Andrea McKenzie brings two WW1 nurses and friends back together in War-Torn Exchanges: The Lives and Letters of Nursing Sisters Laura Holland and Mildred Forbes. Her deft editing and annotations make the book an insightful contribution to understanding the role of nurses in the war. I am so pleased that Andrea has joined me today, to share some thoughts about her work.
What first interested you in Mildred Forbes and Laura Holland?
Andrea McKenzie: I’d been working on Canadian nurses’ First World War diaries and letters for some years, but I’d never come across the letters of two best friends who’d sailed for the war on the same, stayed together throughout four long war years, then sailed home together. Separately, Laura’s and Mildred’s vivid accounts of their individual wars are compelling, but read together, they create a richly textured narrative told by two strong, mature women’s voices. What one omits, the other includes, so we gain a complete story of their time throughout the First World War. They served on almost all the war fronts, too, so their story, told in their own words, runs from the privations of Gallipoli to a casualty clearing station on the Western front during Passchendaele and the German advance of 1918.
Much has been written about men’s comradeship and friendship during war, but little about women’s friendships. Laura and Mildred’s friendship is representative of so many others nurses’ friendships during the war. Friendship enabled nurses to survive physical challenges and privations, the shock of air raids and shelling, and the emotional traumas of tending to an unending stream of badly wounded men. These letters home show the strength of the bond between these two nurses, and they also show how much the women at home actively contributed to the nurses’ wartime lives.
What was the biggest challenge in researching WW1 nurses?
AM: The scarcity of sources. Few Canadian First World War nurses’ diaries or letters are available in public archives, and most international accounts of nursing during the war omit Canadians or subsume them under British accounts. Some excellent work has been done in Canada, but at the time I found and edited these letters, no book-length history of Canadian nurses in WWI had been published in English. I’ve been collecting materials about Canadian nurses since around 1990, though, so did have a sound basis for the necessary research. Laura’s family members, too, helped greatly with the details of her life before and after the war.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned in editing War-Torn Exchanges?
AM: The first big surprise was when I realized that Laura and Mildred were close friends. I’ll never forget the moment when I recognized Mildred’s name in Laura’s letters, and then went back to Mildred’s and realized that the “Lollie” (Laura’s nickname) she so frequently mentioned was Laura. Mildred’s letters were in Ottawa, and Laura’s in BC. That moment of realization was probably the most exciting moment in my research career: to think that these two women, both Canadian nurses with strong voices, shared the same experiences and helped one another survive throughout the war – and that their letters had miraculously survived. The final confirmation was my discovery of a letter from Mildred to Laura’s mother, written soon after the two sailed for the war, in which Mildred promised to take care of Laura. Laura’s mother, Mrs. Holland, carefully kept Mildred’s letter alongside her own daughter’s.
The second thing that surprised me – though it shouldn’t have, given my previous research – was the level of detail Laura and Mildred included in their letters home, especially about the terrible conditions on Lemnos, where they nursed the soldiers from Gallipoli. The story of the Canadian medical units there has rarely been told, and these two nurses give vivid and shocking descriptions of their battle to care for patients under conditions of extreme privation. It’s assumed that official censorship and self-censorship (the desire to avoid making those at home anxious) prevented Canadians at home from hearing the “true” story of war from those overseas. That certainly wasn’t the case with Laura and Mildred, and their relatives and friends responded by raising funds and sending all kinds of supplies to the hospitals.
Finally, I was surprised at just how modern Laura and Mildred were – and again, I shouldn’t have been. Nursing was one of the few occupations open to women at the time, and perhaps because independent women seemed threatening at the time, pre-wartime nurses were usually depicted as obedient or subservient to doctors and matrons. Wartime nurses, including Laura and Mildred, contradicted such portrayals. Both were well-travelled and enjoyed their independence. And their behaviour throughout the war showed that they and their nursing colleagues were fearless in standing up to doctors, matrons and the British and Canadian medical administrations when their patients were at risk. They made, as Laura said, “bally nuisances” of themselves to obtain better conditions for their patients. Yet despite privations and hardship, air raids and the trauma of caring for badly wounded patients, they maintained optimism and enjoyment of small things – sunsets and landscapes, packages from home, cocktails and leaves. It isn’t surprising that wartime nurses such as Laura created beneficial changes at home in the decades after the war, given the differences they made for patients and staff in their wartime hospitals.
What do you hope readers will take away from War-Torn Exchanges?
AM: A recognition of the contributions nurses made during the First World War, as they have throughout Canada’s wars. Much war commemoration is dedicated to soldiers, yet as Laura’s and Mildred’s letters show, the nurses made a tremendous contribution to the war effort, to healing soldiers and to saving their lives. They often worked in hardship conditions and had to improvise – on Lemnos, while caring for the soldiers from Gallipoli, Mildred measured medicines from a used whiskey bottle, and in Salonika, Laura improvised refrigerators from blankets and Red Cross cases. Both worked at a casualty clearing station in the Ypres sector for a year – Mildred was in charge – and after undergoing almost daily shelling and air raids, they were bombed out during the German advance in March 1918. Throughout the rush of convoys and the danger, they continued to treat patients and raise the medical unit’s morale by planning concerts and holding teas. Many of their colleagues did equally sterling work, yet little space is given to nurses’ war contributions. My hope is that accounts such as Laura’s and Mildred’s will contribute to recognition of nurses’ war work.
What question do you wish people would ask about your work, that they don’t ask?
AM: What did I have to leave out of the edited letters? Editing other people’s letters is such a heavy responsibility, because you have to be true to their characters and personalities. It took three years and multiple attempts before I was happy with the edited version. It would have been so easy to paint a very dark picture of war nursing from their letters, but that would have left out Laura’s sense of humour and the change in Mildred once she was herself in charge. I focused, therefore, on taking out parts that readers probably wouldn’t understand, such as family news, and sections that would have been of interest to Laura’s family at home, but not to today’s readers, such as the many reviews of plays, sermons, concerts, and church architecture. I did leave in examples of their daily routine in London, but cut much repetition. I kept as much description of their postings to hospitals and casualty clearing stations as possible, and as much as I could of their insights and thoughts about the war, its administration, their patients and their own roles.
Where will your next book take us?
AM: My next book is already out: L.M. Montgomery and War is a collection of ten essays about the impact of war on this renowned author’s life and writings, co-edited with Jane Ledwell. McGill-Queen’s University Press published it in May 2017. It’s a fascinating collection, created with the purpose of restoring Montgomery as a major Canadian war writer. My own chapter is about images of women in war across the century, using the covers of Montgomery’s wartime novel, Rilla of Ingleside, as examples.
I’m now working on a book about the stories Canadian nurses, doctors, and soldiers told about their wars in their photo albums and scrapbooks during the 20th century. We have so few textual stories from nurses, especially, of the South African War and the First World War, yet many nurses and others left commemorative albums. The stories these albums tell about how people remembered their wars is fascinating, from how they coped with death and trauma to the friendships they developed.
It’s so important for these stories to be told before such artifacts are lost. If anyone knows of letters, diaries, scrapbooks, photo albums, or other artifacts, especially those created by war nurses, I hope they’ll contact me.
More books to add to my reading list! Thank you so much, Andrea, for your comments – and for your efforts to keep these aspects of war work alive. I’ve enjoyed our conversation.