Look Out, Not In


In 1909, in London, UK, Lord Baden-Powell organized the first rally of a successful organization he had founded to teach boys confidence, outdoor skills, independence and good citizenship. When a group of girls showed up as well, wearing uniforms adapted from the boys’ togs and speaking of scouting values, Baden-Powell hesitated briefly, then welcomed them. His sister Agnes took over to teach the girls homemaking skills, carpentry, first aid and outdoor survival, and girls signed up in droves. In World War I, Girl Guides—some as young as fourteen—served as nurses, soldiers, mechanics, interpreters, Morse code experts and more, earning merit badges along the way. Thousands of girls in North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East joined, including girls in hospitals and tuberculosis sanitoriums. In 1939, when Neville Chamberlain was negotiating with Hitler, the British government issued gas masks to civilians, and Girl Guides went door to door in their neighbourhoods showing people how to use the masks, giving information and calming their fears. Another group of Guides organized a drive to raise $46, (about $8, today) to buy RAF flying ambulances. When war was declared, the Guides learned how to help people in air raids and fires and continued to visit homes and keep people informed as alarms went off accidentally and wild rumours flew about. The girls and women stayed calm, cheerful and helpful, their Guide watchword being “Look out and not in, and lend a hand.” In Britain, when hundreds of babies were sent away from cities to be fostered in the country until the war was over, the Guides cleaned and stocked derelict homes and gathered bits of fabric to make clothes and diapers for the children. Many of the older Guides worked as nurses and ambulance drivers; the younger ones whitewashed trees, lampposts and curbs so people could find their way during night-time blackouts. When the Germans invaded Holland and occupied France, the Guides set up canteens along the roads to give refugees food and water, and to maintain chalkboards for messages. Guides in many countries made hundreds of bandages out of worn linen, organized auxiliary hospitals and carried patients to safety when hospitals were bombed. They worked in bomb shelters distributing tea and sandwiches, calming children and leading “Blackout Blues” singalongs. In Europe, Japan, China and everywhere war was, so were the Guides, improvising and pressing on. They gathered scraps of wood and fabric to make shelves and tent poles. They picked rosehips so children would have vitamin C. They trapped, prepared and cooked rabbits and squabs. In a journal found decades later, a writer described a young Guide who whipped off her uniform scarf to use as a tourniquet. An account in another found notebook describes a twenty-two-year-old Guide who joined the Women’s Auxiliary Fire Service. One night she drove a petrol tanker to a fire-service area as bombs fell all around her in a heavy three-hour raid. She pressed on to the designated meeting spot, and when the fire crew managed to get through, they found her sitting quietly in the driver’s seat of the tanker, knitting. These stories and hundreds more were found, compiled and irresistibly written in How the Girl Guides Won the War (HarperPress, London), by Janie Hampton, a seasoned professional who nonetheless seems to be astonished by the depth and breadth of the material.

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Mary Schendlinger is a writer, editor, retired teacher of publishing and, as Eve Corbel, a maker of comics. She was Senior Editor of Geist for twenty-five years. She lives in Vancouver.



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