Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Wimereux Communal Cemetery, Wimereux, France

Each nurse, VAD and canteen worker tells a story.

Few women who served in WW1 are buried near the Western Front. Those who are can mostly be found in cemeteries near the coast, close to large hospitals or staging centres. They died mostly of disease, although some were certainly caught in the crossfire of war.

On 21 April 1918, Nursing Sister Anna Elizabeth Whitely died at Boulogne of a stomach tumour. She was buried at Wimereux Communal Cemetery, the first Canadian woman in WW1 whose final resting place was in France. Continue reading

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An Interview with Linda J. Quiney, author of This Small Army of Women

Linda J. Quiney’s This Small Army of Women, tracing the Canadian and Newfoundland volunteer nurses in WW1, is part of a growing scholarship on the role of medical women in the war. (Readers will know this is a particular interest of mine.) Linda is a historian and retired lecturer and serves as an affiliate with the Consortium for Nursing History Inquiry at the University of British Columbia. She has kindly agreed to discuss her work today with Great War 100 Reads.

What first interested you in VADs from Canada and Newfoundland?

Linda J. Quiney: It was more of a happy accident than an intentional undertaking. I was considering a research topic on women in the Second World War when a colleague mentioned a photograph she had discovered while researching a First World War topic. The image depicted a woman wearing a St. John Ambulance VAD dress uniform, but offered no clue to her identity or what her uniform represented. I had read Testament of Youth years before, Vera Brittain’s romantic journal of her wartime experience as a British Red Cross VAD nurse, but I had no idea there had been a Canadian or Newfoundland equivalent under the auspices of St. John. The mystery led me to St. John Ambulance headquarters in Ottawa, but the preliminary research was limited. I was close to abandoning it until the “eureka” moment, when a box of random records unexpectedly revealed a list of more than 300 Canadian women who had been posted overseas as St. John Ambulance VAD nurses during the war.

It gradually became clear that the VAD program had been a unique undertaking, far different from any other form of Canadian women’s patriotic work. Most intriguing for me was that it was almost invisible within the larger historical record of the war, a history waiting to be written. Continue reading


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This Small Army of Women

Shown into his luxurious office, I asked whether he could hurry my departure. I was terrified when this great fat man, who seemed as old as the hills to me, pulled me down on his knee and began kissing me! As I was struggling to get away his secretary came in and showed no surprise whatever at the scene. Apparently there was nothing unusual in this situation! But this was my first experience with a licentious old man, I was overwhelmed! However, he did promise me this: Not another girl will leave Canada before you! And they didn’t. (This Small Army of Women, p 67)

Latest #metoo revelation of sexual harassment? No, a 1916 account of Canadian VAD Violet Wilson. 1916.

Over the years, sensational allegations rise and fade, rise and fade. But until everyone – men as well as women – recognizes sexual harassment and sexual assault as systemic problems of entitlement and power, the culture of acquiescence continues. It’s about time to say #metoo for change.

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War-Torn Exchanges and Your Daughter Fanny

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. 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