War, Women and Warcake

This blog is one of two featuring the service of Marion Leane Smith Walls, don’t miss the new release which explores Marion’s WW2 service which lead to her being awarded the Distinguished War Service Medal… Molasses Cookies and Knitted Bandages.

There are no less than three versions of Warcake in My Mother’s Cookbooks, which is not surprising since a large number of the recipes originate with women of a certain generation. Women like Myrtle Walls Leban’s and Marion Smith Walls’ who were born at the beginning of the last decade of the 19th century. Women whose lives were marked by two world wars.

Female clerks with customers in front of Blackville, NB store, c. 1900 Photo courtesy of Our MIramichi Heritage Facebook site

By 1900 the constraints on young women were loosening, with employment and educational opportunities opening up for ‘respectable’ young women. For many this afforded employment locally in shops and offices, before eventually marrying, and having a family. For others employment or advanced education meant leaving for larger centers, often to areas where other family had already settled.

In eastern Canada, the larger center often meant “the Boston states”. Marion Leane Smith, sought opportunity and education in Massachusetts. Marion studied nursing at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston, then took a job in Montreal with the Victorian Order of Nurses in 1913.

By 1914, Aunt Myrt had married John Lebans, was mother of two and was living in Blackville, NB. John was a millworker, during the following 10 years, Aunt Myrt and the family would live in several Miramichi communities as John sought employment in mills across the region. Myrtle’s experience of the war was similar to most other rural Canadian women and vastly different than Marion’s.

Mill at Mouth of the Bartholomew river, a tributary of the Southwest Miramichi c. 1915 Photo courtesy of the Our Miramichi Heritage site.

When the war began support for it was high, and remained so, despite sacrifice, change and loss. On the home front, Aunt Myrt dealing with restrictions, shortages and limits saw it as doing her part for the war. She probably experienced concern about the social change her country was experiencing. Change such as young women, and others previously denied access to the jobs in factories and other workplaces filling the labour shortage. Labour unrest, women’s suffrage, prohibition, and taxation were altering the lives of Canadians, even as strict moral standards remained largely unchanged.

On a personal level both Aunt Myrt and Marion experienced fear, worry and grief, as their brothers, uncles, cousins and friends went off to war, some never to return. Working as nurse in the urban center of Montreal, Marion would also have had direct involvement with those devastated by the war, those marginalized and blamed for the social ills plaguing the country, the poor, those with venereal diseases, unwanted pregnancy, etc.

In 1917, Marion enlisted1 with the Queen Alexandra Imperial Nursing Service and saw service with the 41st Field Ambulance train2 in France. Ambulance trains were difficult and dangerous workplaces, despite their white cross designation, they were not immune to attack by enemy forces.

Nursing Sister assists a wounded soldier aboard an British Ambulance Train in France c. 1916

After completing her contract with the train ambulance service, Marion served in Italy with the Italian Expeditionary force and at the University War Hospital in Southampton UK. At some point during her work with the British forces, Marion met a young medic from back home in New Brunswick. Victor Walls, Myrtle’s brother, left his studies at Dalhousie University, putting his plans to become a Presbyterian minister on hold temporarily, to serve his country. At the end of the war, Victor returned to his studies at Dalhousie and Divinity School. Uncle Victor and Aunt Marion married in 1924.

Marion and Victor Walls c. 1924

Now about the Warcake… When things get restricted, limited and difficult, we all rely on tradition to aid and comfort us. So of course women in this region, including Aunt Myrt, used molasses when sugar was expensive, scarce or rationed (as it was during WW2). Warcakes were made throughout both wars, and appeared on tables regularly for many years after.

The ties which bind Atlantic Canada and the West Indies did not end with the disappearance of wooden sailing vessels and slavery. The connections established more than 100 years of trade were not just commercial, they were personal as well.

In the following weeks we will look again to Marion, this time to her World War 2 service which would bring her the Distinguished War Service Metal for her work in the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago.

So here is the recipe from My Mother’s Cookbooks which Mum used most often…. And yes it does contain some sugar.

Warcake – aka Molasses cake

1 egg at room
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup of lard or shortening
1 cup molasses
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp soda
pinch of salt
pinch of spices
1 cup boiling water
1 cup raisins (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Grease and flour a 9 inch x 13inch pan;
3. Cream shortening and sugar together add egg;
4. Add molasses;
5. In a separate bowl mix dry ingredients, Add raisins if using;
6. Add flour to shortening sugar mix, combine thoroughly;
7. Add boiling water, beat well;
8. Pour into pan and bake until cake tester comes out clean. About 45 to 50 minutes.

Marion Elizabeth Smith

Marion Elizabeth Smith was born in Liverpool, New South Wales, Australia on 12 Mar 1892. Her parents George Smith and Elizabeth Leane Smith welcomed Marion to their family of two. When Marion was two years old her parents took their growing family first to England then to Canada, finally settling in Fredericton Junction, New Brunswick.

Marion Elizabeth C.1913

George Smith was a native of Hambledon, Hampshire, England and Elizabeth Leane Smith was born in Liverpool, Australia to William Leane and Lucy Walker Leane. It is with out doubt Elizabeth’s parentage through her Mother Lucy, was a major part of the family’s decision to leave Australia.

Elizabeth Leane Smith and George W. Smith c.1910

The Dharug peoples traditional lands are in what is now known as New South Wales, in the immediate area of Sydney, Australia. All Aboriginal nations in Australia have been negatively impacted by European settlement, but none more than those of the south including the Dharug clan.

The traditional way of life of the Dharug was hunting and gathering, lacking the necessary ‘farming’ relationship to the land to be viewed by European settlers as owners. Disease, violence, displacement and famine during and after colonization decimated first nations clans, including the Dharug. The social and political environment for a couple of mixed race was characterized by discrimination and violence. These conditions experienced first hand by Marion’s mother Elizabeth would have impacted the family’s decision to relocate.

William Leane and Lucy Walker Leane – Marion’s Grandparents. c. 1890

Mixed race children like Elizabeth were caught between two worlds, never really being fully a part of either. The decision to leave Britain after several years and the arrival of several more children was also very likely driven by opportunity for their family. The legacy of Elizabeth’s Mother Lucy’s Dharug heritage would follow the family, particularly Marion, as she and Victor set out on their lives together as Presbyterian missionaries in the West Indies.

There is little doubt had the Smith family remained in Australia, Marion would never have been able to complete school and train as a nurse. Australia’s only known Aboriginal woman to serve during the first world war, Marion Elizabeth Smith would not have been.

1. In 1917, George H. Smith, Marion’s younger brother was killed in France while serving with the Canadian Expeditionary force.
2. Ambulance Trains – or mobile hospitals, saw service in conflicts before 1900, and would continue service through both World Wars. The trains were staffed by 3 medical officers, 3 nursing sisters and a large number of orderlies. Ambulance trains could transport as many as 500 wounded. The trains contained not only stretcher wards but operating theaters.


  1. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/wartime-home-front
  2. https://www.warhistoryonline.com/world-war-i/recovery-on-rails-ambulance-trains.html
  3. https://www.railwaymuseum.org.uk/objects-and-stories/ambulance-trains-bringing-first-world-war-home
  4. https://www.deadlystory.com/page/culture/articles/anzac-day-2018/marion-leanne-smith


6 thoughts on “War, Women and Warcake

  1. What a great read. I remember mom making this cake and called it Soldiers War Cake and I never thought to ask her about it while growing up. The women of years ago sure knew how to stretch a dollar and make tasty meals’


  2. I have two recipes; one with an egg and another one without an egg. I always add a bit of mixed fruit to it at Christmas time.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mine from my mother doesn’t have any molasses and it is so good and moist. Mum would put fruit in the cake at Christmas and that was her fruit cake…I serve the cake year round and at Christmas it is our fruit cake as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow! A lot of information that I did not know. I barely knew Aunt Marion because of the fact that they lived far away and she died while still quite young. Of course,I well remember Aunt Myrt. Thank you, Beth .

    Keith L.

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person

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