Scottish Women’s Hospitals

Given that Scotland will – or will not – vote for independence from the rest of the UK on Thursday, September 18th, I thought I would focus this week’s blog posts on Scottish history and writing.

With 2014 being the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War One, I was fascinated to read about the Scottish Women’s Hospitals which treated allied soldiers during The Great War.

Formed to provide medical assistance to the injured, the Scottish Women’s Hospitals also worked to promote the cause of women’s rights.

Elsie Inglis, who I talked about in a previous blog, was one of its founders. A doctor, she approached the War Office with the intention of setting up a hospital in Edinburgh to care for injured soldiers, or co-operating with the RAMC to treat soldiers on the Western Front. The War Office’s response? “My good woman, go home and sit still!”

Following this rebuff, the Scottish Women’s Hospital approached the French and by November 1914 they were in business, setting up a hospital in Calais. This was followed in December with a hospital in the Abbey of Royaumont. They went on to set up hospitals in Belgium, Serbia, Malta, Corsica and Russia.

The hospitals were staffed entirely by women. Many, but not all, came from Scotland, with others coming from other countries such as America, England and Ceylon. Doctors, nurses and other medical personnel received a salary, but ancillary staff, including orderlies, drivers and cooks, did not. These jobs were filled by women from the upper classes who could afford to work for free, wanted to help the war effort and had a sense of adventure.

If you are interested in reading more, please check out this wonderful website which not only goes into the history of the hospitals, but contains the biographies of many the women who worked there.




Union Cemetery – Calgary: Part Two

With 50,000 people buried in Union Cemetery (not all in marked graves) there are literally thousands of stories to be told. Continuing on from my previous post on Monday, I’m going to look at a couple of memorials which are related to two famous nautical disasters.

STEENROBERT ALEXANDER STEEN.  Forty-seven years of age, a private in the Canadian Army Medical Corps, Steen was one of the 234 personnel murdered by the Germans on the Hospital Ship Llandovery Castle in World War One. The ship was returning to England from Halifax NS, carrying 164 men, 14 nurses, and 80 officers and men of the Canadian Army Medical Corps.

Under the Hague Convention, hospital ships are prohibited from carrying arms, must be clearly marked with the Red Cross, and sail with all lights burning. The enemy are allowed to stop and search the ships, but must not fire on them. However, on June 27th, 1918, a German submarine fired on the Llandovery Castle.

It sank within 10 minutes. Three lifeboats got away. The German captain – Patzig – interrogated those on the boats to find ‘proof’ of misuse of the ship (ie that it was carrying arms). Unable to find any, he then ordered his crew to prepare to dive. With only himself and a few other sailors on board, they attempted to hide their war crime by ramming and machine gunning the boats and survivors in the water. Twenty-four men in one of the lifeboats survived and were rescued 36 hours later. All 14 nurses were murdered. The sinking became a rallying cry for the Canadian forces in the last few months of the war. Captain Patzig was never found or prosecuted for war crimes.

Please click HERE to find a link to a brief report of the tragedy on the front page of The Calgary Daily Herald on July 2nd, 1918.

dickALBERT and VERA DICK were two of the 795 survivors of the sinking of the Titanic on April 10th, 1912 which killed more than 1,500 men, women and children.  Albert, who made his early fortune in Calgary’s land boom,  married his seventeen year-old wife Vera in the fall of 1911. They travelled to Italy, Palestine,  Egypt and France on an extended honeymoon, picking up the Titanic in Cherbourg. Their first-class tickets cost 57 GBP each. They both escaped in lifeboat #3.

In an era when the custom was, ‘Women and children first,’ Albert’s survival caused controversy. He claimed that, while trying to calm his hysterical wife who was clinging to him, he was pushed into the lifeboat. Some speculated that he dressed himself as a woman (not true) to escape. However, it must be remembered that men were needed to row the lifeboats far enough away from the ship to prevent them being drawn down into the vortex  as the ship went down. Whatever the reason, Albert’s survival meant that he carried a stigma for the rest of his life. In some places he was even considered not ‘socially respectable’ for having survived.






Vera Brittain

It’s never been hard to find books chronicling men’s experiences in war. However, the first account I can remember reading of a woman’s experience during World War One was that of Vera Brittain in her book Testament of Youth.  It’s the harrowing true account of a young woman who loses her fiance, her brother and many of his friends in the killing fields of Europe. Not willing to sit idly by and watch the war from the sidelines, Vera trained as a nurse and served overseas.

Vera Brittain’s story was first told on-screen by the BBC in an adaptation which can be found on Youtube.  Just weeks ago, filming began on a new adaptation of Testament of Youth, a feature-length film, also by the BBC.  It will be released in 2015.

Although I knew Vera Brittain was a novelist, I didn’t realise she’d also written poetry. Here is one of her most famous war poems, The Sisters Buried at Lemnos, written in 1916 after she visited the graves of two Canadian Army Nurses buried on that island.


O golden Isle set in the deep blue Ocean,

With purple shadows flitting o-er they crest,

I kneel to thee in reverent devotion

Of some who on thy bosom lie at rest!


Seldom they enter into song or story;

Poets praise the soldier’s might and deeds of War,

But few exalt the Sisters, and the glory

Of women dead beneath a distant star.


No armies threatened in that lonely station,

They fought not fire or steel or ruthless foe,

But heat and hunger, sickness and privation,

And Winter’s deathly chill and blinding snow.


Till mortal frailty could endure no longer

Disease’s ravages and climate’s power,

In body weak, but spirit ever stronger,

Courageously they stayed to meet their hour.


No blazing tribute through the wide world flying,

No rich reward of sacrifice they craved,

The only meed of their victorious dying

Lives in the hearts of humble men they saved.


Who when in light the Final Dawn is breaking,

Still faithful, though the world’s regard may cease,

Will honour, splendid in triumphant waking,

The souls of women, lonely here at peace.


O golden Isle with purple shadows falling

Across thy rocky shore and sapphire sea,

I shall not picture these without recalling

The Sisters sleeping on the heart of thee!