- War-Torn Exchanges: The Lives and Letters of Nursing Sisters Laura Holland and Mildred Forbes ed. by Andrea McKenzie
Andrea McKenzie (ed.)
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016, viii + 256 p., $32.95
War-Torn Exchanges, at first brush, is a tale of two nursing sisters’ experiences overseas during the Great War, told through their letters home, but it is actually much more than that. Best read after Cynthia Toman’s Sister Soldiers of the Great War,1 McKenzie’s book adds greatly to what we know about the nature of female friendships in trying times, Canadian military history, and the history of nursing and its professionalization in Canada.
Laura and Mildred became fast friends and perhaps romantic partners in the first decade of the twentieth century. They had much in common – both came from well-to-do, connected families in Montreal and were Anglican, for example. Mildred was a year younger than her friend but had already worked as a nurse for five years by the time Laura graduated at the age of 30 in 1913. Their social standing got them overseas as members of the Canadian [End Page 549] Army Medical Corps, despite “fierce competition” for spots, and allowed the pair to remain together for the duration (8–10). While serving, Laura wrote to her widowed mother, and Mildred wrote to her friend Cairine Wilson (later Canada’s first woman senator). Happily, many of the letters sent from the nurses somehow managed to survive the hundred or so years between then and now.
In their time as two of the over 2,500 Canadian nurses who served overseas, the pair were posted at a Red Cross Hospital in England; at a Canadian Stationary Hospital (CSH) on the Greek island of Lemnos and then Salonika; in London, where Mildred did administrative work while Laura toiled at an upscale officers’ hospital; at a small Canadian army camp hospital in England; at Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) No. 2 in Remy Siding, Belgium and later in Esquelbecq, France; and, then somewhat anti-climatically, at two small hospitals for the Canadian Forestry Corps in France (10). The letters cover their journey to and from England in June 1915 to just before their discharge from service in January 1919. In this very well-researched book, the editor provides an orientation to each chapter, the breaks of which come when the two nursing sisters were reassigned. An epilogue follows that discusses how all of the characters’ stories eventually ended. McKenzie also provides interesting discursive citations, but they are unfortunately placed at the end of the volume, making it necessary for the reader to flip back and forth incessantly. Those interested in military history will no doubt find themselves wishing for more information on the military context of these letters. McKenzie does a solid, if understated, job of providing the broader military perspective. We learn, for example, that Laura’s and Mildred’s trying experiences on Lemnos stemmed almost entirely from poor British leadership on all levels (55).
The women’s letters reveal that because their expectations going overseas were of work associated with the impact of munitions on human bodies, any cases stemming from other causes were perceived as not the best use of their talents. Their various postings, however, cultivated a great range in skill for Laura and Mildred. In the Dardanelles, the women noted that, while there were plenty of battle wounds during the attacks, the bulk of their patients suffered from “dysentery and other enteric diseases,” which was the result of little water or food, flies, and extreme temperatures (55). In Salonika, it was again “mostly medical patients instead of wounded,” with malaria taking a toll on both CSH No. 1 staff and the troops (127). At the Hyde Park Officers’ hospital, Laura was “seeing to their meals, & doing a few dressings” (173). The CCS in Belgium, and [End Page 550] then in France, where the women were sent in July 1917 and stayed until August 1918, was as near the fighting as nurses could be and the place where patients hauled off the battlefields...