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 Medal 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.