence an hour), from which money was deducted at source, toward their accommodations. The girls were billeted either in villages close to where they worked, or on the actual farms. They also were given their initial uniform, plus a pair of work boots, but had to pay for any repairs or replacements out of their own pocket.
The work was gruelling, and in many cases no concessions were made for the fact these were women and girls doing men’s work... With only one day off per week, on Sunday, work started at 5 a.m. and during hay-making time, it went on until midnight. On the thousand-acre dairy farm where Audrey worked, cows were not brought in to be milked. You had to go to them, which might mean out on a hillside two or three miles away. The animals were milked right out in the open, rain or shine, and other workers picked up the milk cans in a truck, and took them back to the dairy. It took 20 minutes to milk each cow by hand, plus another five minutes to make sure the udder was stripped dry. Most of the dairy cows in those days were horned cattle, and the sensitive ones, especially those suffering from mastitis, had to be tied at the head and hind feet, to prevent the milkmaid from being gored, or kicked, or both. After working on the dairy farm for five months, Audrey became seriously ill. Since her billet hostess was not inclined to nurse her, she was put on a train for home, with a raging fever. Her father met her at the station.
When she recovered, Audrey was sent to a more congenial spot: a Land Army hostel consisting of about 40 girls who went out in teams, to do market-gardening assignments such as weeding, and harvesting potatoes.
Working Girls and POWs
Still, the work could be challenging. On one assignment, Audrey and her team were digging potatoes in one field, while in the next field a crew of German P.O.W.s was similarly at work, under the supervision of their British guards. Stand-offish at first, the Land Army girls gradually relented and at meal breaks, they’d make a bit of small-talk with those who could speak English, across the fence. The Germans would make a big fire and cook potatoes in it, and at noontime they would hand us roasted potatoes across the fence!
One cold November day it was pouring rain, and by late morning a British truck arrived to take the prisoners back to camp. The Land Army girls, (who were also drenched to the skin), asked “What’s this all about?” A guard replied, "It’s because of the rain. We can’t have them working outside in conditions like this!"
"What about us?", the girls wanted to know. "Oh, well, you’ll just have to keep on working," was the reply. The girls went on strike! After taking shelter in a nearby shed till the rain abated, the girls headed back to their hostel, where they were promptly reported to senior officers who read the Riot Act to them. In fact, the whole team was going to be expelled until one girl mentioned her father worked for a newspaper, and that he’d make sure the story got out.
War is Over
It was an ordinary day in May, 1945, as Audrey’s team was busy working, someone walked in and said that the war was over! In celebration, the girls all quit for the day, and next day, went to London to join the crowds milling about in Trafalgar Square wanting to get near Buckingham Palace. But the crowd was too thick. Audrey continued working with the Land Army all that summer, and by August there was more to celebrate: V.J. Day or Victory in Japan. The next evening, Audrey and her friends headed for the village pub where they
joined throngs of local people and Allied servicemen celebrating the end of hostilities.
It was noisy and hot inside, so Audrey wandered outside to sit in the cool evening air. She was joined by a lanky Canadian, Lance Corporal Mike Stewart. After they had chatted a while, Mike inquired where she had to go back to and he escorted her back to the Land Army hostel at Lower Bourne.
A few days later, as Audrey looked out a window of the hostel, she saw a familiar figure walking up the driveway holding a small dog. It was Mike, who said he had happened to be in the area and, seeing the loose dog, wondered if it belonged to the hostel... The pooch having served its purpose as an opening gambit, it was set down and promptly vanished. That night, they had their first date.
Son after, she took him home to meet her parents, and the pair soon announced their engagement. But Audrey’s father needed Mike he to show up with a ring. Since gold, and jewellery of any kind was scarce in England at the time, Mike wrote a panic letter home to his mother, asking her to send a ring! He and Audrey were officially engaged that Christmas, and her dainty ring has remained precious to her ever since.
Audrey and Michael Stewart were married February 23, 1946 at Farnborough Catholic Church. Just before the big day, Audrey’s father asked his future son-in-law if he had any civilian clothes to wear on his honeymoon. Mike said he was figuring on wearing his uniform. “Do you have any pyjamas?”, was the next question. The answer being no, Mr. Edwards went out and bought pyjamas for Mike, so that he’d be properly attired to begin married life!
The war over, Mike returned to Canada at the end of June, 1946, and Audrey sailed on the Aquitania in August of that year, landing at Halifax, then taking the train to Montreal. At first the couple lived with Mike’s mother in Outremont, and their first baby, Mark Edward, was born in 1947 but lived only for ten days. A year or so later, a second son, Bruce, was born, and the young couple established a home of their own soon after.
Life in Canada
In a way, Audrey and Mike’s lives here in Canada have been as eventful as the wartime era in which they met. By 1961 or ’62, Mike had been hired to run one of Nordair’s airports at Frobisher. For a number of years in two separate stints, he coordinated outgoing and incoming flights of passengers and cargo, also being appointed a Justice of the Peace as a sideline occupation. As part of his J.P. duties, Mike sometimes had to preside over civil and criminal court cases not grave enough to warrant being tried "down south".
Audrey worked at Frobisher too: at the post office, and at Arctic Ventures an all-purpose general store frequented by Inuits and newcomers alike. The Stewarts forged many friendships during this period. When dignitaries such as Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau visited Frobisher, Mike and Audrey were part of the welcoming committee. They were present when Pierre Trudeau visited a houseful of Eskimo Elders, all dressed in their traditional sealskin clothing. Since there was only one armchair in the house, Audrey ushered the P.M. toward it.
Trudeau took it as long as Audrey sat on the arm. The air was ripe with the odour of untanned sealskin, but Trudeau was enjoying himself, talking to everyone and showing all the charm for which he was legendary.
Drinks were offered, but as P.E.T. preferred a glass of milk, Audrey offered him the only thing they had : powdered milk., but Trudeau said that would be fine, so she went out to the kitchen and mixed him up a glassful, which he downed with relish!
Later on, Audrey and Mike lived in Alabama for a time, before returning to Canada and settling in Champlain Township. For several years, Mike played an active role in St-Gregoire Parish at Vankleek Hill, both as a lay reader and as an all-round handyman and groundskeeper for the church and cemetery. He died October 5, 2002, as the result of an automobile accident.
Audrey Stewart was involved in a number of community organizations : president of Cassburn Women’s Institute, president of the Vankleek Hill and District Horticultural Society, and volunteer for 16 years with the local Mental Health group, of which she became president.
In peacetime as in war, Audrey and Mike Stewart have served their fellow-citizens with distinction and honour.