This is Martha Allan in 1920. (Link to a short bio here) She looks like a typical society woman of the time. But the photo is an illusion. She, like many women, had been changed by the war. She had seen and done things that few women today could imagine. She had also lost more that most people could ever bear.
Today we look at her in September 1914. This month, she makes the decision to follow the men of Montreal to the battlefield in France. She was 19 and, other than speaking fluent French, had no skills.
What role could she play? How would she pull this off?
Her family was a help. Her parents could and did make things happen for her. Her father was a founder of the Royal Victoria Hospital and on the Management Board of the Montreal General Hospital. His best friend, Dr Yates, was working with the new Dean of Medicine, Dr Birkett, to create a hospital, staffed from the faculty and these two great hospitals, that would go to France. (I will be posting a lot more on the Number 3 Canadian General Hospital - maybe the finest hospital in the world in World War I and where Dr John (Jack) McCrae served until his death)
This was the umbrella for Martha's plans.
In 1914, she had just turned 19 and had returned from 2 years in Paris where, unchaperoned, she had been studying theatre. She had also been visiting her lover, the dashing fur trader and explorer, Thierry Mallet, who ran the great French Fur company in North America, Revillon Freres.
Thierry is on the right. Thierry was born in Lausanne 1884 to a very rich French Banking family. He was a man who lived life to the full and his books about the life in the North are still read.
They had met in Montreal at her coming out ball in 1911. She was 16 and he was 27. Being the kind of man he was and she being the kind of woman she was, I believe that this friendship was not platonic.
Martha had inherited her great uncle's fire (She looked and behaved a lot like Uncle Hugh Allan, the driving force behid the Allan business and dynasty) and being an aristocrat felt no inhibitions about doing what she felt like doing.
She quickly decided that even though she was too young to go to France (The age limit was then 23) that she would train immediately to be a VAD nurse. VAD were not trained nurses. They were really only attendents. But as the scale of the wounded grew, so too did their experience and skills. By 1916, VAD's had become an essential part of serving the wounded.
Imagine what they saw and experienced. For this was a time when middle and upper class women had to be detached from men and also to be dependent on them. VAD's returned from the war transformed. Here are some examples. (Source)
- Short of actually going to bed with [the men], there was hardly an intimate service that I did not perform for one or another in the course of four years," wrote Vera Brittain, another famous VAD nurse, in her classic autobiography, Testament of Youth. She stated that this gave her an "early release from the sex-inhibitions... [of] the Victorian tradition which up to 1914 dictated that a young woman should know nothing of men but their faces and their clothes until marriage."
- Like Vera, VADs were generally from genteel, sheltered, and chaperoned backgrounds. Some were aristocrats, like Lady Diana Manners - the "Princess Di" of her day - reputedly the most beautiful woman in England and expected to marry the Prince of Wales. Her mother was very much against Diana becoming a VAD, as Diana states in her memoir, The Rainbow Comes and Goes. "She explained in words suitable to my innocent ears that wounded soldiers, so long starved of women, inflamed with wine and battle, ravish and leave half-dead the young nurses who wish only to tend them," The Duchess gave in, but "… knew, as I did, that my emancipation was at hand," Diana says, and goes on to admit, "I seemed to have done nothing practical in all my twenty years." Nursing plunged her and other young women into a life-altering adventure.
Many women were to become ambulance drivers. Martha bought her own!
The experiences that she was about to have, were shared with thousands of other women who worked as VAD's and as Nurses. Many would be tested to the limit. They would find out that they could cope with anything that life could throw at them. They also discovered that they could have lives that did not depend on men or on their families. Many, like Martha, Agatha Christie and Vera Brittain, would never be able to settle down as Edwardian Ladies again.
But for now, Martha would have been working the angles to get herself into action. How was she to get to France?
Her plans would depend on Dr H S Birkett, the new Dean of Medicine at McGill. He too had big plans. He was determined to create an entire hospital that would go to France as a stand alone Canadian unit. By May 1915, it would set sail. And in another ship, Martha would set sail too.
Much plotting and preparing on the medical front went on in the months ahead. For there was great resistance to the idea of the hospital and there would be no chance of Martha going to France aged 20 with no skills.
But Birkett was not to be denied. He was helped by Martha's father who was the pivot in decisions of this type for both hospitals.
Martha was also to be helped by Dr John Lancelot Todd who was the world's leading parasiteologist and a good friend of Uncle Montagu. Todd would also join the hospital with her in late May 1915. By the way, it was Todd who gave Dr McCrae, a horse, Bonfire.
With their backing, she was going to get what she wanted. Waiting for her in France, now in the French army, was Captain Thierry Mallet.