Fifth in a series marking the centennial of the First World War
Five years ago, wreckage from a Nelson pilot’s plane shot down during the Second World War was discovered in France. Flight officer Harry MacKenzie’s aircraft was found in a marsh near a farming community north of Paris, sparking a search for his descendants and the creation of a memorial by local residents.
What wasn’t reported at the time is that Harry’s mother, Marie MacLeod, was a distinguished nurse during the First World War. She gets her due in a new book by Katherine Dewar entitled Those Splendid Girls: The Heroic Service of Prince Edward Island Nurses in the Great War.
MacLeod came from an upper class family from eastern Prince Edward Island. Her father Neil was premier from 1889-91. They moved to Summerside when he was appointed a Prince County judge, and she was born there on Christmas Eve 1889.
Marie spent her senior high school years at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, and then she and best friend Marion Sharp trained as nurses at New England Baptist Hospital in Roxbury, Mass.
She returned to Summerside where she became the first matron of Prince County Hospital. It probably didn’t hurt that her father was chair of the hospital board and her mother Adele president of the auxiliary, but Dewar says MacLeod was a “very competent, smart girl,” well-qualified for the position.
She didn’t stay long, however, resigning at the end of 1914 to enlist for overseas.
Early the following year, McLeod and Sharp were chosen as two of 72 nurses to sail from Halifax for England. Following two weeks of training, they boarded the SS Zealand — a dangerous voyage as Germany had declared the seas around the British Isles fair game for submarine warfare.
MacLeod and Sharp served in England for almost a year before being posted to the same hospital at Le Treport, Departement du Seine-Maritime, France — not far from where Marie’s son would later be shot down.
MacLeod’s father died in the fall of 1915 and she returned home on compassionate leave. Their family home was sold and Marie’s mother moved to BC to be closer to another daughter.
MacLeod was soon back at the front. She was mentioned in despatches in 1917, although the circumstances are unknown.
“It must have been for some valorous act during the Battle of Passchendaele,” Dewar says. “She also spent time in No. 3 casualty clearing station during the German advance in 1918 and narrowly escaped capture by the Germans as their station had to have an emergency evacuation or risk being overrun.
“Some patients had to be left on the grass to die. I believe she was one of the nurses who had to walk 15 miles to the next post because of the rapid withdrawal.”
While overseas, MacLeod met and married a Canadian army medical corps officer, Dr. Hector MacKenzie of New Westminster. She waited until after the ceremony to advise her matron-in-chief. As married women weren’t allowed to serve, she resigned in the fall of 1918 and returned to Canada a little ahead of her new husband.
Their eldest son Hector Jr. — better known as Hank or Harry — was born in 1920, either in Manitoba or the BC mining town of Anyox, depending on conflicting sources.
In any case, within two years the family moved to Nelson where Hector Sr. was a popular physician and surgeon, in partnership with Dr. L.E. Borden.
The family lived at 504 Carbonate Street but moved to New Westminster in 1941, the year before Harry went overseas. He was about to return home on leave when he won a fateful coin-toss to fill in for a missing crew member on January 3, 1944.
German fighters shot his plane down and he died on impact. He was buried in France.
“His mother never really recovered from that,” Dewar says. “It was a big blow.”
Although it doesn’t appear Marie ever resumed nursing after the war, she was extremely active in the community, according to her obituary, and followed in her mother’s footsteps with the hospital auxiliary. She died in Vancouver in 1953, age 63, and was survived by sons Ian and Rod.
In writing her book, Dewar had the benefit of MacLeod’s military records as well as seven letters she wrote from overseas to her father that were published in a Summerland newspaper.
Dewar, a retired nursing instructor, says there is “quite a bit [about MacLeod] through the narrative of the book,” although she is just one of 115 nurses mentioned. “Prince Edward Island probably had the highest enlistment rate of any province in Canada,” Dewar says.
Her book, published last month, is meant to redress the lack of historical narratives about Canadian nurses’ experiences during the First World War.
You can buy it and read a couple of sample chapters, including one that mentions MacLeod, at thosesplendidgirls.ca.
Other nursing sisters
Marie MacLeod didn’t move to Nelson until after the First World War, but other nurses enlisted directly from West Kootenay, including Annie Garland Foster, who in 1920 became the first woman elected to Nelson city council.
In her wartime diary, Foster mentioned that among two other Canadian nurses at the Percy House military hospital in Middlesex in 1916 was a Miss Cook, the daughter of a minister from Kaslo, and a graduate of Victoria’s Royal Jubilee Hospital.
Another nurse at this home, Foster said, was Mrs. Percy Selous, “a very charming person” whose husband was a cousin to one-time Nelson mayor Harold Selous. (Another source suggests Mrs. Selous was Harold’s sister-in-law.)
Meanwhile, three Nelson-area nursing sisters appeared on an honour roll found in the Anglican church hall time capsule opened three years ago:
• Jessie Robina Gilchrist enlisted with the Canadian Army Medical Corps in 1917. She was born in Brandon, Man. in 1893 and was the daughter of George Nicol Gilchrist of Nelson.
She married Dr. Nathaniel MacDonald, a Boer War veteran who was also with the Canadian medical corps, and whose first wife died while he was overseas.
After the war they moved to Nathaniel’s native Nova Scotia, where their daughter Lorna was born in 1920. Nathaniel died in 1935, but Jessie lived to be 98.
• Emily Edith Laslett was head nurse at Kootenay Lake hospital when she went overseas in July 1918. She was stationed at No. 12 Canadian general hospital at Hastings, England. Sgt. W.J. Mohr of Nelson was one of her patients.
She returned to Nelson in January 1919 and took up her former position at the hospital. She married Jessie Kemp in Revelstoke in 1922 and died in Trail in 1965, age 76.
• Mrs. M. Wileman is a mystery, for there is no record of her enlistment.
In her recent book Names on a Cenotaph: Kootenay Lake Men in World War I, Sylvia Crooks mentions a few other nurses from this area:
• Misses Fletcher and Noble were reported as tending to fellow Nelsonite Lawrence Amas of the 54th Battalion after he was wounded at Regina Trench.
Delphine Rose Fletcher was born in Kaslo in 1896. The graduate nurse was living in Nelson’s Fairview neighborhood when she enlisted in the army medical corps in May 1917. Mary Frances Noble, a native of Collingwood, Ont., enlisted in Toronto the same month.
• Mrs. Arthur Major of Procter went to England to nurse for the Red Cross. Her husband, a medical doctor, enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps, while three of their four sons also joined the forces. Cyril was killed at Regina Trench in 1916 while Norman won the Military Medal in the final weeks of the war.
• Mary Motion of Nelson enlisted in 1916 and was stationed at Orpington hospital in England. She told the Toronto Globe she was impressed with their efforts to heal facial and throat injuries, noting “the marvelous way in which skilled surgery and nature’s recuperative power work together to knit the splinter taken from a shin bone into that portion of the nose shattered by a bullet, or into the jaw which has been shot away.”
— With thanks to Sylvia Crooks and Frances Welwood