Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Nurses Monument, Reims, France

A monument dedicated to all nurses from the allied countries can be found in the centre of Place Aristide Briand, Reims, essentially a traffic circle at the intersection of boul. Lundy, rue Cérès and av. Jean Jaurès. With no pedestrian access, you take your life in your hands and dodge traffic for a close look.

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Monday Monuments and Memorials – No. 1 Canadian General Hospital, Étaples, France

Étaples, a port town south of Boulogne, served as an Allied training base, supply depot, prisoner detention centre, and “Hospital City” during WW1. The next step for wounded soldiers who survived the casualty clearing stations and the stationary hospitals closer to the front could be one of the 16 hospitals or the convalescent depot at Étaples.

In the spring and summer of 1918, several German bombing raids on the Étaples area made their mark. Continue reading


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – No 3 Canadian Stationary Hospital, Doullens, France

In May 1918, No 3 Canadian Stationary Hospital was operating in an old citadel near Doullens, France. On the night of 29-30 May, the hospital was bombed by a German plane, hitting the main building over the operating theatre and one of the wards.

Two surgeons, three nursing sisters, 16 other ranks (including orderlies) and 11 patients were killed. Several others were injured. The operating staff and patients were buried in the ruins of the building. Other staff worked to save the other patients. Continue reading


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Wake and The Backwash of War

Two books for the price of one in this review, looking at the effects of war from different vantage points.

Wake

“Wake” takes on many meanings in Anna Hope’s novel of the same name: emerge or cause to emerge from sleep, a ritual for the dead, consequence or aftermath. The lives of three London women play out in the wake of the five days leading to the burial of the unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey. Hettie (19), Evelyn (29) and Ava (mid 40s) still live with lingering effects of the war in November 1920. In juxtaposing the everyday with the momentous, remembrance and moving on are tied up together in the same event. The three women and the men around them convey the range of fallout from the war and the path to healing. Continue reading


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm, Ieper, Belgium

Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm shared a love for the thrill of motorbikes. When war was declared in 1914, the friends zoomed off to London together to do their bit. ‘Their bit’ was to establish a first-aid nursing post close to the front, give the first line of care to wounded soldiers, and transport them by ambulance to field hospitals. Elsie and Mairi, nicknamed the Angels of Pervyse, were decorated for bravery and sacrifice, and were amongst the most famous women of WW1. Continue reading


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The Deep

It began to seem, after a time, that everyone had something. Had one thing that they’d seen or heard, that they couldn’t shake off, that they carried, would carry forever, like a hard, dull stone in the heart. … We thought if we could gather those things together we would call it ‘The War Book’. And that would be the only way to communicate it, to give someone an idea of how it was. (The Deep, p 40*)

From time to time, I have described my small efforts to put some order into my reading, grouping a few books together by place (the Western front or home front, for example), by person (nurses, perhaps, or civilians in the war zone), by author (a trilogy by one author, or a series of Irish authors let’s say), or by time (eyewitness accounts or modern ones).

Occasionally I come upon a common thread unawares. Like now, I find myself having read a series of the most exquisitely written books, all by authors new to me. In each work, the authors evoke time, place and mood in lovely turns of phrase. The horror of war is conveyed by the beauty of words.   Continue reading


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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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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