Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

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Firing Lines

Beatrice Nasmyth. Mary MacLeod Moore. Elizabeth Montizambert. Three names we likely don’t recognize today. But during WW1, countless Canadian, British and French readers read their war dispatches from London, Paris and points closer to the front. Debbie Marshall brings them back to life in Firing Lines: Three Canadian Women Write the First World War.

We met the three journalists briefly in Marshall’s last book (Give Your Other Vote to the Sister), when they joined Roberta MacAdams on a media tour of the military hospitals at Étaples and the lines of communication behind the front. In Firing Lines, we dig deeper into their backgrounds and how they came to report on the conflict. Continue reading

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An Interview with Katrina Kirkwood, author of The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads

Katrina Kirkwood’s book, The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads, is two tales in one. She tells about Isabella Stenhouse’s adventures as a doctor in WW1 as well as her own journey of discovery. Katrina joins me today at Great War 100 Reads to discuss her work.

What first interested you in finding your grandmother’s war stories?

Katrina Kirkwood: Romance. Amongst the medical instruments that I inherited from my grandmother Isabella was a strange string of beads. Rumour had it that they had been given to her by a grateful German prisoner of war, an idea that entranced me. As a teenager, I dreamt up a glorious romance in which love trounced international enmity. The fact that Isabella might have been a pioneering woman doctor, fighting fierce male opposition for the right to practise her hard-earned skills in the profession of her choice didn’t cross my mind until years later. Continue reading

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The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads

Scalpels. Forceps. Stethoscope. Other miscellaneous surgical instruments. And an intricately woven string of beads. These were the legacy that Isabella Stenhouse gave to her granddaughter, Katrina Kirkwood. But not the stories to go with them – of serving as a doctor in France, Malta and Egypt in WW1.

There came a point when Kirkwood realized that her grandmother’s war exploits were extraordinary for a woman of the time. In The Mystery of Isabella and the String of Beads, she sets out to learn about her grandmother’s early life. Continue reading

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The Enormous Room

I had a notion that E.E. Cummings’ book, The Enormous Room, was about prisoners of war. It is, but not in the usual sense of the phrase. The Enormous Room is an autobiographical novel about Cummings’ time under arrest – not by enemy forces, but by the US allied French government.

First, a brief account of the facts: Edward Estlin Cummings and his friend William Slater Brown were Americans who served with the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps in WW1. In August 1917, the two were arrested by French authorities for suspicion of sedition. Brown expressed anti-war views in letters read by the censors, Cummings stood by his friend, and American functionaires offended by their fraternizing with French colleagues did nothing to help. They were held for four months at La Ferté Macé, a porte de triage, pending charges. Cummings was to be released on suspicion when consular intervention sent him home. Continue reading

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Testament of Youth

Those who know about Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth only by reputation or the recent movie might think of it simply as a tale of love and loss in WW1 … the account of a spunky young woman whose brother, fiancé and other male friends are killed … a woman’s loss and a lost generation.

The book is so much more.

It has taken me several weeks to work through Testament of Youth – really three books captured in its 600 pages. Brittain documents the pre-war life of young middle-class women, the war years and the aftermath in the decade following. Continue reading


We Will Not Cease

War is a bad thing and will destroy the human race. I believe that if enough people in each country stood straight out against war, the Governments would pause and be compelled to settle their disputes by other means. I also believe that the peoples of all nations are naturally peaceful until they are stirred up by the war propaganda of the governing classes. When the workers of all countries win their economic freedom, Governments won’t be able to set them on to murdering their fellows. (p 108)

In 1915, New Zealand registered men of or near military age – about 196,000 in all – and asked if they were willing to serve in the NZEF. 33,700 said they were not willing to serve either at home or abroad. In 1916, conscription was introduced. Exemptions were narrowly defined, available only against combat and only for members of a religion “the tenets and doctrines of which declare the bearing of arms and the performance of any combatant service to be contrary to divine revelation.” About 286 conscientious objectors were imprisoned during war. Fourteen of these were forcibly sent overseas, some of them to the front lines. Continue reading


An Interview with “Those Splendid Girls” author, Katherine Dewar

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. Continue reading


Those Splendid Girls: The Heroic Service of Prince Edward Island Nurses in the Great War

Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province, sent over 3000 sons to war from 1914 to 1918. In 1919, PEI newspapers feted their homecomings on the front page, documenting their exploits and their decorations. Heroes all, they were welcomed by local dignitaries, bands and throngs of cheering people. They were paraded through the streets of Charlottetown.

In contrast, 115 PEI daughters served as nurses in the war. If their homecoming was noted, it was on p 8 of the newspaper, in the column “Of Local Interest.” No fanfare greeted their return. 

Katherine Dewar, a PEI nurse and author, noticed this disparity 100 years later. She finally tells the nurses’ stories in Those Splendid Girls: The Heroic Service of Prince Edward Island Nurses in the Great War.

Dewar’s extensive research shows generally how Canadian nursing transpired during the war (in the Nightingale tradition), how politics and who-you-knew played a role, and how PEI women fit into the scene both collectively and individually. Not only did she search newspapers and archives, Dewar sought out descendants of the nurses to uncover diaries, photos and other memorabilia. (Perhaps an easier task for a native on PEI than it would be elsewhere, given the comparative homogeneity of the Island’s population and an insider’s knowledge of family origins.) All of these are woven together to bring the women to life.

How could these women be thought of as anything but heroic?

A nursing veteran of the Boer War, Georgina Pope was in charge of training new nursing recruits for duty overseas at the beginning of WW1. Although Pope had seniority, politics and patronage gave the nod to Margaret Macdonald as Matron-in-chief of in the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) in 1914. Nonetheless, Pope applied for a field posting. It came to her in December 1917, when she was posted as Matron at No 2 Canadian Stationary Hospital in France. The official accounts of the Pope’s service (her own war diary and military records) are a stark contrast to Dewar’s documentation of the conditions that lead to her discharge in March 1919, clearly suffering from shell shock but not diagnosed as such. “The army managed to skirt the issue of her nervous debility by ignoring it altogether.” (p 95)

Rena McLean was one of the 100 nurses selected to go to England with the first contingent of the CEF in 1914. After a whirlwind furlough in London, she was among the 35 nurses sent to France in November 1914 to establish No 2 Canadian Stationary Hospital … the first Canadians in France in WW1. In 1916, she was posted to Salonika, working under arduous conditions. By summer 1917, the Canadian nurses in Salonika were recalled to England, where McLean was posted to No 16 Canadian General Hospital at Orpington. By 1918, she was transferred to transport, sailing on medical ships across the Atlantic. Her parents visited her in Halifax in June 1918, promising them it would be her last trip. Indeed it was … her ship the Llandovery Castle was torpedoed on 27 June, and 234 doctors, nurses and patients perished. The Soldiers’ Convalescent Hospital in PEI was renamed the Rena McLean Memorial Hospital.

Beatrice MacDonald was the first serious US army casualty in WW1. She was also the most decorated nurse in WW1 serving in any army nursing corps. She received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal and the Purple Heart from the US, the British Military Meal and Associate of the Royal Red Cross, and the French Croix de guerre.

As long as nursing sisters were seen as being in a non-heroic service role that was not a threat to the soldier warriors, all was well. But as soon as they attempted to step out of that role, gender discrimination raised its ugly head. … The three most obvious discriminatory practices that affected women in the CAMC during WW1 were lack of command, failure to accept female doctors in the CAMC, and refusal of the British authorities to issue the Military Cross to Canadian nursing sisters. (p 157)

Possibly a part of the great silence came from the nurses themselves. … They saw no glory in war – nothing heroic. … At the end of the war, they packed away their diaries, their photo albums, and other memorabilia and buried their memories. (p 166)

Dewar includes an extensive appendix with biographies of all 115 PEI women who served in WW1, be it in CAMC, British or American units, the Red Cross, or as VADs. We learn of their exploits and their decorations. As was their due … long overdue.

You can check out the website of Those Splendid Girls for photos, sample chapters and more.

Read my interview with author Katherine Dewar.

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Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear

A surprize package arrived on my desk from Winnipeg this week. In it, an autographed copy of Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear.

Many people who read about Winnie the Pooh are unaware that he is based on a real-life Canadian black bear. Lindsay Mattick tells the tale.

In 1914, Mattick’s great-grandfather, Harry Colebourn, was a veterinarian heading to war. His troop train stopped in White River, ON, where he bought a bear cub from a trapper. He named the bear Winnipeg after his home town (Winnie for short), so his regiment would never feel far from home.

Winnie was a remarkable bear. As mascot for the Second Canadian Infantry Brigade, she learned “to stand up straight and hold her head high and turn this way and that, just so!” But when the order came to leave the training grounds on Salisbury Plain and head to France, Harry knew he could not take Winnie.

The London Zoo became Winnie’s home. There she met Christopher Robin and his father, A.A. Milne. Christopher Robin named his own teddy bear Winnie. A.A. Milne brought his son’s stuffed menagerie to life in Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner.

In Finding Winnie, Mattick tells the story of the real Winnie to her own son, Cole. It’s a lovely read-to picture book for ages 3-7, with a family album of photos and ephemera at the end.

Statues of Harry Colebourn and Winnie can be found in Assiniboine Park, Winnipeg and at the London Zoo.

Winnie was not the only Canadian to land in the London Zoo during the war. About a dozen bears in all were brought to England and then left at the zoo when the troops were sent to the front.

A History of Elderslie Township 1851 – 1977 tells of Teddy, a black bear cub presented to the 160th Bruce Battalion.

When the 160th Bruce Battalion left to go overseas they took with them a denizen of the woods of Bruce. In time, he grew to be a full-sized, well developed bear with a fine coat of glossy black hair.

One day in Bramshott, he got out, and being of a roving disposition, took a stroll around the camp. The first place he visited was the staff office, and the employees, never having had the pleasure (or terror) of a visit from a Bruce County bear, immediately vacated the premises and left Teddy master of all he surveyed. He found nothing to his liking there; he ambled out and strolled down the road. Seeing a hut door open, he walked in and caused a greater panic than a German would have done. Seeing that he was not a welcome visitor, he went out, and not finding a suitable tree to climb went up a telegraph pole, where he was captured a little later.

Teddy at the latest report was in the Zoo in London, England, with a number of other bears, having been turned down on account of flat feet. He lived for another three years at the London Zoo. Sgt. David William (Bull) Stephens of Wiarton was the soldier responsible for looking after Teddy.

Gordon Reid, editor, A History of Elderslie Township 1851 – 1977. Published by the Elderslie Historical Society, Chesley, Ontario, 1977, p 213

Thanks to Nick for adding to my library of most important books about the world.

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Agent of Peace: Emily Hobhouse and her Courageous Attempt to End the First World War

Agent of Peace is the second of three books about UK pacifist and social reformer Emily Hobhouse written by her grandniece Jennifer Hobhouse Balme. The starting point for Balme’s research was a trunk of papers inherited from her father, Emily’s nephew. These personal accounts along with official records help create the story.

Hobhouse is probably best known for her activism around the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). She traveled to South Africa and documented the appalling conditions for women and children in internment camps set up by the British Army. The British government tried to dismiss her. But her work eventually led to a commission of inquiry which collaborated her accounts. She was granted honorary citizenship of South Africa for her humanitarian work there. This was all the subject of Balme’s first book, To Love One’s Enemies.

By WW1, Hobhouse was an affirmed pacifist. She joined and worked with the International Women’s League for Peace and Freedom and other groups in Europe and the US. (IWLPF exists to this day. Indeed 29 November is International Women Human Rights Defenders’ Day.)

In 1914, she wrote an open Christmas letter to “the Women of Germany and Austria” which was signed by 100 British women. An exchange of messages was published in Jus Suffragii, the newspaper of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance.

The Christmas message sounds as mockery to a world at war, but those of us who wished and still wish for peace may surely offer a solemn greeting to those of you who feel as we do. Do not let is forget that our very anguish unites us, that we are passing together through the same experiences of pain and grief. Caught in the grip of terrible Circumstance what can we do? Tosses on this turbulent sea of human conflict, we can but moor ourselves to those calm shores whereon stand, like rocks those eternal verities – Love, Peace, Brotherhood …

We urge that peace be made with appeal to wisdom and reason. Since in the last resort it is these which must decide the issues, can they begin too soon? … Peace on earth has gone, may Christmas hasten that day … (p 23)

Hobhouse convinced German officials to permit her to visit Belgium to see the conditions of Belgian civilians, and to visit Berlin and civilian internment camps. These visits and her attempts to convince the British government to act on her findings are the focus of Agent of Peace. Most of the book covers her work from June to October 1916. She was of the firm view that the suffering of non-combatants was “far worse than that endured by soldiers.” (p 27)

She was under German escort throughout her travels. She saw what they wanted her to, could not go into the war zone and was not permitted to speak to the Belgians. But she was nonetheless astute in her observations. In Germany, she saw Ruhleben, a camp for civilian male detainees from Allied countries who had been in Germany at the outbreak of the war. She met with German foreign minister Gottlieb von Jagow and discussed possibilities for peace and for an exchange of civilian detainees.

The conditions of her travels in Belgium and Germany were such that her conclusions could be easily ignored by the British government. They dismissed her as a “peace crank” (p 44), a German sympathizer, a harmless busybody. To some, “She was a silly mischievous old woman but not disloyal to her country.” (p 136) In the end, Hobhouse’s courageous actions received no credit in any official action toward reconciliation and peace.

Hobhouse’s actions seem at once brave, impulsive, naïve, perceptive … and, regardless, impressive for a solo woman with health and physical incapacities. The book leaves me wanting to know more about the context of the larger international peace movement.