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Early Rank of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps

June 5, 2019

by Clive M. Law

The Canadian Women’s Army Corps ( CWAC) was formed in August 1941as a ‘hostilities only’ organization to perform the duties of fit and able men in garrisons, headquarters, supply depots and other similar settings, thereby releasing these men for service overseas.

In 1941, initial planning considered that some 5400 would be sufficient for the jobs identified. By the end of the war, some 21,624 women had served in the Corps, with more than 3,000 in Great Britain and the various theatres of war. In May 1945, the Corps made up 2.8 % of the total complement of the Canadian Army.

When the winds of war began to blow across Europe beginning in 1938, women’s volunteer organizations began to form in nearly every province of Canada to prepare women to serve their country if called. They designed uniforms to wear with a decidedly military cut.[i] In some Military Districts after the outbreak of war some District Officers Commanding (DOC) actually took up the offer of these volunteer organizations to assist in various tasks due to the increase in work cause by the war.

In February 1941, a joint committee of the volunteer organizations presented a brief which proposed the formation of a Corps to be called the Canadian Women’s Service (CWS). The Adjutant General of the Army, responsible for all personnel matters, despite his antipathy towards recruiting women, realized that there was a need and circulated a staff paper proposing the formation of a corps under military control. Employment would be limited to headquarters, hospitals and similar establishments but later could allow for employment overseas. On 2 May 1941, the Defence Council reported that “the Cabinet had acquiesced to the employment of women in such posts as might be considered suitable”. In June 1941 the Minister told the Generals they were to proceed with the recruiting and employment of women in the Army. Primary areas of work were in training centres, headquarters, the Army Service Corps as drivers and mechanics and in the Ordnance Corps in stock accounting, warehousing, and repair. It was estimated that 5,398 women might be so employed.

On 20 June 1941, the Minister of National Defence issued a press statement announcing the service of women in a military role during the current war. Recruitment was to be through the National War Service Manpower Mobilization Service from women registered with it. 17 July, the Minister announced that the first appointment would be the Matron-In-Chief of the Army Medical Corps, Elizabeth Smellie, to oversee the organization of the Corps.


The CWAC initially was to be separate from the Canadian Army but organized on a military basis and under military control and supervision. Officer rank titles were modeled on the British ATS. Rank insignia consisted of a combination of silver beavers and maple leaves, the beavers were equivalent to the Army crown and the maple leaf to the star or ‘pip’.

Army Rank Insignia          CWAC Rank                 Insignia
Second Lieutenant One star Junior Subaltern One Leaf
Lieutenant Two Stars Subaltern Two Leaves
Captain Three Stars Junior Commander Three Leaves
Major One Crown Senior Commander One Beaver
Lieutenant Colonel One Crown plus one star Chief Commander One Beaver plus one Leaf
Colonel One Crown plus Two Stars Honorary Commander One Beaver plus two Leaves


Non-Commissioned Officers wore the standard Army rank badges but with a chocolate-brown coloured backing called beechnut brown. The ranks, in descending order, were Warrant Officer Class I (WO I), Warrant Officer Class II (WO II), Staff Sergeant, Sergeant, Corporal and the appointment of Lance Corporal. NOTE: the appointment of Lance Corporal was relinquished when the person was posted to another unit as it was an appointment within that unit while the confirmed rank was Private. This was in accordance with Army policy.

[i].          ”MILITARY ARTIFACT”, Issue No. 3, Mk IV.

With thanks to Sylvain Blais and Renald Poulin for images.

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