Bagneux British Cemetery

Bagneux British Cemetery

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.

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