Somewhere in France

Somewhere in France

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.

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.