Army Officers’ Mess unveils portrait of first woman Colonel, promoted in 1944

Article / July 13, 2017 / Project number: 17-0182

By Diane Riddell, Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis

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Ottawa, Ontario —When Major Edie Knight walked into the National Capital Region (NCR) Army Officers’ Mess (AOM) in Ottawa in mid-2015, she noticed one thing:  of all the portraits in the mess, none were of women who had served Canada in the Canadian Armed Forces. The only portraits of women were the ones of Queen Elizabeth and Princess Patricia.

So Maj Knight set about to ask why, and to see if she could change that. As it turns out, the question seemed to be waiting to be asked and the positive response she immediately received paved the way for the unveiling of a portrait of Colonel Elizabeth Lawrie Smellie (pronounced Smayly).

The portrait was unveiled by Nursing Sister Betty Brown, now 99 years old, who served in the Second World War. In attendance were present and former Canadian Armed Forces military nursing officers, family members and colleagues. Also included at the event was a talk on the history of the Canadian Army nursing services and a historical display of uniforms, badges and medals from both World Wars.

“My e-mail of inquiry was immediately addressed by a phone call from the Mess Manager.” said Major Knight, a Personnel Selection Officer at Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis in Ottawa.  “Soon after, I was invited by Lieutenant-Colonel Fraser Auld, President of the Mess Committee at the time, to participate in some research on the matter at the Canadian War Museum.”

In fact, the NCR AOM’s Major Bryan Mialkowsky reached out to build a relationship with Maj Knight, involving her in meeting others at the Mess responsible for curating its collection and helping educate Maj Knight in the traditions and processes for selecting an appropriate portrait to be part of the collection. With their help, Maj Knight searched the Canadian War Museum web site, and that’s how Col Smellie was identified as a possible subject.

Col Smellie was a distinguished Nursing Sister in the First World War who was awarded the Royal Red Cross decoration First Class by King George V and was mentioned in dispatches for exceptional services in military nursing. Later, in 1934, she was made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for her leadership in a major study on infant and maternal welfare in 12 countries and contributing to international nursing and public health organizations. 

Col Smellie was the Matron-in-Chief in the Canadian Medical Army Corps during the Second World War and she oversaw the creation of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. She was also the first Canadian woman to be promoted to the rank of Colonel.

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