Women in the war: a Co-Lab challenge

By Rebecca Murray

Canadian women are part of the photographic record of the Second World War. The Department of National Defence fonds (RG24/R112) includes over two million photographs, from Comox in British Columbia to Naples in Italy. These women are our great-grandmothers, grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins and friends.

This Co-Lab challenge invites you to identify servicewomen and nursing sisters who served in Canada and abroad between 1942 and 1945. The photographs range from images of a single person to large groups. The selected photographs depict them at work and play, on ships, in kitchens and libraries, playing sports and dancing. In most cases, none of the women have been identified; in fact, the word “unidentified” is often part of the title of the image.

Identifying these individuals is key to having a better understanding and knowledge of the roles they played during the Second World War. In tandem with other efforts to identify images of servicewomen and nursing sisters within the archival record, this Co-Lab challenge will help to expand the narrative.

Can you help us to identify these women who served? Here are some examples of the photographs you will find in the challenge.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman in a military uniform looking at the camera. She has a pen in her right hand, papers on her desk and a black candlestick-style telephone to her left.

An unidentified member of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC), England, July 19, 1944. Credit: Capt. Jack H. Smith (a162428-v6)

A black-and-white photo of a group of women in military uniforms smiling at the camera. There are two women in dark suits. The women in the first row are seated and holding hands. Some of the women standing in the back row have their arms linked.

Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service members (“Wrens”), August 1943 (e011180809)

A black-and-white photo of four women and a man in a shop with tools and tables. There are three windows and a sign that reads YMCA.

Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division craft shop, Rockcliffe, Ontario, April 11, 1944 (a064867-v8)

To search the holdings at Library and Archives Canada for other photographs of servicewomen and nursing sisters, use Collection Search to explore accession 1967-052, where photographs are organized by branches of the armed forces, or try a keyword search (e.g. 1967-052 Halifax Wren).

For more information on the women’s divisions in the three branches of the Canadian Armed Forces during the Second World War, please refer to these blog posts:

Canadian women served in numerous capacities throughout the Second World War—well beyond what is represented in these photographs. Naming these women and identifying them within the archival record will build a more inclusive narrative and allow generations of servicewomen, their families and Canadians to recognize and highlight the extraordinary roles that they played during the Second World War.

We invite you to use our Co-Lab tool to transcribe, tag, translate and describe digitized records in this challenge. You can also make contributions to any image through our Collection Search tool.


Rebecca Murray is a Senior Reference Archivist in the Reference Services Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Women in the War: The Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS)

We often receive reference requests for photographs of loved ones serving with the Canadian Forces. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds a vast photographic collection, over 30 million images, a substantial portion of which is found within the Department of National Defence fonds (RG24/R112). A project to survey accession 1967-052 “Canada. Dept. of National Defence collection” 1939–1953 and to index all photographs of servicewomen began in April 2018 and is well under way. I hope to see the work completed for all three arms of the service, Navy, Army and Air Force, by 2022. Representing all three branches of the armed forces and comprising over 500,000 photographs, this collection is one of my favourites and at the top of my list for review when a researcher requests photographs from the Second World War or the Korean War. It includes photographs from the home front and theatre of war, making it a rich, well-described collection.

My colleague’s post “75th Anniversary of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service ” published in 2017 serves as a perfect complement to this work and features many photographs, both colour and black and white, of servicewomen at work and play. To quote from the post, I want to highlight here that: “Those serving with the WRCNS were commonly called ‘Wrens,’ the nickname used by their British counterparts, who were members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS).” Throughout the captions, I found both terms “Wren” and “WRCNS” used to identify servicewomen.

A black-and-white photograph of two members of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service washing the front of a bus while their colleague sprays the side of the bus with a hose.

Personnel of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) washing a bus at H.M.C.S. CONESTOGA, Galt, Ontario, Canada, July 1943. (a108171)

The accession is broken down into prefixes, most often by location (such as base or city) or by ship. For example, the MAG prefix is comprised of photographs documenting “the HMCS Magnificent between 1948 and 1957.”

The finding aids for each prefix, also referred to as caption lists, are available for consultation in the second-floor reference room at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa. They are also part of LAC’s initiative to digitize the majority of existing finding aids, ongoing until 2024.

A survey of the caption lists for each of the prefixes specific to naval photographs has been completed, and all those captions that mention servicewomen have been noted. The result is 2,652 photographs, or 1.3 percent.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman in a military uniform leaning across a counter to interview three women beside a sign that reads “Canadian Wives’ Bureau.”

Leading Wren Evelyn Kerr (right) of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) interviewing British wives of Canadian sailors, Canadian Wives’ Bureau, London, England, 30 November 1944. (a128179)

One of the pleasures of the project has been the exposure to the various trades and functions that the Wrens performed. From photographers and dieticians, to motor transport drivers and librarians, the servicewomen performed all sorts of valuable work at home and abroad to support the war effort. I also came across and included numerous images of Nursing Sisters.

A black-and-white photograph of a member of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service handing a man a tall stack of books beside a ship.

Leading Wren Ruth Church, Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS), delivering a supply of library books to Able Seaman Bill Swetman of the HMCS Petrolia, Londonderry, Northern Ireland, November 1944. (a189717)

How to Search for “Your” Servicewoman

You can write to us with information about “your” Wren or Nursing Sister to see if there are any indexed photographs that identify her by name. It would be helpful to know her maiden name, where and when she served, as this will help us narrow the search. Similarly, once you identify relevant records within a series, a review of those photographs by yourself or a freelance researcher may reveal additional photographs that did not identify her by name OR that did not indicate that any servicewomen were in the image. For example, many captions simply describe the photograph as “Christmas Dance” or “Holiday Party” and were not included.

To know more about “your” servicewoman’s time with the Canadian Forces, request a copy of her Military Service file.

A black-and-white photograph of a smiling member of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service carrying a large bag on her shoulder.

Leading Wren June Whiting of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) disembarking at Liverpool, England, April 1945 (a142415)

Please feel free to visit us at one of our public service points in Ottawa, Halifax, Winnipeg or Vancouver or write to us with questions about LAC’s holdings, both archival and published.


Rebecca Murray is an Archivist in the Reference Services Division.