Somewhere in France

Somewhere in France

Thursday, September 15, 2016

It has been a long time since I've posted, but I wanted to let you know I'm alive and well and plan to start blogging regularly again soon. Until then, I've received a request and want to post it asap. It's to do with Carola Douglas, a nurse I've written extensively about. Here's the request:

My name is Ben, and I'm an archiver for the Harbord Museum Archives. While researching one of our former students and honoured nursing sister Carola Douglas, we came across your 2012 blog post on her. What an incredible story. You mention that you received much of your information from Anna Douglas, a relative and family historian. We were wondering if you would mind sending us her email address? We plan on honouring Carola and her sacrifices at this upcoming remembrance day, and want to collaborate our research with Anna's.
Ben Heywood, Harbord Club

I also know that we have had other folks write to me regarding Carola. If you would like to connect with Ben, please email me at the address provided on my blog. Until next time, Debbie Marshall

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Hello again after an absence of some months. I've moved to beautiful BC and will be writing regularly once again very soon. On this Remembrance Day, I wanted to once again encourage people to remember our Canadian nurses who gave their lives during the First World War. As my posts will attest, they were amazing women who served their country, and like the soldiers, often paid the ultimate price. Lest we forget.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Canadian Red Cross Headquarters, London

Many Canadian voluntary nurses (VADs) served at Canadian Red Cross Headquarters in London during the Great War. Mary MacLeod Moore, in her book The Maple Leaf's Red Cross, described the Canadian Red Cross headquarters this way:

"A day at the Headquarters of the Red Cross told a thrilling story to anyone with ears and eyes. The eagerness to be of use, the enthusiasm and the friendliness of these voluntary workers--for the great majority were voluntary workers--resulted in big things being done...The duties were not all interesting and inspiring. No work is that is done day in and day out...There were some who toiled from first to last, at a sacrifice of comfort and ease and luxury and time...No short and easy hours were allotted to the Red Cross workers. Early and late they were "one the job." Sometimes midnight found them working hard that none who trusted them might be disappointed. You went early in the morning and found the Chief Commissioner beginning his day by talking to officials over the telephone, seeing a constant stream of visitors, offering money, advice, help; reading cables from Canada about some important development or messages from France as to transport and supplies. You found Lady Drummond, in the midst of her workers, keeping her finger on all the departments of the Bureau, and in addition seeing soldiers and civilians bound on a variety of errands, and none was sent away unsatisfied...You saw a roomful of women filing information about wounded Canadians and writing letters to their people at home. [Note: this may have been the work that Aileen Powers-Peel was doing before her death.] You went into another and watched piles of letters being sorted and read, in which comforts were requested for sick and wounded men, or thanks were offered by the men themselves to the O.C. Parcels. You went into another room and women were packing quickly and skilfully these comforts and dainties to cheer up a man in hospital. You turned to the prisoners of War Department and there the workers were sorting letters from the prisoners to their staunch friends, and filing carefully on cards the details concerning them. Plans for their increased comfort were being considered and their families written to cheerfully..."

The Maple Leaf's Red Cross is well worth a read, if you are looking for information about the work of professional military nurses, VADs, and the Canadian Red Cross in general. It is available from Amazon in reprint form, or second hand (try

VAD Death at the End of the War

The February 1920 issue of The Red Cross Journal included the short mention of the death of a voluntary Red Cross nurse: "We regret to announce the deaths of....Miss Aileen Powers-Peel of the Canadian Imperial Detachment." Aileen was one of five Red Cross deaths that month and she doesn't seem to have merited any further information about her background or how she came to die, at the 31st of December 1918, at only 25 years of age. Everything about Aileen seems to be a mystery. Colleague Bill May brought her to my attention following one of his frequent visits to Great War memorials. He sent me this photo, which piqued my interest and got me digging for more information:

Aileen Powers-Peel was born in Toronto in 1894. While there are almost no details of her early life easily available, it is known that she belonged to the Church of England and her parents were likely Allen and Annie Peel of Kent County, Ontario. During the war, Aileen did secretarial work for Canadian Red Cross Headquarters and was also qualified as a "chauffeuse" (driver). She appears to have taken some leave in April 1918, to return to Canada on the ship Mauretania. Her destination at that time was Ottawa, Ontario. Her next of kin at her death was Mrs. Cook, 31 Centre Street, Galt, Ontario. This was likely her sister. Aileen is buried at the Brookwood Military Cemetery, in Surrey, United Kingdom. If you know more about this nurse please write to me c/o this blog.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Recognition of a Groundbreaking Nursing Sister

I have good news to report in today's post. An Edmonton school is to be named after Roberta MacAdams, a nursing sister who enlisted in the Canadian Army Medical Corps during the First World War. MacAdams served at the Ontario Military Hospital in Orpington, Kent. In 1917, she was elected to the Alberta legislature as a soldier's representative. In doing so, she became one of the first two women elected to a legislature anywhere in what was then the British Empire (Louise McKinney was voted into the Alberta legislature during the same election). Roberta would advocate for pensions and benefits for soldiers and nurses and would table the first private member's bill ever brought forward by a woman in the British Empire. It was a piece of legislation incorporating the Next of Kin Association, an organization dedicated to the families of veterans. It is especially fitting that MacAdams' name has been chosen for a public school, since she was superintendent of domestic science in the Edmonton School Board in the years just before the war. I am ecstatic that this honour has been paid to Roberta. She is truly one of Alberta's "unsung heroes." Hopefully her story will also create more interest in the nurses of the First World War.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Forgotten: Lenna Mae Jenner

There are few records with which we can trace the life of Nursing Sister Lenna Mae Jenner. What we do know—according to her military service file—was that she was born on November 17, 1889 in Brookfield, Nova Scotia to British-born John Jenner and his wife Mary (nee MacIntyre). She had two older siblings, Hugh and Ada.

A Hard-Working Family
John Jenner was ordained as a Baptist minister in Brookfield, Queen’s County, Nova Scotia in 1889, the year that his daughter Lenna was born. In 1891, he graduated from Acadia College. John earned an MA from Newton Seminary, Massachusetts in 1893. According to the 1900 American census, the Jenners were living in Springfield, where John was serving West Merrick Baptist Church. In October 1901, the family moved to Halifax, where he accepted a call to North Baptist Church.

No one in the family followed John into the ministry. However, his children did inherit his commitment to hard work. Hugh became a bookkeeper and sometime between 1910 and 1914, Lenna Mae enrolled in nursing school. She may have attended the two year program at the Victoria General Hospital School of Nursing in Halifax where students were taught everything from making beds to preparing patients for the operating room.

War Changes Everything
The First World War began in August 1914. That fall, Hugh Jenner joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was posted overseas. In April 1917, Lenna began working in a military hospital in Canada. The Canadian Nurse and Hospital Review of March 1918 reported that “Nursing Sisters Coates and Jenner, of the Station Hospital are leaving for the Military Hospital, Kentville, N. S.” There were many “station hospitals” in Canada, but Lenna may have served in the one in Halifax. The military hospital in Kentville was at the Aldershot training camp. It was probably from there that Lenna Mae was posted overseas in June 1918.

Lenna’s pre-posting medical declared that her health was good. This, despite the fact that she had already been working for fourteen months and her most recent assignment had been at a camp where roughly 7,000 soldiers were trained at any one time. In Kentville, she worked 12-hour-days and was exposed to illnesses such as tuberculosis and influenza.

Casualty of War
In Britain, Lenna was assigned to work at the West Cliff Canadian Eye and Ear Hospital in Folkestone. In October 1918, just two months after her arrival overseas, she complained to the Matron-in-Chief “of loss of strength and weight also of pain in the left side on exertion.” Lenna was sent to a private nursing home in London. From there she was admitted to Clarence House, North Finchley, for an abdominal operation for “tubercular peritonitis.” She died of septicemia on December 12, two months after she first became ill.

The medical team was probably not paying adequate attention to Lenna’s symptoms, according to historian and nurse Katherine Dewar. “The peritoneum is the covering of the abdominal cavity and I would assume that the patient had TB somewhere else in her body and it spread via the blood stream (septicemia) to the peritoneum…I would say that someone was already run down from chronic illness when this occurred.” Lenna likely contracted tuberculosis in the crowded conditions at Aldershot Camp, or in the demanding confines of the Eye and Ear Hospital.

No Tribute to the Female Fallen
Family members were always invited to provide an appropriate quote or saying to adorn the military headstones of their loved ones. There is no such quote on Lenna Mae Jenner’s headstone. In life and in death, indifference seems to have marked the way that others treated the life and service of this brave nursing sister.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Sisters Sewing to Save Soldiers

According to David Parsons of the WWI-Listserve, Capt. Cluny Macpherso, RAMC, a physician from St John's Newfoundland was at St Omer the end of April 1915. At that time, he met with Professors Baker and Watson, who had been sent from the Imperial Chemistry College to learn what gas was used against allied forces and what measures could be taken to protect from future attacks. Capt. Macpherson asked an unnamed nurse at a CCS nearby to sew together material with an eye piece. This was the first "hood mask." It was tested in the chemistry room in the local school and adopted with variations for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). By the end of 1915, more than 2 million hood masks had been sent to France before the box respirator was introduced in early 1916. It would be nice to know the nurse's name and how much input had in the design of this mask. We remember her none the less--she made a vital contribution to keeping soldiers safe from the impact of this terrible weapon.

Monday, January 26, 2015

A Poignant Letter to the Editor

A letter to the editor sent to the Vancouver Sun on April 6, 1919 raises questions that many of us still ask today about the failure to remember the nurses of the First World War:

"Many persons are expressing regrets that so far apparently no effort has been made to arrange for a public welcome to our returning overseas nurses. Since the war first sounded its clarion call to arms many of our local daughters have gone overseas to help in the great work of healing and bringing back to life those men who went near to the "Great Divide" inthe interests of the cause of the Empire. None, least of all the soldiers themselves, will gainsay the tremendous part played by those "ministering angels" to whose devoted service many thousands of men today owe their lives and limbs.

Many of those nurses have already returned home. Some will never come back having given their lives in the great common cause. Those who have returned, beyond the greeting of personal friends have received no public welcome and no public recognition of their services.

The same may be said of the many brave girls who for many months have been driving ambulances near the firing lines, daily in risk of their lives, but never for one moment giving a thought of their own safety, but as true Britishers "doing their bit" for humanity's sake.

Surely it is time that at least the various women's organizations of the city should come to some arrangement whereby a proper and fitting public welcome could be arranged for every brave returning woman worker who has rendered such unselfish service for our great Empire.

Everybody is out to welcome returning soldiers, and surely it should not be said in the years to come that the work of nurses and other war workers was allowed to pass unrecognized.

May I appeal to the women of the city to see that ever one of these brave women rece3ives a hearty public "welcome home?""

Signed "Beatrice"

Saturday, January 24, 2015

This is a photo of Rena McLean, provided courtesy of Katherine Dewar. In future blog posts I hope to add more photos of Rena.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Heroic PEI Nursing Sisters in WWI

Book Review

Those Splendid Girls by Katherine Dewar explores the lives and work of the 115 nursing sisters of Prince Edward Island who served overseas during the First World War. During a visit to a local archive, Dewar read a 1919 article describing Island nursing sisters coming home from the war. It was on page eight of the newspaper, while images of returning soldiers were displayed on page one. “I concluded that nurses had got short shrift!” recalls Dewar, a former professor of nursing. Her book seeks to correct that imbalance.

Those Splendid Girls describes the lives of women like Rena McLean of Souris, PEI. Born into an upper class family, McLean graduated from the Newport Hospital Training School for Nurses in 1908. Like many who served in the Canadian Army Medical Corps, McLean was the cream of the crop—Head Nurse in the operating room of the Henry Hayward Memorial Hospital in Massachusetts. She was accepted into the CAMC early in the war and sent overseas in September 1914. Rena served in England, France, Salonika and on hospital ships. Sadly, like so many of the soldiers serving overseas, Rena would lose her life—drowned after a German torpedo ripped through the hospital ship Llandovery Castle on June 27, 1918.

Dewar doesn’t just report the facts about the nurses—she brings them to life with anecdotes gathered from family archives across PEI, photographs never seen before, quotes from the nurses themselves, and well-researched contextual material. Some of the stories are painful to read. Enroute home to Halifax, Nurse McLean writes “this may be my last trip over…” Before her return journey to England, she buys a flashlight “It will come in handy if we are torpedoed,” she tells her father.

Dewar provides a list of the decorations awarded to nurses, an extensive bibliography, and short bios of all the women who served, including those who enlisted in American and British nursing corps. The materials she gathered from families is invaluable. (When I researched Rena McLean for this blog, I wasn't able to locate these kinds of records--Dewar's work has added invaluable information about this courageous nurse.) She also explores why the nurses did not receive the hero’s welcome they deserved and why they are forgotten in our histories of the First World War. Dewar believes that sexism and the fact that nurses seldom died during the war (although over 70 Canadian women in various corps did lose their lives) meant that few historians thought their stories worthy of exploration. The women themselves also “saw no glory in war—nothing heroic,” writes Dewar. “At the end of the war, they packed away their diaries, their photo albums, and other memorabilia and buried their memories.”

It is fortunate for us that Dewar took the time to unpack those artifacts and bring these heroic women’s stories back into the light for all of us to learn from and enjoy. Those Splendid Girls is published by Island Studies Press and is available for $27.95. Reviewed by Debbie Marshall.