Somewhere in France

Somewhere in France

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Book Review: Passing Through Missing Pages

Since I began this blog, I have been faced by the challenge of trying to find out more about the real lives of Great War nursing sisters beyond what survives in their military files. Nurses seldom left diaries behind. They were too busy coping with the effects of the war to keep lengthy records. Those that did write diaries often recorded happy moments of reprieve from caring for the wounded--trips to Paris on leave, picnics with other nurses and doctors. After the war, those who survived returned home and their wartime exploits were forgotten--and often, so were they. That is why Passing Through Missing Pages is such a wonderful find. Written by historian Frances Welwood, it describes the remarkable life of Annie Garland Foster, a teacher, Great War nurse, and politician. The book is well-researched and perceptive, providing many insights into the lives of women in the late 19th and early 20th century. Most fascinating for readers of this blog, is Welwood's discovery of Annie's wartime journal at the White Rock Museum and Archives. It provides many observations of Britain during the war, and of what it was like to be a Canadian nurse working in British military hospitals.
Welwood's interest in Foster began when she was invited to create a profile of Foster for a Nelson Museum exhibition called The Women of Nelson: 1880-1950. Foster was to be presented under the banner "Politics and Civil Figures." As she dug into Foster's records, Welwood developed a fascination with the determined, outspoken, groundbreaking woman whose life and contributions had been all but forgotten. It was a fascination that would keep her researching Foster for nearly two decades. What she discovered was that Foster was originally born Annie Harvie Ross in 1875 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, the descendant of Donald McDonald, one of those brave Scottish soldiers who fought on the British side during the American Revolutionary War and eventually settled along the lovely Nashwaak River. Annie's father, Robert Ross, was a hardworking stationary engineer (and sometimes farmer)who ensured that his family--though not affluent--would be able to maintain a respectable, middle class lifestyle. Annie, her sister Margaret and brother James, grew up largely in the small New Brunswick towns and cities where her father could find work.
Annie graduated from high school in 1892 and would receive her BA from the University of New Brunswick in 1896--no mean achievement at a time when many North American universities still did not admit women, and only a select few were able to attend those schools willing to admit them. In the fall of 1896 she enrolled at a small teaching hospital in Somerville, Massachusetts. Within a year, a "schism" between the matron and nursing staff led to the withdrawl of Annie and other "low-ranking colleagues." But she didn't give up on nursing. In the fall of 1897, Annie entered the "Philadelphia Polyclinic," where she trained hard for the next three years. Throughout her education, it was clear that Annie was an outspoken young woman, unafraid to confront issues that were of importance to her. Throughout her life, she would often speak her mind, and occasionally in Welwood's book, Annie comes across as arrogant, convinced of her own opinions, even when those opinions are uninformed or reflect the prejudices of the day. In other words, she is thoroughly human.
Wartime Nurse
After her graduation as a nurse, Foster took a different career path. For the next few years, she taught at some of BC's isolated rural schools. But as war loomed, her life would take a radical turn. On January 16, 1915, she married local newspaper editor William Garland Foster. Foster was an officer in the 54th Kootenay Battalion. With her husband stationed in Vernon, she continued to teach. After her husband's battalion was finally sent overseas in November 1915, Annie left teaching and returned home to New Brunswick. She was nearly 40, an educated, professional woman who felt suddenly useless in the face of a terrible war.
In February 1916, she discovered her husband was in a hospital at the Bramshott military base, suffering from pleurisy. She set sail for England, taking a small notebook with her to record her experiences. Her husband had recovered by the time she arrived, and the pair became tourists in London. Annie's observations were distinctly Canadian--despairing over the lack of central heating and the poor quality of British cuisine (an old prejudice that Welwood echoes--odd, given the breadth of British cuisine today). Her snooty, anti-suffrage views also came to the forefront, as she writes: "Have decided that the vote is the last thing the women in England need--I never saw such god-forsaken children. Why should a race of females who cannot properly bring up their own offspring be trusted witht he national responsibility? It would solve a lot of problems both in the care of children and national problems to make cooks of the whole lot of them--rich and poor." It is clear she had little knowledge of the breadth of poverty in Britain, the ways in which the whole economy was now geared to serving the military (at great sacrifice for the average Briton), and the hard struggle that women campaigners for the suffrage had been making to address social ills and give women a voice in government. It would not be the last time Annie would speak out about issues she didn't always know much about.
Turned down for the CAMC by Matron-in-Chief Margaret MacDonald because she was past the age of enlistment, Annie began her nursing career with the British at Percy House Military Hospital in Ilsworth, in a former workhouse school. During her work there, Annie used her husband's connections to see Richard McBride, the BC Agent General. She wanted him to use his influence to get two of her Canadian colleagues at Percy House into the CAMC posted to France. Her husband didn't want to use his influence to get his wife a similar posting and when Annie was offered a CAMC posting, she turned it down because it wouldn't guarantee she wouldn't get posted to Salonika (a place with a reputation for terrible conditions, as mentioned in other posts on this blog). So she worked in Britain for the rest of the war. In her diary, Annie records seeing zeppelins shot down in her vicinity, day to day life at the hospital, William's departure for service in France, his rare leaves, the lives of the soldiers she cared for, and food shortages. In 1917 she transferred to the hospital at Maxstoke Castle, Warwickshire, and still later, worked at the company hospital of the Brunner Mond munitions factory.
There were many glimmers of happiness during the war--Annie frequently went to London to visit toy exhibitions, museums and craft shops. She had been commission by Canada's Minister of Trade and Commerce to report on "the London toy trade." Welwood writes "Quite how or why Sir George was interested in toys at this critical time in history is hard to imagine..." What Welwood doesn't know is that before the war, Britain (and to some degree Canada) was flooded with beautifully made German toys, from teddy bears to trains to dolls. When the war came, this trade was abruptly stopped. It was unpatriotic to buy Germany products of any kind. Suddenly a new industry had to come to the fore, one that had to operate on limited resources (wood, metal, fabric, etc). Many journalists during this period commented on the development of that trade, one that eventually led to a thriving British toy industry.
In the summer of 1917, exhausted by her 17 months of nursing, Annie resigned and returned home to be with William's family and her own. She was 42 and pregnant; sometime during the voyage, she miscarried. The doctor on board was perpetually drunk and she had to deal with the situation unaided. Back in New Brunswick, she would eventually find herself nursing her parents, who were briefly stricken with the Spanish Flu. But worse was yet to come. On September 30, William Garland Foster was wounded at Cambrai. Annie received notice a few days after he was hospitalized. He would die on October 14, less than a month before the armistice.
Post War
Annie would live a rich and varied post-war life as a teacher, politician, and writer. Her story after the war would take many strange twists and turns, and some of her decisions were often bizarre or at least questionable--including her involvement with a traumatized war veteran who would murder his girlfriend. Throughout, Annie Garland Foster comes across as a complex, intelligent, outspoken and adventurous woman. Her life, charted vividly by Frances Welwood in Passing Through Missing Pages, is well-worth the read. Passing Through Missing Pages (Caitlin Press: Halfmoon Bay, 2011).

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Update on NS Mary Frances Munro

Thanks to Susan Dutton, the archivist at Bishop Strachan School in Ontario, I am able to update the information I provided on NS Mary Frances Munro, as well as provide some wonderful archival photographs. The following information about Munro was contributed by Susan:

Munro preferred to be called by her middle name, "Frances," although her military records include her birth name of Mary Frances Munro. Munro attended Bishop Strachan School for the 1885-1886 school year. The Pupil Register of 1867-1887 listed her as "Frank", a boarder from Morrisburgh. Her age at admission in September 1885 was 19and her guardian was M. Munro. She was a wonderful student and got the top mark in the Senior Form that year, earning the "Silver Medal presented by His Excellency the Governor General." She also won the French Prize, tied for the English Literature prize was second for the German Prize (all from the 1886 "Concert & Distribution of Prizes" programme).

The Bishop Strachan Magazine of Easter 1907, says that "One of the former pupils of the Bishop Strachan School has recently distinguished herself in a somewhat unusual way. Frances (Frank) Munro was Governor-General's Medalist in 1886 and her schoolmates will remember that she won special distinction in modern languages. After leaving school she spent a year and a half abroad, and after a further interval of 4 or 5 years went into training in a New York hospital where she again distinguished herself. Since that time she has practised her profession, taking intervals of travel and rest, long or short as her health required. [Munro suffered from breast cancer.] Last autumn she was in France and with two companions, also trained nurses, happened to be on a train that was wrecked at a small town not far from Paris. She and her friends fortunately received no very serious injuries, and she with her fluent French added to her surgical experience was able to take command of the situation at once, and the French papers vied with one another in praising the skill, the presence of mind and the philanthropy of the foreign lady who with only two assistants had, in less than three hours, some three score badly injured men, women and children bandaged and ready to be taken in comparative safety and comfort into the Paris hospitals."

Munro was listed in the October 16, 1915 "British Journal of Nursing" in an article entitled "Our Roll of Honour" about the death of Nurses Jaggard and Munro in Lemnos. "A sympathetic obituary notice of the death of Nursing Sister Mary Eliza Frances Munro, Canadian Army Medical Corps, who died at Mudros, Island of Lemnos, on September 7th, also appears in Canada. She was a Canadian, a graduate of the City Hospital, Boston, USA, and a member of the Society of Superintendants of Training Schools, USA. She died of overwork and dysentery, and will be deeply mourned."

Susan Dutton says that the minutes of the Bishop Strachan School Association(organization of alumnae)on Oct. 22, 1915 notes that, “A letter to Miss Grier [school principal] written by Nurse Frances Munro while working in France was read and listened to with much interest.“ [This letter is published in this blog.] The minutes from May 11, 1918 states that "a legacy of $100 from Nursing Sister Frances Munro" was received. It was added to the Chapel Fund (built in 1926).