Canada’s Forgotten Heroine: Josephine (Jo) Whitehead (1895-1964):

Canada’s Forgotten Heroine:
Josephine (Jo) Whitehead (1895-1964):
Natasha Stoyce & Alan Cumming


Josephine (Jo) Whitehead first came to my attention whilst reading the unpublished
Serbian diary (1915) of Dr Catherine Louise Corbett for my doctoral thesis on the all-female,
Great War medical organisation: The Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH). At the time,
the sole pieces of information that I had about Jo were that she was a ‘a young Canadian girl
of about 22, who [had] enlisted as a man in the Serbian army,’ and that she was to ‘guard’
the stores and belongings of SWH members from the many plunderers present at the time in
then-enemy occupied Serbia . I did not know Jo’s name and could find no information about
her. In Dr Corbett’s diary, she was simply referred to as ‘W.’ Yet, thanks to the inherently
feminist interests of my thesis, this mysterious, nameless figure peaked my curiosity. It was
thus, that I enlisted the help of my friend and fellow SWH researcher, Alan Cumming, to find
the illusive ‘W.’ This biography is the product of both my initial interest in ‘W.’ and Alan’s
hard-work and thorough research.
On the 26th February 1895, Leslie Joy Whitehead (a.k.a. Josephine; Joy; Jo) was born
to Charles Ross Whitehead, a cotton manufacturer from Montmorency, Quebec, and
Winifred Thomas Stevenson. Quite possibly a tom-boy growing up, Jo’s pursuits in adult life
centred largely around what would have been deemed traditionally male activities. She took a
keen interest in shooting, driving, and the great outdoors, and prior to the start of the Great
War spent a significant amount of time living alone in the Canadian wilderness. According to
an article from 8th January 1916 in the Manitoba Free Press, Winnipeg, Jo lived an ‘outdoor
life’ for ‘a couple of years […] in the Laurentian mountains at Val Morina.’
1 On 7th January
of the same year, The Toronto Daily Star reported that ‘Miss Whitehead’ was ‘extremely
fond of outdoor life, wore semi-male garb on her tramps through the woods, and could handle
1 “Canadian Girl is a Prisoner in Bulgaria”, Manitoba Free Press, Winnipeg, Saturday January 8th 1916, p. 21.
a canoe or shoot better than most men.’2 It is unsurprising, then, that when war broke out on
the 28th July 1914, Jo was single-minded in her pursuit of getting to the front.
Though her true desire lay in getting down to the action of the frontlines, where she hoped ‘to
get fixed as a motor transport or ambulance driver,’ Jo initially started her war-work in
London, England. It was there that she, alongside ‘a batch of young ladies from Canada,’
busied herself by ‘working long hours over the card index and the typewriter in order to,’ as
the Yorkshire Evening Post reported on the 3rd June 1915, ‘keep the people of’ her ‘own
country informed of the condition of the wounded among the Canadian contingent.’3 This
newspaper described ‘Miss Whitehead’ as ‘a lady volunteer of a very different kind’ because
she could ‘do almost anything in the out-of-door life’, and was ‘desirous of putting her
handiness at the disposal of the military authorities.’4 For women during the Great War,
however, the Western Front was completely forbidden. Conflict zones were deemed far too
dangerous a place for the “weaker sex” to be, with some even considering it an abomination
that the female life-giver should enter the battlefield, where she stood to witness brutal and
unrelenting loss of life. The few females that did get to this front were, either branded “campfollowers”
(prostitutes) or, as in the case of Sapper Dorothy Lawrence, the only English
woman to cross-dress as a soldier and to gain access to the Western Front in this capacity,
sent back to England in a state of disgrace. Jo was, however, determined in her goal and so,
like the women doctors of the SWH, decided to offer her services to Britain’s Balkan Allies
in Serbia. Following this country’s acceptance of her help, Jo became a volunteer engineer
with the Serbian Relief Fund in July 1915.
Once in Serbia, Jo found herself more able to live the life of a man than ever before. Her time
with the Serbian Relief Fund, however, was to be cut short when on the 8th October 1915
Serbia fell to Central Power forces. By the 3rd November 1915, Jo was working under
occupation in the central Serbian city of Krushevatz (Kruševac). According to Dr Catherine
Corbett of the SWH’s Valjevo unit, this female engineer had been ‘sent’ to Krushevatz ‘with
the [Serbian] army’ within which she had ‘enlisted as a man.’5 According to contemporary
newspaper sources, Jo was ‘acting as a lieutenant in the Veterinary Corps of the Serbian
2 “Canadian Nurse Bulgar Prisoner”, The Toronto Daily Star, Friday January 7th 1916, p. 2. 3 “Lady Volunteers From Canada”, Yorkshire Evening Post, 3rd June 1915. 4 Ibid.
5 Catherine Louise Corbett, Diary in Serbia, unpublished, p. 9-10.
Army, having given up hospital work’ so ‘that she might get closer to the firing line.’6 Under
occupation, Jo’s gunmanship and outdoor skills were to prove more vital than ever before and
came in particularly useful for the Valjevo and Mladenovac units of the SWH. Finding
themselves frequently targeted by thieves in the form of desperate locals, prisoners of war
and enemies alike, the SWH recruited Jo as a ‘guard’ in the hopes that she would help to
deter the near-daily pillaging of resources and supplies. Her handiness did not go unnoticed
by the enemy and by the 24th November 1915, Jo found herself under the employment of ‘a
German doctor,’ for whom she tended to ‘some large and complicated disinfectors.’7
It is unclear what exactly happened to Jo between November 1915 and the end of 1916, but
by the 7th January 1916, both The Toronto Daily Star and The Globe reported that ‘Miss Joy
Whitehead, a Quebec Athletic Girl’ had been ‘locked up’ by the Bulgarians. 8 At the time of
being made a prisoner of war, The Globe newspaper cites Jo ‘was captured by the Bulgarians
while serving with a British veterinary corps in Serbia’ – a division she had joined ‘owing to
her knowledge of horses.’9 At some point after her capture circa 1916/1917, Jo fell in love
with and married a lieutenant of the Serbian Army named Vukota Voyinitch from the city of
Užice. The pair returned to Canada where Jo gave birth to her first child, a daughter named
6 “Canadian Nurse Bulgar Prisoner”, The Toronto Daily Star, Friday January 7th 1916, p. 2. 7 Catherine Louise Corbett, Diary in Serbia, unpublished, p. 9-10. 8 “Canadian Nurse Bulgar Prisoner”, The Toronto Daily Star, Friday January 7th 1916, p. 2. 9 “Three Ricers Girl Taken By Bulgarians”, The Globe, Friday January 8th 1916, p. 5.
Mira, in October 1917. The couple went on to have a second child in 1923, by which time the
young family had travelled together to Naples in Italy, as well as to Patras, Greece. By the
1930s, Jo’s marriage to Vukota had broken down and the pair were divorced. By 1937 she
had re-married a man named George Andrew Vaughan, with whom it is plausible that she
had more children. The pair were married until George’s death. Jo passed away in Princeton,
Vancouver in 1964, aged 69. She was a widow and her final occupation has been noted down
as a rancher.
Both Alan and I would ask that any relatives of Jo, Vukota or George who may hold more
information about this incredible woman and/or her war-time story contact us via email at
the following address:

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