Bagneux British Cemetery

Bagneux British Cemetery

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.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Memorial Stones to Ainslie St. Clair Dagg and Miriam Eastman Baker

A kind reader from overseas, has sent me two photos of the gravestones of Ainslie St. Clair Dagg and Miriam Eastman Baker. She writes:

"I have been back [at Cliveden] today (I walk there on most days) and took photos of [Ainslie's] and Miriam Eastman Baker's gravestones. I attach the photos for your use or for anyone else would like a copy. It is a beautiful resting place there and from the research I have done this hospital was a special place and must have provided comfort for thousands."

Thanks for sharing these wonderful photos of the resting places of Dagg and Baker. We remember them!

Friday, August 29, 2014

VAD L268--Update on Dorothy Pearson Twist

Yesterday I wrote a short blog about Dorothy Pearson Twist. Little did I know, but there was a Red Cross service card enroute to me with more details about this remarkable VAD's life. Not all voluntary nurses nursed! Many did clerical work as well. That was the case for Dorothy. What is even more interesting is that the clerical work she did was in an area of tremendous importance to many soldiers--in particular, prisoner's of war. Beginning in May 1916, VADL268 as she was known, was secretary to Lady Evelyn Grant Duff, head of the "Berne Bread Bureau," a voluntary organization providing much needed bread to prisoners of war in Germany. As John Lewis-Stempel writes in his book The War Behind the Wire: The Life, Death and Glory of British Prisoners of War:

“The blessedly white bread in the Red Cross ration was mainly courtesy of the redoubtable Lady Evelyn Grant Duff, who arranged shipments of flour from Marseilles to Switzerland, where it was baked into loaves. Known to POWs as ‘Swiss Dodgers’, Lady Evelyn’s moist, white loaves were delivered into Germany by road and rail. By 1917 her “Berne bread Bureau’ was packing 15,000 loaves a day and had been supplemented by a Copenhagen Bureau to supply camps in the north of Germany. In summer, when bread tended to go mouldy quickly, the bakeries substituted hard biscuits or rusks for Lady Evelyn’s baps.”

Twist must have been committed to this work; she went on to work with the Prisoner of War Committee from February 1917 to August 1917. At that point, perhaps out of the growing need for nurses to care for flu victims, the VAD was transferred to the Frensham Hill Military Hospital, Farnham. Sadly, she came down with pneumonia and died at the hospital on September 26, 1918.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Forgotten VAD: Dorothy Pearson Twist

In an excellent article entitled "Filling the Gaps, Canadian Voluntary Nurses, the 1917 Halifax Explosion, and the Influenza Epidemic of 1918," scholar Linda Quiney says that there were approximately 2000 Canadian VADs who served in during the Great War, of which 500 served overseas. (There were 23,000 British VADs.) "VAD" stands for Voluntary Aid Detachment--these were groups of voluntary nurses (usually with very limited training) who worked for the Red Cross during the Great War. These nurses came to be known individually as "VADs."

In her article, Quiney describes several Canadian VADs who died during and just after the Great War. One of the Canadian VADs who gave her life was Dorothy Pearson Twist. Dorothy died September 26, 1918 in Aldershot, England. According to the British 1911 census, she was born in Prescott, Lancashire. Her father Pearson Gill Twist was a “woolen manufacturer’s agent”. At sixteen in 1911, Dorothy was working as a “pupil school teacher.” Her father was 52, her mother 42. She had an older brother Geoffrey (23), older sister named Phyllis (21), younger brother Hugh (11) and a younger sister Cicely (9). They were living in Prescott, Lancashire at 15 Station Road. Dorothy was born in that same place. The family immigrated to Canada in 1913 to Shawnigan Lake, BC, where Dorothy's father worked as a realty clerk. Sometime during the Great War, Dorothy signed up as a Canadian VAD and was sent overseas. Little is known about the circumstances of her death, except that she died at Aldershot, the location of a Canadian military base during the war. I have written to the British Red Cross to learn more about Dorothy; when I receive more information, I will post it on this site.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Hello again. I haven't been blogging lately as I have been immersed in doing WWI-related research and preparing to participate in an upcoming conference on the First World War. However, as I will be away on August 4, the 100th anniversary of the war, I wanted to be sure to post a brief blog and photograph in recognition of this anniversary. A fellow researcher, Bill May, has sent me a photograph of a grave of an "unknown nursing sister" of the First World War. He found the grave during a visit to Normandy. It is unusual to find such graves. Unlike the soldiers, nurses who died during the war are much easier to identify, locate, and bury in marked graves. So, there is no grave to the "unknown nurse" as there is (by necessity) to the unknown soldier. However, in today's blog, I would like to dedicate this image of the "unknown nurse" to all the nurses, from both sides of the conflict, who gave their lives and are now almost entirely forgotten. On this site, and on a growing number of sites, we are trying to reverse that trend and say "we remember you." We remember your service, your sacrifice, your willingness to be there for men who suffered, recovered or died. In a global conflict with devastating consequences, you were there to bring some order, kindness and sanity. We remember you.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Death of a Royal Red Cross Nurse: Rena McLean

According to her military records, Rena Maude McLean was born on June 14, 1880 in Souris, P.E.I. (although family records indicate her birth was 1879). She was the daughter of John McLean—a businessman and Conservative politician—and Matilda Jane Jury.

Adele Townshend, in an article by in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, writes that Rena McLean was nicknamed Bird by her family. McLean attended Mount Allison ladies’ college in Sackville, New Brunswick between 1891 and 1892, and graduated from the Halifax Ladies’ College in 1896. She studied nursing at the Newport Hospital in Newport, Rhode Island, graduating in 1908. “She was head nurse in the operating room at the Henry Heywood Memorial Hospital in Gardner, Massachusetts,” writes Townshend, “when she enlisted for service in World War I and was appointed to the Canadian Army Medical Corps on 28 Sept. 1914.”

McLean left for Britain on October 7, 1914. Her military records describe her as 5’ 3” tall, weighing 133 pounds, with light brown hair, and hazel eyes. She listed her religious faith as Presbyterian. On November 8, 1914 she went to France with No.2 Canadian Stationary based in Le Touquet. She spent ten days with No.12 British Stationary Hospital at Rouen in October and November 1915, joining the Duchess of Connaught’s Canadian Red Cross Hospital in Taplow, England on November 30 of that year.

The quality of her nursing and her dedication was reflected in the fact that in June 1916 she was awarded the Royal Red Cross Second Class one of the highest honours awarded to nurses during the Great War.

On June 8, 1916, she was assigned to transport duty for one month. She returned to Taplow in July and stayed there until November, at which time she was transferred to Salonica, Greece, in October 1916 for service with No.1 Canadian Stationary Hospital. Conditions there were very poor, as Maureen Duffus writes in her book Battlefront Nurses: “Nothing, however, could fully protect them from the other enemies: the Macedonian climate—freezing winds, torrential rains in winter—and the notorious virulent mosquitoes breeding in Salonika’s many swamps in the hot, humid summers. Malaria and dystentery accounted for thousands of patients at military hospitals throughout the war.”

Rena returned to England on August 17, 1917. In November, she was posted to No. 16 Canadian General Hospital in Orpington, Kent. In February 1918 Rena undertook transport duty again aboard the Araguaya. A month later, she was back No.16 General Hospital. In March 1918, she was posted to the Llandovery Castle, which carried Canadian wounded to Halifax.

According to Adele Townshend, “Rena McLean had been an attractive, fun-loving woman, kind and caring. As her last letter, written on board the Llandovery Castle on 16 June, illustrates, she had kept her morale high in spite of the years spent in some of the worst areas of the war. ‘Here we are once more approaching Halifax, but still as far from home as ever. . . . This trip more than half our patients are amputation cases and would make you heartsick only they are so cheerful and happy themselves. . . . This may be my last trip over and, if it is, that means that I don’t get home until dear knows when, for as soon as I get to England I am going to put in for France and once there it will be hard enough to get away.’”

Rena McLean is remembered in plaques to her memory in St James United Church in Souris, in Mount Allison’s Memorial Library, and in the X-ray laboratory at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Remembering Minnie Follette

"Unflinchingly and calmly, as steady and collected as if on parade, without a complaint or a single sign of emotion, our fourteen devoted nursing sisters faced the terrible ordeal of certain death--only a matter of minutes--as our lifeboat neared that mad whirlpool of waters where all human power was helpless."
(Extract from Sergeant A. Knight's story of the destruction of the Llandovery Castle.)

Today I’m writing about Minnie Asenalte Follette—an experienced, heroic nurse who was one of the 14 Canadian women who died at sea while on hospital duty aboard HMS Llandovery Castle.As I have mentioned in previous posts, the nurses on this ship were all women who had seen long service overseas. Several had enlisted with the 1st Canadian Contingent and begun their service in September 1914.

Minnie Asenalte Follette was born November 11, 1884 in Nova Scotia. She was the daughter of Oscar and Lydia Follette (nee Hatfield.) Her mother was a trained nurse and her father was a master mariner. Her parents were Methodists.

Minnie followed in her mother’s footsteps, training at the Victoria General Hospital School of Nursing, the first nursing school in Nova Scotia. Applicants had to be 20 years or older, provide a recommendation from a clergyman, and after the probationary period were paid the princely sum of $9 per month for their first year and $11 for their second. According to the synopsis of their program, “The instruction will include the general care of the sick, the managing of helpless patients in bed, changing bed and body linen, giving baths, keeping patients warm or cool, preventing and dressing bed sores, bandaging, applying of fomentations, poultices and minor dressings, the preparing and serving of food, the feeding of helpless patients and those who refuse food, the administering of enemata and use of the catheter, the observation of symptoms of delirium, stupor, shock, etc.” (from the VGHSN Annual Report 1907-1908, Mount Saint Vincent Archives). It was a limited curriculum for a woman who would one day treat the terrible wounds of the First World War. Follette graduated from the school in 1909. She was 5’5” and weighed 125 pounds, with blue eyes and brown hair.

By 1911, Follette was working at No. 2 Army Medical Corps Military Hospital in Halifax. In 1912, she embarked on a special course of study in military nursing. After Follette’s death, her friend and fellow nurse Blanche Grant wrote to Follette’s parents and described how the two women served at the Typhoid Emergency Hospital at Christmas 1914 during the epidemic that was gripping Halifax at the time. Grant reported that Follette sent her many letters during the latter’s service in France.

Follette enlisted on September 24, 1914 and sailed with the First Canadian Contingent on October 3, 1914. After her arrival in Britain, she was assigned to No. 2 Canadian General Hospital on Salisbury Plain. In early 1915, she was transferred to 1st Canadian Casualty Clearing Station in France. She would serve there until March 1916. By that time, Minnie’s health had broken down from stress and the heavy load of nursing. In early April, she was admitted to No. 14 General Hospital in Wimereaux and eventually found herself in London, recovering from what the Military Medical Board called “nervous exhaustion.” She was ordered to take two months of sick leave. The board reported: “This nursing sister is suffering from the strain of constant duty with the 1st CEF for part of the time in a Casualty Clearing Station. She requires a considerable time of leave for complete recovery.” Follette would take two months to relax, recover, and play the tourist in Britain.

In May 1917, Follette was assigned to No. 9 Canadian Stationary Hospital in Bramshott. She served there for two months before being assigned to hospital ship duty with HMS Letitia. On August 1, at Chebucto Bay, Halifax, the ship sank. All aboard, including Follette, were saved from the wreck. After the incident, Follette was given 17 days furlough. Upon her return to Britain, she was assigned to No. 16 Canadian General Hospital, at Orpington, Kent. The earlier wreck does not seem to have fazed this daughter of a master mariner. At the end of March 1918, she volunteered to transfer to the hospital ship Llandovery Castle. According to an undated news clipping, “Miss Follette made a number of trips on the Llandovery Castle and was very popular with the men who returned on that ship, they speaking in glowing terms in the faithful way in which she attended to her duties.”

On June 27, 1918, the HMS Llandovery Castle, clearly marked as a hospital ship, was sunk by a German U-Boat which later rammed all lifeboats. Here is the record of what happened to the 14 nurses aboard:

Sergt. A. Knight, the non-commissioned officer of the C.A.M.C., who took charge of life-boat No. 5, into which the fourteen nurses were placed.

"Our boat," said Sergt. Knight, "was quickly loaded and lowered to the surface of the water. Then the crew of eight men and myself faced the difficulty of getting free from the ropes holding us to the ship's side. I broke two axes trying to cut ourselves away, but was unsuccessful.

"With the forward motion and choppy sea the boat all the time was pounding against the ship's side. To save the boat we tried to keep ourselves away by using the oars, and soon every one of the latter were broken.
"Finally the ropes became loose at the top and we commenced to drift away. We were carried towards the stern of the ship, when suddenly the poop-deck seemed to break away and sink. The suction drew us quickly into the vacuum, the boat tipped over sideways, and every occupant went under.

"I estimate we were together in the boat about eight minutes. In that whole time I did not hear a complaint or murmur from one of the sisters. There was not a cry for help or any outward evidence of fear. In the entire time I overheard only one remark when the matron, Nursing Sister M.M. Fraser, turned to me as we drifted helplessly towards the stern of the ship and asked:--

"Sergeant, do you think there is any hope for us?"

"I replied, 'No,' seeing myself our helplessness without oars and the sinking condition of the stern of the ship.
" A few seconds later we were drawn into the whirlpool of the submerged afterdeck, and the last I saw of the nursing sisters was as they were thrown over the side of the boat. All were wearing life-belts, and of the fourteen two were in their nightdress, the others in uniform.

"It was," concluded Sergt. Knight, "doubtful if any of them came to the surface again, although I myself sank and came up three times, finally clinging to a piece of wreckage and being eventually picked up by the captain's boat."

Nurse Minnie Follette was one of those nurses. Her name is inscribed on the Halifax Memorial. (With thanks to Bruce MacDonald for his help.To see Bruce's blog:

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

War Decorations for Nurses

On their website, The Canadian Great War Project has reprinted an article from the Toronto World of Wednesday, September 25, 1918, entitled Six Nurses Win Military Medal. I'd like to reprint an excerpt of that article here as a reminder of the kinds of bravery exhibited by many Canadian nurses during the First World War.

Six Nurses Win Military Medal
Decorated for Conspicuous Bravery During Air Raids of the Enemy
Other Honors Given
Officers Gain Bar to Military Cross for Exceptional Gallantry in Field

London, Sept. 24. Six Canadian nurses were tonight gazetted as having won the military medal for bravery during enemy raids. Matron Edith Campbell of Point Claire attended wounded sisters regardless of personal danger; Lenora Herrington of Napanee, remained on duty the entire night and her personal example of courage was largely responsible for the maintenance of discipline and efficiency. Lottie Urquhart , New Glasgow, N.S., when four bombs fell on her wards, attended the wounded with a courage and devotion which was an inspiring example. Janet Mary Williamson of Grenville, Quebec displayed exceptional coolness in a badly damaged ward, sustaining the patients and ensuring their evacuation. Meta Hodge of Hamilton and Eleanor Jean Thompson of Valleyfield, Quebec, although both injured by a falling beam, extinguished with great presence of mind, overturned oil stoves, later helping to remove the patients.