A fine day in spots only. My ward is filled & I am very busy but enjoy my work if it were only possible to forget its cause. (March 2, 1916, p 106)
The dominant memory of WW1 is that of men. Soldiers were, after all, the vast majority on the front lines. But as Susan Mann points out in her introduction to The War Diary of Clare Gass, 1915-1918, wounded soldiers were accompanied and cared for by nurses at every stage of their journey through the military medical system except at the very first points closest to the front lines.
Many nurses documented their adventures. After the war, their diaries, letters and photos were tucked away or thrown away, rarely made public.
Clare Gass graduated from the Montreal General Hospital School of Nursing in 1912. From 1915 to 1919 she served as a nursing sister in the Canadian Army Medical Corps, mostly in No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill) in France.
The diaries she kept during her time in CAMC would merit a footnote in history, having recorded in them In Flanders Fields seemingly weeks before John McCrae’s poem was first published. (McCrae was serving at the same hospital at the time.) But the package is worth more than that, painting as it does a picture of medical care and nurses’ lives throughout the war.
Troops go through on trains (& such long trains) almost daily, with guns & gun carriages in sight. When we are able we always wave strenuously & they also. They seem so happy & full of life. Poor lads. There is a difference when they come back on the Ambulance trains: then it is usually night & they are silent and we are too. (June 1, 1915, p 23)
Gass wrote about the day to day work of preparing hospital wards and caring for patients under trying conditions. She and her colleagues explored the countryside for leisure and in search of personal and medical supplies. When their location seemed set for a time, they would rent bicycles to take them farther afield. They fostered friendships, planted gardens and tried to find normalcy in the midst of chaos.
Wrote letters tonight with the music of the rain on the canvas for an accompaniement. There is the most facinating lizard about four inches long who has his home under my end of the hut. I’m very fond of him in the day, but hope he will not grow too friendly at night (July 14, 1915, p 41)
She made concise entries (with idiosyncratic spelling) on most days until 1917. Then they became shorter and less frequent. Was it the loss of her brother Blanchard and close cousin Laurie at Vimy Ridge? The toll of traumatic work at a Casualty Clearing Station close to the front? (Where, incidentally, she served with Laura Holland and Mildred Forbes.) Like Holland, she became a pioneer in the emerging field of social work after the war.
Mann includes footnotes and several appendices to help understand the context of the Gass diaries as women’s history. Since this book was published in 2000, there has been a growing scholarship on the medical women in WW1 that will help keep their stories alive.
I encountered Susan Mann many, many years ago … she was a professor of Canadian history, I was one of the hordes of first year university students. In her classes, she instilled the importance of removing blinders and examining the stories of half the population too often ignored. In other words, take women into account. A transcendent and life-defining lesson that I have strived to build on ever since.