At the beginning of the First World War, Canadian nurses were accorded a rank (officer) and a rate of pay (equal to men) unprecedented amongst the Allies. The “Bluebirds”, called such for their distinctive blue uniforms, were rightly revered as angels of mercy by the men they cared for on hospital ships, in England, and in France where they staffed the hospitals at the coast and ventured close to the front lines in the Casualty Clearing Stations. Fifty-eight of them paid the ultimate price, felled by enemy fire or disease. Fourteen Canadian nurses drowned in one night alone, when the Canadian hospital ship Llandovery Castle was torpedoed off the coast of England on its return from delivering wounded men to Halifax, NS. Canadian nurses were awarded medals for bravery just as the men received. Their story, however, as Dr. Ross Hebb reveals in his new book, A Canadian Nurse in the Great War, was nearly lost when the war was over. As the opening words of his book say: “The Great War diaries of Ruth Loggie are a rare find…for while 420,000 men served overseas during the Great War, only 2100 Canadian women served as army nurses.”
I was thrilled to be asked to review Dr. Hebb’s book. Having read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, I was deeply curious to read a Canadian’s own words of her experience in the hospitals of France. Once I started, I was completely captivated. This was a quick read; as well as riveting, it is not a big book. Disappointingly – because what she did write is so enlightening and fascinating – Ruth Loggie either ceased keeping a record of her daily life or lost her diaries for the second half of her service. What is in this book covers the period of May 1915 to November 1916.
I was charmed by her spirit and vigour for life. She was not above making fun of her superiors, had strong opinions, calling the management a “disgrace to Canada”, but her heart was completely for the men. You can feel her heartbreak in her short entries. “Such terrible wounds…and such nice men,” she said early on her arrival in France. “…it is so unnecessary.” Her dedication to the men in her care extended to their families, as she continued writing to many of them, often after the man had died from his injuries. Most poignant was the entry, which she wrote simply and matter-of-factly, that she went, on July 1st, to the cemeteries to decorate the graves of the Canadian dead.
While much of the diary covers delightful trips to the beaches and shopping in the cities and towns, dinners out and tea at the shore so too does it lay out the hardships, the terrible days during big battles when the casualties poured in, the sadness of loss, and the worry over brothers and friends in the trenches. The women suffered not only mentally but physically. With the long hours on duty, primitive living conditions and hard work Loggie and her fellow nurses faced, it is a wonder they had the energy for long walks and longer bicycle trips. It is unsurprising that some succumbed to illness, and Ruth mourned deeply the loss of colleagues, even ones she did not know personally. One must admire these intrepid women, who, having fearlessly crossed both the Atlantic and the English Channel with all their perils, traipsed around France during a war, while trying to make life as comfortable as they could for the men in their care.
Dr. Hebb does an outstanding job piecing together Loggie’s life, chasing down the threads of her family (she was the last surviving member of her family when she died in 1968), friends, and the sometimes cryptically named people she mentions in her diaries. His introduction is well written and informative, and along with the timeline of Loggie’s Canadian Army Medical Corps tenure and the cast of characters, sets the reader up to understand the context of the diary entries. His narrative is discreetly woven through the diary, moving Loggie’s story along masterfully. As well, copious notes complement the narrative, unobtrusive but easily referenced as needed.
While perhaps of particular interest to New Brunswickers, this book is an important part of Canada’s history – a very personal and intimate history. Dr. Hebb has shined a light on a side of the First World War not often seen and illuminated the contributions of strong, caring, and inspirational Canadian women.
About the Author
Although originally from Nova Scotia’s South Shore, Ross Hebb is now a long-term resident of his adopted province of New Brunswick. A graduate of King’s College and Dalhousie University, Dr. Hebb received his Ph.D. from the University of Wales, Lampeter in 2002. Along with volumes on Maritime Church history, he has also written about the golden age of shipbuilding at St. Martins on the Bay of Fundy. In 2014 he edited the collection Letters Home: Maritimers and the Great War, 1914-1918, and 2018, In Their Own Words: Three Maritimers Experience the Great War. Dr. Hebb is married and lives in Fredericton, NB.
- Publisher : Nimbus Publishing Limited (Sept. 1 2021)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 184 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1774710129
- ISBN-13 : 978-1774710128