Firsthand accounts of WW1 from the medical women who served are hard to come by, and in reverse proportion to their position in the hospital hierarchy: practically none from doctors; a few more from nurses; most from VADs.
Lights Out! The Memoir of Nursing Sister Kate Wilson, Canadian Army Medical Corps, 1915-1917, based on Kate’s diaries, started as a souvenir for her family written shortly after the war. Later in life, a frustration with mostly male accounts of the war that “tended to romanticize events” led to “a tremendous desire to tell my story, in my own way.” After all, “I have been there too.” (Foreword)
Kate Wilson was born in a small Ontario village in 1887. After secretarial training and a brief job as a journalist, she trained as a nurse, graduating in 1913. She was part of the second contingent of Canadian nurses to go overseas in WW1. She served until 1917, when she resigned to marry Captain Robert Simmie.
Kate’s memoir is not an in-depth analysis of the war. This is one woman’s observations as she is moved from post to post, never knowing where the next move will take the unit. Her travels take her to London, Paris, Boulogne, Étaples, Versailles, Lemnos and Egypt.
She fosters friendships and enjoys the adventure of travel. She is matter-of-fact about the daily challenges of caring for patients in trying circumstances. Her charm, humour and spunk shine through.
Despite the hardships of working on Lemnos Island, she describes it as “a wonderful experience in many ways. We had grown to know the people from the sister colonies. At first we found it a bit hard to understand the Australians, with their breezy mannerisms, but soon learned to admire their straight forwardness, and good soldiering. The New Zealanders we had admired from the beginning, with their quiet dignified ways.” (p 107)
Indeed, relationships are important … she comes back again and again to the coldness of British nurses, their treatment of the Canadian nurses as lesser ‘colonials’, and the ease of getting to know the more easygoing Australians and New Zealanders. She cares deeply for her patients, even coming around from resentfulness at having to treat a German POW to seeing him with humanity as any other wounded patient. She comes back as well to words she heard about the troops leaving for war – fodder for cannons – and knows how apt they are.
Ultimately, the realities of war take their toll. Kate is open about the lingering effects of time at a casualty clearing station on her nerves. That and a bout of influenza take her to a convalescent hospital and eventually home.
I wish I had met Kate Wilson-Simmie. She tells a great tale of adventure.
Interesting fact: Canadian nurses were considered ‘millionaire colonials’ – with pay of $4.10 a day.
Nice additions in the 2004 CEF Books edition: biographical details; contextual endnotes and a brief description of the wartime roles of Canadian nursing sisters; Wilson’s photos; list of Canadian nursing sisters who died overseas. What I missed: an index would be handy.
I received my copy of Lights Out! from Norm Christie of CEF Books (battlefields.ca), an unexpected bonus of our recent pilgrimage with him to the Western Front. CEF Books aims to keep Canadian military history alive by publishing firsthand accounts of the WW1 and WW2, as well as Norm’s informative documentaries and guides to the battles, cemeteries and monuments. And he’s a great tour guide!