Continuing my explorations of women in the medical services, in War-Torn Exchanges: The Lives and Letters of Nursing Sisters Laura Holland and Mildred Forbes, and Your Daughter Fanny: The War Letters of Frances Cluett, VAD. Both books bring to life women’s war service close to the front.
Canadian nursing sisters Laura Holland and Mildred Forbes served together in military hospitals throughout the war. In War-Torn Exchanges, Andrea McKenzie brings them together again, through the letters they wrote home.
Their postings and other travels took them to Lemnos, Salonika, Egypt, England, Scotland and France (the first two considered in retrospect to have had the worst conditions for medical staff). Laura’s letters to her mother and Mildred’s to her friend Cairine Wilson document a side of the war not found in more formal accounts. They reveal their frustrations in the incompetence of the military leadership and the lack of resources to permit the nurses to care for their patients. They show the reliance on family and friends at home – through women’s patriotic leagues – to provide the necessities for nurses and patients alike. They close the artificial divide between battle front and home front.
Above all, the letters show the importance of their caring and enduring friendship, “in enabling both to endure privation, illness, boredom, and emotional trauma, as well as the rich pleasure they could create even in such mundane chores as finding a new laundry for the unit.” (p 5)
A book of letters from only one side of the correspondence is a risky read. Letters are episodic, not necessarily intended to tell a cohesive story. The writer can assume an intimate recipient’s knowledge of backstories and other details, without which a reader can struggle to comprehend. McKenzie’s narratives, annotations and deft editing remove these problems, making War-Torn Exchanges an insightful contribution to understanding another aspect of the war.
If this war does not soon end there won’t be a man living on the face of the earth. It is brutal; it is cold-blooded murder; it is hell upon earth. Ah! If you could only see and go through what we do mother; it is enough to drive one mad. (Your Daughter Fanny, p 146)
Frances Cluett was a teacher in a Newfoundland outport, not a professional nurse. She had training of mere weeks to prepare her to care for patients as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment). The speed with which she was sent to France, her selection for work close to the front in a Casualty Clearance Station, and the length of her service is testament to her competence and stewardship.
Her letters to her mother and sister tell of the brutality of war and the hardships in the hospitals. She questions whether she has the strength to abide the things she witnesses. She longs for the familiar things of home.
The letters also talk about medical treatment in the war. In one letter, Fanny lists the ailments of all 20 patients on her ward and how she nurses them.
The disappointing part is the editors’ contribution to Your Daughter Fanny. The introduction is a rambling, androcentric history of Fanny’s home of Belleoram. By this account, the community was populated mostly by men and the women were mostly nameless. Named or not, women are described primarily by the men to whom they are related. Could it be that so many people were borne only of fathers? I think not.
We learn that Fanny’s letters and a photo album were presented to the Memorial University Library, but not about her paintings and other ephemera that also form the collection. There is little attempt to fill the gaps in the letters. No explanation, for example, of why her engagement was terminated in June 1919 but then she signed on to go to Constantinople for a year. We are left with many questions. Fanny’s story deserves to be more complete.