Janet Barbara Groshow: A Mother’s Love Lasting Through Time

We are busy with preparations for our Walking Tour on Saturday and the documentary we are preparing for Rogers TV, but I wanted to find the time to tell this fascinating story nonetheless! Our blog today is about another one of our “Women of Woodland” – Janet Barbara Groshow. We discovered her story while we were researching for our military tours last summer – she is one of the women we have buried here that served in the First World War as a nurse. The story of why she did so, however, is unique and touching.

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Janet was born on November 3, 1860, and appears to have lived in the United States for a while before moving to London. In London, and worked as a Matron at the Victoria Home for Incurables, which is now Parkwood Hospital. She was married and had three sons – William, James, and Thomas.

Shortly before the First World War, Janet’s husband died, leaving her a widow. When her son William enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in September of 1914, it must have been a loss she felt doubly. William was her youngest son, and had been working as an accountant before he decided to serve. Janet continued her work as a Matron, anxiously awaiting any news of her son’s service. We know from several public historical accounts of mothers who had sons serving in WWI how hopeless and worried she must have felt.

It was after the second battle of Ypres that William was reported Missing in Action, presumed dead. Janet never knew anything more of his fate. To make matters worse, perhaps prompted by their brother’s probably death, Janet’s other sons James and Thomas decided to enlist as well, in early 1916. They left for France, leaving Janet alone in London.

Instead of accepting the loss of her youngest and the potential loss of her other children, like many mothers of the time were forced to do, Janet decided to take matters into her own hands. Instead of remaining in London, helplessly awaiting news, Janet decided to enlist herself – as a nurse in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. She sailed to France, hoping dually to discover what had become of William, and to be geographically nearer to Thomas and James as they fought.

Janet’s incredible decision makes the Groshow family possibly the only mother/son group to serve together in the same war. Janet was 56 years old at the time of her enlistment, making her officially too old to serve, under C. E. F. guidelines. She may have lied about her age when enlisting, or perhaps a recruitment officer knew of her story and decided to let her serve.

Overseas, Janet served as Matron at a Red Cross Hospital in Kent, as Superintendent of CAMC’s Cliveden Hospital, on HM Transport 2810, which carried troops across the Atlantic, and at No. 7 Canadian General Hospital in Étaples, France. Her service files reveal that she suffered a nervous breakdown after a series of air raids, and spent some time in the hospital. However, after every obstacle that was thrown her way, she got back on her feet and continued to perform her duties as a nurse.

Janet served for 3 years before she was invalided home due to her contraction of tuberculosis in 1919. The war was not kind to her other two sons either. James, her eldest son, suffered a rifle bullet wound to the right forearm near the beginning of his service, but survived. Later, he was diagnosed with cardio disease due to the strain of active service. He also had trench fever, a disease caused by the horrendous living conditions in the trenches. He was invalided home on May 5, 1919, the same year as his mother. Janet’s middle son, Thomas, suffered perhaps a worse fate. His military service file notes that he started experiencing mental health issues due to the horrors of war on January 29, 1917. He was officially diagnosed with Shell Shock (neurasthenia) on April 10, 1917, which caused rapid dementia starting at age 24. His Shell Shock symptoms started after a heavy shelling, and prompted a 56 day stay in the hospital, during which he could not speak and was in a constant stupor. He was discharged to duty from the hospital several times until, finally, in 1918 his symptoms were bad enough that is was recommended he not return to France. Back then, mental illnesses were not treated as debilitating conditions but as signs of weakness of which to be ashamed. After his discharge, Thomas was not able to receive any treatment for what we may now refer to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He moved to Detroit, and died fairly young, of causes unknown.

Despite the losses that Janet suffered due to the war, her service to her community continued once she was back in London. She spent some time recovering from her TB at the Queen Alexandra Sanatorium. Once she was well enough, she devoted herself to helping other tuberculosis veterans and supporting their families. She also spent a great deal supporting active service members.

She became the first female president of a soldier’s branch of the Canadian Legion – Byron Branch 69, which eventually honored her with a lifetime membership. During the Second World War, she provided hospitality to wounded soldiers and assisted war brides arriving in London. Her life exemplified London’s strong connection to the British Empire and its military traditions. She is pictured here with her Legion Members at a meeting for Veterans, colloquially referred to as the “Old Boy’s Club,” in which she found an unlikely but celebrated place.

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By the time Janet died in 1960, Woodland Cemetery’s Veteran’s section was well established. This allowed Janet to be buried next to both Thomas and James (William’s body was, unfortunately, never recovered). Janet’s love for her boys sent her across the ocean into a war zone, so it is only fitting that the family unit stayed together, side by side, in death.

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