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Brantford's nursing heroine

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BerichtGeplaatst: 19 Okt 2008 16:18    Onderwerp: Brantford's nursing heroine Reageer met quote

It was a Sunday evening after a concert, in Etaples, France, on May 19, 1918, when the nursing sisters at a First World War medical complex known as "Hospital City" heard a loud humming sound from the sky. Suddenly, a large bomb exploded directly on the sleeping quarters of personnel in Hospital No. 1. Two doctors rushing to help were caught by another explosion. One was killed and the other wounded.

Nurses hurried to tend the wounded and were themselves exposed to danger from falling bombs. One struck Hospital No. 7 and killed five nursing sisters. The danger was so acute that one nurse was held down by some of the wounded patients to keep her from rushing to help the wounded during the attack.

A Brantford nursing sister, Katherine Maude Macdonald, was among the casualties -- the first Canadian nurse to die in the war.

This was the reality of life at Etaples, a town about 27 kilometres south of Boulogne. Wounded soldiers from Canadian expeditionary forces were cared for by nursing sisters at the 1st and 7th Canadian General Hospitals. If they recovered well enough, they were sent back to the front; if there wounds were too severe, they were sent home to Canada.

As a major staging area for those forces, "Hospital City" was a juicy military target for the enemy. It was to this besieged environment that another Brantford nursing sister, Capt. Annie J. Hartley had arrived three years earlier.

Born on Oct. 24, 1872, Annie Hartley attended school at Brantford Collegiate Institute -- not the BCI that we all know on Brant Avenue, but an earlier structure located at George and Marlborough streets. After graduating, Hartley studied nursing at the Toronto General Hospital. When she graduated in 1901, she was poised to begin a 37- year career as a nursing sister that would take her to some of the hottest spots on Earth.

The new graduate held various positions locally before heading overseas as Matron of the No. 4 Canadian General Hospital in May 1915.

Her first army experience was in Quebec at Valcartier Camp, the main mobilization camp for those soldiers who were destined to be serve overseas in the 1914-1918 war.

The army had determined there were often more casualties from sickness and accident than there were from combat injuries, so the health of the common soldier was considered very important. This was in stark contrast to the medical treatment of soldiers in previous wars where sanitation, inoculation and vaccination were all mostly absent.

Hartley arrived in England to serve in medical units stationed at Basingstoke and Shorncliffe, before being sent to Etaples, France, for her introduction to modern warfare. Reports from the time indicate that the hospital was under almost continuous bombardment and that doctors and nurses frequently faced enemy fire as they tried to move the wounded.

Accounts of the day indicate that while the hospitals were often bombed, prisoner-of-war camps nearby were spared such treatment, indicating that the enemy deliberately targeted hospitals. From a modern perspective, the primitive bombardment techniques of the day and a strong element of press censorship and national pride may have led to exaggeration of the events in news. It is clear from the casualty lists of medical personnel, however, that the danger was considerable anywhere near the front lines.

The First World War was also the first modern war. The techniques of science and technology were concentrated upon the objective of killing the enemy on a massive scale and the casualties were horrific. Most soldiers were wounded by shrapnel, but there were many gunshot wounds and poison gas exposures to be treated by the nursing sisters.


Nursing sisters at the Canadian hospitals have had a heart-breaking job, tending all of these young men with horrible wounds. The courage of the medical personnel cannot be overestimated.

France was not Hartley's only experience with war. Canada's presence in France and Belgium got most of the historical mention, but about 40,000 other Canadians served in other theatres. Well before the war was over Hartley was sent to a Canadian hospital on the Mediterranean island of Malta, where she was given hospital ship duty.

This duty consisted of transporting injured soldiers from the heavy fighting at Gallipoli, where Australian and New Zealand troupes were being slaughtered by the Germans. Not only did the nurses have to worry about being shot as they evacuated the wounded, but the journey home was filled with danger from torpedoes, mines, and air attack. Until 1917, it was possible to evacuate cases by ship, but the introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare ended that.

From the Malta-to-Gallipoli hospital ship run, Hartley was transferred to Salonika, Greece. There, she had to contend with extreme temperatures and malaria. This was in the pre-antibiotic age and a wound or disease was just as likely to kill a soldier as enemy action. Nurses shared the same primitive conditions as their patients and suffered the same maladies.

Because of their blue dresses and white veils, Canada's 3,141 volunteer nurses were nicknamed "bluebirds," and for their courage and compassion they received the admiration of many soldiers.

In July1919, Capt. Hartley was "demobilized" and sent home to 7 Niagara St. in Brantford. She had distinguished herself in many ways and was recognized for her achievements. King George V presented her with the Royal Red Cross and bar, an award sometimes called the Victoria Cross for nursing. The Red Cross Society gave her the Florence Nightingale Medal -- presented by the Governor General of Canada -- and she was twice mentioned in dispatches for her valour. The Royal Canadian Legion made her a life member -- the first woman to be so honoured. And in 1935, she received the King's Jubilee medal.

For most people, such a career of achievement would have been enough to fill a lifetime. For Hartley, however, it was just a prologue to a distinguished civilian career. In 1919-1920, she served as Matron of the Department of the Soldiers Civil Re-establishment Hospital in Burlington. From there she was appointed Matron of the Christie Street Hospital in Toronto to care for ex-soldiers returned from the war as they dealt with their injuries.

Sometime after this, Hartley was appointed Matron-in-Chief of Hospitals, Pensions and National Health. In this job, she was responsible for inspecting hospitals across the country. In 1930, she was a major figure at the World Congress of Nurses in Montreal.

Upon her retirement in 1938, she was brought back to Brantford by her brother, H. J. Hartley, who was Brantford's postmaster. She retired only because of ill health and spent the rest of her days at 7 Niagara St. before dying at home on Aug. 21, 1944.

The funeral was held at Thorpe Brothers Funeral home and attended by many dignitaries from her past military service. An article in The Expositor told the story this way:

"The nurse's cap rested on the Union Jack, which draped the casket, as the long funeral cortege left the funeral home headed by a military party from No. 20 Canadian Infantry Basic Training Centre and a Canadian Legion guard of honour at a slow march. Three volleys were fired at the grave-side. Last Post and Reville were sounded and at the conclusion of the committal service, poppies of remembrance were dropped in the grave."

Today, Annie J. Hartley rests in Greenwood Cemetery on West Street in Brantford; a simple stone the size of a brick, inscribed Annie J., marks the last resting place of a true Canadian hero.

Lieut.-Col. Sidney Lambert, O. B. E., the padre of Christie Street Hospital, had this to say:

"On the tombstone of Florence Nightingale in England are these simple words: 'Let her works praise her.' These also apply to our devoted comrade now at rest."

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