Click to View

'There are too many ruined boys'
DIARY OF A WAR NURSE

BY ERIN ANDERSSEN, PARRY SOUND, ON.

Clara White began her voyage into war by losing her purse on the way to the train. It was Sept. 15, 1915. Her diary names it "a bright sunshiny day" and notes the crowd's "rousing send off." The soldiers and nurses, Ms. White among them, left Toronto for a Montreal military ship and a voyage, beyond whales and icebergs, to a continent of falling bombs and death.

She landed in London first, with time on her hands, as she wrote in her red, leather-bound diary, to shop, sip tea and tour the galleries.

Clara White was not one to sit idly by. At times, her account of the First World War - enlivened by daily weather reports, notes on the cost of things (60 cents then for a pie) and the "peculiar" fashion of the day - reads more like a Grand Tour than a Great War. She wanders the Zoological Gardens in London, dines at the Grand Hotel du Louvre in Boulogne and climbs the 1,224 steps of the cathedral in Rouen, making it to the top even when "the other girls gave up the ascent."

Nursing the sick and wounded in camps at Rouen and Solonika, Ms. White surely would have seen the cost of war, but her diary focuses instead on the bits of life she could find in the midst of it.

"There are," she writes in one letter home, "too many ruined boys around now." But she barely details in her diary what has ruined them. She tells in spare sentences of working in the German measles tent or waiting for the typhoid patients to arrive; she makes antiseptic note of bombs overhead. Two stitches in her own cheek merit a singleline and no explanation.

Maybe you didn't talk of such things then, her great-niece, Phyllis Gerhart, speculated. And perhaps this is what Ms. White wanted to remember: the cherry-strawberry supper in her tent on Dominion Day, "the boys" caroling on Christmas Eve, tea with the other nurses to plan for a "grand masquerade to celebrate the closing of 1915" - even as bombs fell nearby, injuring some men and killing a shepherd and six sheep.

Her descendants don't know much about her, beyond the small diary. It sat for decades in a dresser drawer in the bedroom of her niece, Laura Baker, and was eventually passed to her daughter, Ms. Gerhart, who lives now in Parry Sound.

Ms. White's mother is believed to have died when she was young, and her father to have been connected to the silk trade. The family lived in Toronto, near the Danforth, and Clara and her sister, Alice, were raised in a proper, middle-class Victorian household.

The sisters were close, but took separate paths: Alice helped at home and eventually married and had a family, while Clara escaped to school and nursing.

On April 7, 1915, she volunteered to go to war. According to military records at the National Archives, she was 41. She was paid $50 a month.

In a faded picture from that time, Ms. White stares back with a half-smile, standing near woods in her nurse's uniform, the belt cinched tight around her thin waist, dark bangs poking out beneath her veil.

The impression left by her diary is of an energetic woman, keen for an adventure. At the masquerade party on New Year's Eve, 1915, she reports that she took first prize, dressed as John Bull (the British version of Uncle Sam). She makes note of having a hearty laugh at the sight of a Frenchman hoisting his wife up on a cart by her backside.

Many of her days were spent walking into the village to do laundry, and writing letters; at home, they received postcards, rose bulbs and a box of soldier's buttons. She took pictures too, touristy shots collected into an old album her relatives still own, of the ship that took her across the ocean, of the camp in France and of the scenery.

In one picture, she is sitting on stone steps, the only woman with a dozen soldiers. One of her wartime possessions was a bullet with a cross carved into its tip. The story behind it has been lost, though Ms. Gerhart+ likes to imagine it was a gift from a grateful patient.

Ms. White's last entry is dated May 8, 1916. But the military records say she was still in Europe in 1918, when she contracted influenza. She didn't sail home until the summer of 1919. A year later, with the war over, she was discharged from service. She never married.

Her fate is the subject of some confusion: Ms. Gerhart had always understood that her great aunt died of influenza, after contracting the illness while nursing patients. But a handwritten note on one of the folders in the archives says she passed away in 1930. The diary of an independent woman, spiritedin the midst of hardship, is the only trace she left behind.

Erin Anderssen is a reporter in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau.

The Top 85 artifacts by category

2003 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.