A WWI nurse remembers


In a Flanders Field the poppies grow … they grew when Col. John McCrae wrote the poem. They continue to grow.

“At the beginning of the war we would go down to the station to see the men going off to the front. I remember leaning over a gate and waving to the troops as they went by, and the men would all run to the train windows and try to wave to us,” says Alice Margaret MacKinnon.

In January 1992, 96-year-old MacKinnon, suffering from arthritis developed from sleeping in damp trenches during World War One, sat in her room at the Veterans’ Memorial Building, Camp Hill, recalling her war experiences.

Swept up in the patriotism of the period and a desire to contribute to the war effort, the then 18-year-old MacKinnon, entered the war-time nursing course offered by London’s Saint Bartholomew Hospital. “I was always interested in helping people, but never thought of being a nurse. I didn’t even know if anybody in our family had even been in a hospital,” she said.

The training was short and to the point. “We never did any of the unnecessary work they (other nurses) had to do: cleaning and things like that. We had to learn only things that were absolutely necessary, like how to do dressings and comfort the soldiers. I knew very little about the medicines except they were very scarce. If you were constipated you had a ‘Number 9’, and if that didn’t do the trick you had a dose of castor oil.”


A display at the Imperial War Museum in London. The IWM was created after WWI so that people never forgot the madness and cost of war.

Before she saw front-line action, MacKinnon had vivid recollections of zeppelin raids on London. In WWI, warfare from the air was a new phenomena that brought the war to the homefront. One evening as MacKinnon prepared for a bath the air raid sirens sounded. “I took a look out of the window. It was a zeppelin. It was so close I felt as if I could have touched it. The zeppelin put its light on as they went along to see where to drop bombs. You tell that story to someone and they say, ‘why didn’t they shoot it down?’ But you couldn’t do that. They had all London under them. The gas or oil or something would do damage.”

When her training was completed, MacKinnon was offered a position on a hospital ship. “We had to telephone our mothers for permission because we were so young. I had never used a telephone before. We didn’t have one in the home. My father was town manager (for Hitchin, near Manchester) and said everyone in town would be calling him, so he wouldn’t have one in the house.”

“Mother wouldn’t let me go on the hospital ship. But she would let me go to France. So I went to France and the ship was torpedoed! The people were saved though. But we didn’t hear a thing at the time. You never heard anything. You’d read a newspaper and didn’t believe a word you read” because of the lack of information or overly positive stories, which were undermined by published lists of the dead.

Before leaving for France MacKinnon worked at a military hospital in Woolrich. “It was a large hospital with corridors and wards and a big cemetery too. I used to hear the bagpipers playing their dirge, and then when they came back they would play something cheerful.”

In 1915 she was posted to Etaples, near Vimy Ridge which was the main depot and DSCN9145transit camp for the British Expeditionary Force. She remained there until war’s end. In Etaples MacKinnon encountered a prohibition against dancing, keeping diaries and taking pictures. The strict regulations were in case of capture by the enemy, and in response to “the Crimean War when too many officers were accused of neglecting their duties for a social life.”

For nurses their only break was an occasional Sunday afternoon tea party which the Colonel stocked with eligible young officers. There were occasional invitations to restaurants, but MacKinnon, who didn’t drink, complained, “The men always seemed to like a bottle of wine and then get a bit fresh. I wouldn’t have anything to do with them.”

Trips to the seashore were curtailed by the threat of mines in the water.

Zeppelins continued to be a threat. “I saw the zeppelins again on the coast. They went along the coast and took pictures of the inlets. Oh, they knew everything.” While MacKinnon could often hear the big guns at the front, she was mostly worried by bombing raids. Not surprising since several Etaples hospitals were bombed and strafed my machine guns. Since nurses’ accommodations were next to the hospital she and other nurses would occasionally sleep outside under the trees. If they were on duty when an attack occurred, they had to remain calm for the sake of the patients, even if some of the men crawled under their beds. She says, “After awhile some trenches were dug around the hospital for us to sleep in, but they would be pretty damp. They (the enemy) bombed us sometimes. We were very, very lucky (because the enemy’s poor targeting saved her hospital) but oh, it was so nerve racking. If you were on night duty you just stuck it out and hoped for the best.”

“Another bad episode happened to a lot of horses, which were evidently tethered for the night not far from us. A bomb hit a good many. The noise was terrific! I never knew a horse could scream. It was the most horrible noise lasting a long time. In later years I heard a similar noise when an elephant had been hit on a train track in Africa. The horse screams were so bad you hugged the ground to deaden the sound.”

In Etaples each hospital ward held 20 beds. Beside each bed was a small table. There was a hard wooden chair for the nurse and an oil stove in the centre of the ward for heat. While patients received three sparse meals a day, the night duty nurse’s ration mostly consisted of horsemeat, sausage and potatoes. Butter was a rare treat.

MacKinnon’s patients, she remembers, “were all so glad to have a good bed to rest on after being in trenches and to be cleaned up. One lot of men I had, the Queen’s Own Highlanders, were taller than the beds, they were all over six feet, and they all had their feet over the end of the bed. I would walk down the aisle and feet would disappear under covers.”

Feet were a big concern during the war. MacKinnon recalled the hospital saw as many patients suffering from life in the trenches as battle wounds. While she never saw any of the soldiers who were victims of mustard gas attacks, they went to a special ward, she mostly dealt with blindness, shell shock, tetanus and foot problems. “There were all kinds of foot trouble from standing in trenches. They would get wet and freeze. We had to be very careful because you mustn’t put them near any heat. It must be cool.”

At the hospital MacKinnon recalled convoys of wounded would arrive with no advance warning. Just as suddenly, patients would be evacuated to England. “It was never mentioned when they were going. Everything was so quiet, you never opened your mouth about anything.”

Mail was also heavily censored. “One letter Mother wrote came crossed out. She had been watching out of the window soldiers drilling and they blacked that out. Basically you wrote about your health and if you were alright.” Smiling she says, “My parents wanted to know if I was still there.”

Having to delouse soldiers coming from the trenches, it was only natural that she once shared their experience. “It was a terrible itch” and sent her roommate screaming from their room. Another time she learned how cold France can get when she almost cut her gums with the frozen bristles of her toothbrush.

At the Armistice, MacKinnon found herself not celebrating, but feeling guilty. “There seemed to be one final battle. What a day it was! I think I had to work harder than ever and I forgot it was Mother’s birthday. She never got over it that I didn’t remember.”

The armistice did bring one immediate change. Dancing was again allowed and Alice happily took to the floor, doing them all: highland flings, reels, squares, waltzes and quadrilles.

It was at the front that she met “my special”, Hugh MacKinnon, a Canadian medical officer who rose from private the rank of Major. After being de-mobbed Dr. MacKinnon bought a house and established a medical practice in Halifax. Once  he was in a position to provide for a family he sent for Alice. She arrived in Canada in 1920, one of the first of many thousands of War Brides. During WWII Alice continued her war service by volunteering with the IODE to provide care packages for and entertain members of the Merchant Navy.

She and Hugh had four children and 15 grandchildren. He died in 1974, age 92. Alice died in 1999 at age 104.

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