Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


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The War Diary of Clare Gass

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. Continue reading

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An Interview with Andrea McKenzie, editor of War-Torn Exchanges

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. Continue reading


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – A Moulder and Girls with a Rail, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa

It’s Labour Day in Canada and the US … a day to celebrate workers. In honour of Labour Day, here are two more of Frances Loring and Florence Wyle’s sculptures of war workers on the home front.

Wyle and Loring were commissioned by the War Memorial Funds Committee to do a series of sculptures of “girl war workers” as part of the project to document Canada’s participation in the war. After touring munitions plants, Wyle decided to include some male workers, too. Continue reading


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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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Lights Out!

Firsthand accounts of WW1 from the medical women who served are hard to come by, and in reverse proportion to their position in the hospital hierarchy: practically none from doctors; a few more from nurses; most from VADs.

Lights Out! The Memoir of Nursing Sister Kate Wilson, Canadian Army Medical Corps, 1915-1917, based on Kate’s diaries, started as a souvenir for her family written shortly after the war. Later in life, a frustration with mostly male accounts of the war that “tended to romanticize events” led to “a tremendous desire to tell my story, in my own way.” After all, “I have been there too.” (Foreword) Continue reading


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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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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Victoria College Memorial Tablet, University of Toronto, Toronto

A bronze tablet on the right side of the main entrance to the Old Vic building on the U of T campus is dedicated to the memory of 75 Victoria College students and graduates who gave their lives in the Great War, 1914-1918. An angel mourns on either side of the college crest, under the assurance that “they were valiant in life, triumphant in death.” The tablet, designed by sculptor Alfred Howell, was presented by the Alumni and Alumnae Associations and dedicated on 12 October 1923. Continue reading


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – The Last Post, Collingwood, ON

The Last Post is the name of the statue that tops the WW1 war memorial in Collingwood, Ontario. It stands in front of the old train station (now the Collingwood Museum), at 45 St Paul St. The driveway behind it is Veterans Cres. 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