I am pleased to welcome a special guest to Great War 100 Reads today. Katherine Dewar, author of Those Splendid Girls: The Heroic Service of Prince Edward Island Nurses in the Great War, has kindly agreed to share some thoughts about her work.
What was the biggest challenge in researching Those Splendid Girls?
Katherine Dewar: Researching is so much fun. Like a good mystery, the challenges are there to be solved. I spent about three years researching. Most mornings I could hardly wait to get started to see what piece of the puzzle I might unearth that day. I was blessed in several ways. Living on a small island where many family roots go back to the first settlement, and having done genealogy, I was aware that certain surnames were associated with particular communities. I would check the phone book in the community where a nurse might be from and call someone with the same surname. If I had a wrong person they usually knew who the right one might be. In one case I was looking for a picture; the lady on the phone was hesitant to give me information until she established my genealogical roots. After a brief conversation she realized that my father grew up a few miles from her; as a nurse, she knew my uncle who was a doctor; and her husband had worked with my cousin. The information was then forthcoming. She gave me the phone number of a lady in Boston who had a picture. The lady in Boston was delighted that someone on Prince Edward Island (PEI) was doing research on her relative. She emailed me information and a picture within the hour. Thus are the benefits of doing research on PEI.
There was also a major disadvantage. A couple of years ago the federal government cancelled interarchival and interlibrary loans at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). I needed primary documents housed at LAC. I went to Ottawa for a week but realized I needed a couple of months. Then like an angel answering my need, another blessing fell upon me. A cousin of a friend, a well-qualified researcher who lived in Ottawa, offered to help. I owe so much to Jane’s uncanny ability to find the unfindable.
My one regret was that I was unable to thoroughly research the PEI nurses in the US military units. Information was hard to find or unavailable. Apparently many records were lost in a fire. Even so, names of 60 Island nurses were found. In fact more PEI nurses served in foreign units than in the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC).
I have made many friends during the research journey; met many interesting people; travelled the back roads of PEI; looked at picture albums, scrap books, autograph albums and memorabilia. Like the nursing sisters going overseas in WW1, I was on an adventure.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in the process of writing the book?
KD: When I began, I thought I might find 15-20 PEI nurses who were in the Great War. To my surprise I just kept finding more and more names, resulting in 115 biographies. I had all the nurses in the CAMC, but knew that I did not find all the nurses who served in foreign units. Since the book was published I have added five more names.
Another surprise was the diversity of service areas. When the CAMC nurses went overseas they probably thought they would serve in England, France and Flanders. Before the war was over some had served in Canada, England, Wales, France, Belgium, Malta, Egypt, Salonika, Lemnos, Russia and Germany. One PEI nurse had the distinction of being with No.1 Canadian Casualty Clearing Station, the first allied unit to enter Germany after the Armistice, as part of the army of occupation.
Their professional duties were varied as well. I describe the different types of hospitals in my book. Some had elegant settings such as The Duchess of Connaught Canadian Red Cross Hospital on Lord and Lady Astor’s Clivedon Estate, Buckinghamshire. Some nurses found themselves on a desolate, windswept plain in Macedonia (Salonika). Still others were on hospital ships. During the German Offensive of 1918, Canadian casualty clearing stations had to make hasty retreats; on one occasion the nurses set up a first aid post in a henhouse.
But most importantly, I was impressed by the nursing sisters’ strength, their independence, the power they wielded in the hospital wards, and the fact that they were the only people (apart from chaplains) who advocated for their patients, and in whom their soldier-patients could confide. These qualities made them unique.
After the war, with their leadership abilities and independence of action, many became nursing leaders in the forefront of establishing nursing training schools, and the public health system.
What do you hope people will take away from the book?
KD: I want them to know of the uniquely significant role the nursing sisters played in the recovery of “their lads.” The nursing sisters knew they had skills no one else had; they knew they made a difference in recovery, or if recovery were not possible, they provided a caring support in death. In my estimation their role was heroic. Some, though wounded themselves, pulled wounded soldiers from burning hospitals during air raids; they stayed at their posts during bombing raids and refused to leave dangerous areas even when ordered to do so by commanding officers.
What writers have inspired you the most and why?
KD: This is my toughest question to answer. I really can’t single out any author. My writing seems to be triggered by events, injustices and the lives of people who interest me. My biggest passion is history. For the last 8 or 10 years I have researched and written about PEI women, mainly because they have been left out of the PEI historical narrative.
What question do you wish people would ask you about your work, that they don’t ask?
KD: This answer follows from the one above. WHY did I write this book? I have been on a crusade to right a wrong – the absence of these truly remarkable women’s stories in the PEI historical narrative. Although Those Splendid Girls was published in October 1914, I have had over 50 related engagements, still write a column about them in a local newspaper, and still live with them every day. More has to be done to honour them – I am not finished yet.
Where will your next book take us?
KD: Presently, I am working on The Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry on Captain Matron Georgina Pope CAMC for the University of Toronto. After that – stay tuned.
Thank you so much, Katherine, for taking the time to give us these insights, and for bringing the exploits of these nurses back to life. I have really enjoyed our email exchanges.