1858 engraving of Victoria

Colonial History Vancouver Island

Maureen Duffus - Author and Historian


Women's History

Review of Those Splendid Girls by Katherine Dewar

Those Splendid Girls front cover
Those Splendid Girls
Katherine Dewar
ISBN 978-0-919013-81-03
Island Studies Press,
University of Prince Edward Island

Katherine Dewar's recently published book, Those Splendid Girls, follows the dedicated service of Prince Edward Island military nurses in World War I.

Early in her extensive research Katherine read newspaper articles of well-deserved praise for returning soldiers who were greeted by dignitaries, bands, parades and cheering crowds. Nurses were fortunate to have mention of their return on back pages "of local interest." Local Interest indeed!

"Once I recognised the disparity between the homecoming greetings I realized that nurses had got short shrift. They had served up to four years posted to the battlefields of Europe but it seemed no one was interested in their story." Like the British Columbia Nursing Sisters in my Battlefront Nurses in WW I, their remarkable contributions while stationed near the killing fields of Europe were largely missing in official histories.

Much of Katherine's book is devoted to biographies of individual nurses including their military records, decorations, and information from personal letters. Their stories tell of caring for wounded and dying soldiers in Canadian hospitals during German bombardments, on British hospital ships hunted by German U-boats, and their duties in some of the worst medical camps of the war.

One of the biographies tells the story of Matron (Captain) Georgina Fane Pope. She was the first and most senior nursing officer who led Canada's small nursing contingent overseas to the Boer war in 1899 and 1902. Back in Canada she remained in the Canadian Army Medical Corps as matron of a military hospital in Halifax and, in 1908, designed the elegant brass-buttoned officers' uniforms proudly worn by Canadian military nurses in WWI.

When war broke out in 1914 she was determined to serve overseas again. Although well past the age allowed for active service, she somehow managed a posting to England then France as Matron of CSS #2. But within six months of her arrival in France, the 55-year-old Boer War veteran was in the midst of a battle she could never have imagined in the earlier war. German air raids targeted Canadian hospitals with disastrous results.

CGH #1, at Etaples very close to the front, received a merciless three hour bombardment on the night of May 18-19, 1918. The nurses' quarters and a ward were in ruins, but the Germans continued the night raid by the light of the fires for three hours. For the nurses there was no getting away from the bombings. They carried on, engaged in one of the most horrific few days of their wartime experience.

Katherine writes: "...Adding to the horror of the night a German plane flew over and was machine-gunning those who were engaged in rescue work. ...When the bombing stopped and the fires were put out casualty and damage count assessed at No. 1 CGH was a horrific revelation. Fifteen German planes had inflicted tremendous damage to the hospital, resulting in sixty-six deaths and seventy-three wounded. One nursing sister was killed instantly and seven others wounded, two of them died of their wounds within days."

Katherine does the Prince Edward Island nurses proud with her research on those who served overseas in American, British and other units as well as the CAMC.

Her quotes from first person accounts of their wartime service lead back to her original concern: the comparatively meagre space allotted military nurses in official histories of the 1914-18 war. How could stories of these heroic women have been passed over for recognition?

Katherine suggests some reasons in a chapter titled The Great Silence.

Among them, gender and class issues played a part: Most Nursing Sisters of the era had been brought up as genteel Edwardian ladies, making it difficult for men who wrote about the war to picture the ladies in unimaginable situations in the soldier's ghastly war. In addition, medical officers often saw the nursing role as helping to get the wounded well enough to return to the front. It was the heroic soldiers' war, after all.

"The subordinate role of nurses resulted not only in less notice when they returned to Canada, and less celebration of their achievements: it also resulted in less material in historical accounts. ... Memorabilia held by families was rarely made public ... and in many cases remains challenging to find ..."

Availability of material has improved, thanks to publicity about the recent centenary celebrations of their war, and researcher's new tool, the internet. Canada's National Archives is no longer the only source of official documentation. Many small local archives, including those of nursing organizations across the county, have been gathering information for years, for which researchers are truly grateful.

Reviewed by Maureen Duffus.

Also see Battlefront Nurses in WW I (Book) & British Columbia Nursing Sisters in WWI (Photo-Essay)

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