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.