Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books


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In Falling Snow

We’re women. We do things. (p 78)

The Scottish Women’s Hospitals were founded during WW1 to help the war effort by offering medical assistance. The founders were committed to promoting women’s rights and believed that contributing to the war effort would help women win those rights.

The British Army refused their help. The women were not daunted, offering hospitals instead to other allied countries. The French were the first to accept. The second Scottish Women’s Hospital was established in the Abbaye de Royaumont, a 13C Cistercian abbey north of Paris, with Dr Frances Ivens as the chief medical officer. The hospital team cared for more than 10,000 wounded soldiers from 1915 to 1919.

Jump forward 70 years. Mary-Rose MacColl found herself in the wrong aisle at the library, having transposed two digits in a call number. She noticed a title, Women of Royaumont: A Scottish Women’s Hospital on the Western Front. Eileen Crofton’s book was the spark of inspiration for MacColl’s novel, In Falling Snow, which pays tribute to the women who served at Royaumont throughout the war. It also explores how the challenges for women in medical service have evolved (or not) from WW1 to the 1970s. Continue reading

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A Long, Long Trail

Really? Really. Four years into the WW1 centenary and four years since the start of this reading odyssey. In 317 posts, Great War 100 Years has documented 90 books read, over 200 monuments and memorials each Monday, and more interviews and musings.

Year three ended and year four started with my exploring the growing scholarship on medical women in the war. (Bravo to those bringing these fascinating stories back to life!) Now I’ve turned back to fiction for the most part. Some by authors who lived through the war. Most written from a longer view perspective in the last 30 years. A few with most exquisite prose. A range of voices showing the experiences of war for women, men and beasts. Continue reading


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Alfred and Emily

Even though I was born several decades after WW1, veterans and others who had lived through the war were all around as I was growing up. The influences of the war were woven into the fabric of my life.

Doris Lessing was born in 1919, much closer to the war’s direct impacts. As she says in the introduction to her 2008 book, Alfred and Emily, “The trenches were as present to me as anything I actually saw around me. And here I still am, trying to get out from that monstrous legacy, trying to get free.” (p viii)

Lessing’s parents had come together because of the war – her father an injured soldier, her mother one of his nurses in a London hospital. Lessing came to realize the extent to which their lives had been damaged by it. Her father dreamt of being a country farmer, but lost his leg in the war. Her mother worked at the Royal Free Hospital after her love of her life was killed, showing promise for a career in hospital administration. Continue reading


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – HMHS Llandovery Castle and Halifax Memorial

The Llandovery Castle served as a hospital ship during WW1, ferrying wounded soldiers from England back to Canada. On 27 June 1918, nearing the end of its voyage from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Liverpool, England, the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine off the Irish coast. The passengers rushed to lifeboats, but the submarine surfaced and destroyed most of the lifeboats. Only 24 survivors lived to tell the tale.

Amongst the 234 dead in Canada’s worst naval disaster of WW1: all 14 of the Canadian nursing sisters on board. Continue reading


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An Interview with Mary Swan, author of The Deep

The tragedy of twins Esther and Ruth unfolds against the backdrop of WW1 in The Deep, a novella by Canadian writer Mary Swan. She has graciously agreed to discuss her work today with Great War 100 Reads.

Why did you write The Deep?

Mary Swan: Some years ago I heard an interview with the Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan, who was asked a similar question about his books. He talked about ‘the collected tinder in your own heart, waiting for a spark to be thrown onto it’ and I think that’s the perfect way to describe how books come about, certainly how they do for me. I’ve always been fascinated by twins, although — or maybe because — there aren’t any in my family. And I’d been interested in World War I for a very long time too, and read a lot about it over the years, wrote a few short stories that involved the war in some way. Then one day a friend told me about a footnote she’d come across in an essay on a completely unrelated subject. This footnote referred to an historical incident and that was my ‘spark’. I began working almost immediately, with no real idea of what I was going to end up with, and very gradually the fragments of incident and character I was writing shaped themselves into The Deep. Continue reading


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Monday Monuments and Memorials – War Memorial, Beckwith Township, ON

Beckwith Township, population about 7600, forms the easterly part of Lanark County, just west of Ottawa. The war memorial erected by the township remembers 12 names, nine from WW1. The monument has moved over the years. It now stands in Beckwith Park, on the 9th Line about 2 km east of Hwy 15 and Black’s Corners, surrounded by a vast stretch of baseball diamonds and playing fields. Continue reading


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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