Manitoba History: Annie’s War
by Phillip Giffin
We met one summer day in 1953. I was a child of ten and Annie was a kindly, silver-haired, Great Aunt of mine, one of my Grandmother’s four sisters. Unfortunately, I never knew my Grandmother Maud; she died the year before I was born. It was baseball season, and I was a Little League Lion with delusions of throwing a perfect game. I had no interest in hearing the older generations reminisce, and no idea of the tales that Annie might tell.
Some 45 years passed before I began to uncover her extraordinary story. In August 1998, my father passed away, leaving me an ancient leather trunk filled with his mother’s things. For the first time, I spent an afternoon with Maud uncovering the precious mementoes of her life: white-leather baby shoes, a linen swaddling dress, lace coverlet and shawl, tintypes and daguerreotypes, magazine and newspaper clippings, a leather-bound dictionary dated 1853, histories of the Canadian Prairie and of the Great War, photo albums of every significant ancestor since the great potato famine in Ireland, plus bundles of letters, notes, and diaries.
At the bottom of her trunk wrapped in yellowed lace and tied with faded blue ribbon, I found the most treasured artifact of all, a packet of letters and photographs. On top was a dusty, olive-colored portrait folder with penciled note, “Annie and I - 1902.” Inside, two attractive young women smiled at me from an oval frame.
So this is Grandmother Maud and her sister Annie, I thought to myself. They look like Gibson Girls from the pages of Colliers Magazine. In the photo both sisters are wearing dark, tailored skirts with vertical pleats, and trim white blouses finished with lace and high collars of dark satin. Each sister is wearing a broach pinned at the throat. Both gaze into the future with proud, determined smiles on their faces. Clearly, the girls were students of fashion. Enchanted, I had to know more.
Five minutes into Maud’s diary and I knew that, in all likelihood, the girls had sewn their own clothing for that special portrait. In 1902, they had only recently left their childhood home, a cattle ranch just south of Morden, Manitoba. Their parents, John and Rachel Shaw Johnston and some 18 siblings had migrated from Enniskillen, Northern Ireland to Dublin, Boston, and Ontario in the 1850s. Maud’s diary of 1938 told the story of their lives.
Her parents, John and Rachel, had met and married at Kepple Kemble, Ontario in the 1860s; and then, migrated west to Prince Arthur’s Landing and Winnipeg in 1871. Rachel was pregnant with her third child when they arrived in Manitoba.
In her diary Maud recorded that “within weeks of their arrival they all fell ill with cholera. Rachel was deathly ill herself, but she would not give in to it. She nursed the entire family back to health, although it took the new baby 6 years to learn how to walk.”
At first, John worked as a carpenter for the Hudson’s Bay Company. And then, in 1875, he filed a land-grant claim to a few hundred acres of tall grass prairie at the foot of the Pembina Hills in southern Manitoba (Section 1, Township 2, Range 5). As a joke, they named the muddy little stream that wandered through their property the Liffey, after the broad river that had carried them out of Dublin to the new world. And, she called their burned-over patch of prairie “Phoenix Park ... after the mythical bird of fabled beauty that arose from its own ashes.”
According to Maud, “their little Garden of Eden was regularly blackened by prairie fires, ignited by lightening or by hunting parties of Assiniboine Indians.” Although she never mentions it, her parents may have spent their last evenings in Ireland wandering through the wondrous city gardens in Dublin, also called Phoenix Park.
Maud’s diary is filled with tales of growing up on the Canadian prairie. On winter evenings, she and her six siblings and dozens of cousins would bundle up in old buffalo robes in front of the fireplace, listening to the howling of the wind and wolves while their grandparents told tales of Ireland before the famine. As toddlers in Enniskillen their father, John and his twin Robbie had raided the pantry for a bag of wheat one summer afternoon and filled the house with grain. As teenagers they had regularly fished illegally in the Arno River where it crossed through Lord Cole’s private preserve; the punishment was “transportation” (exile to the colonies).
In Manitoba, John and Rachel had cleared giant oaks from the banks of the Liffey; hauled, split, and stacked them into a sturdy cabin with rough plank flooring, mud caulking, and a large fireplace of stone. Maud wrote: “our home was filled with work, love, laughter and songs. The boys tended cattle ... and there were endless chores for the girls: churning butter, shelling peas, sewing, cooking, hauling water, making soap and candles.” There was a well and fenced garden in the front yard, and cows, chickens, barns and a wooden privy in back. At night the farm was protected by a pack of half-wild Irish Wolf Hounds.
Between 1870 and 1900, the Manitoba rangelands gave way to plows and hayfields. A grid of dusty (or muddy depending on the season) farm roads appeared, each framing a one-mile square section of farmland. Maud and Annie, their siblings, friends, and dozens of cousins all graduated from the one-room schoolhouses at Chicken Hill, Glencross, Morden, and Windygates (only the latter two appear on maps today). The kids studied history and poetry as well as the Bible; they were drilled in spelling and penmanship until every word reflected well on the family and community.
On 28 February 1893, for her sixteenth birthday, Maud received a slim book of poems, Selections from Tennyson. The inside cover bears an inscription, “To Maud, with Love from her friend, RB.” On the facing page someone doodled a cartoon of a human stork labelled “Bob Broadsworth;” and another friend wrote, “Look out Maud, old Bob Broadsworth loves you.” At night in their secret places, Maud must have shared her treasure with Annie, and then hidden it away. Whoever RB was, she had rejected him.
As the new century dawned, the two girls were in their early twenties, unmarried, and without parents. Their father John passed away in May 1898 and their mother Rachel in January 1900. One by one, the older Johnston children married and moved away. Three of the girls (Susan, Maud, and Annie) graduated from Normal School (teacher training) in Morden; the latter two went on to complete nursing programs.
The oldest Johnston girl, Susan, was written up as a town hero in the local history, Ripples from the Creek by F. D. Baragar of Elm Creek (p. 42). During the great prairie fire that swept through the area in 1895 she had turned her school into a refuge and emergency hospital. Sister Annie appears in the same history as one of the early teachers of the Wingham School (p. 93). Teaching, however, was not a long-term career for Annie and Maud. They had other ambitions for themselves.
Maud had continued her schooling, graduating from the nursing program at the Freemason’s Hospital of Morden in 1902, the year she and Annie had their portrait taken. Then, they went their separate ways. Maud left Canada for a nursing position at Sacred Heart Hospital in Superior, Wisconsin. Annie gave up a teaching job at Elm Creek and entered the nursing program at Winnipeg General Hospital.
Over the next few years the two sisters sent a steady stream of letters and photographs to each other. Maud wrote of her new life in Wisconsin and her new husband Bert, a tall thin, handsome dentist with deep dimples and curly hair. Bert had a powerboat on Lake Michigan, and he liked to take their friends for a cruise on Sunday afternoons.
Annie replied with stories of her progress in nursing school, her graduation, and her new job. In 1906, she was the first nurse hired by the City of Winnipeg to work in the public school system. By the summer of 1914 she was happily dating the son of a well-to-do merchant from Elm Creek. Maud had saved her nursing salary and invested in a summer cabin at Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin. The cancelled deed for the property in her name was still in her leather trunk eighty years later.
In 1914 she began spending her summers with her two baby boys (the oldest of whom is my father) at her cabin on Lake Nebagamon; Bert joined them on weekends. Annie had a good job and good friends in the church choir and in the Elgar Society in Winnipeg. She and her friends enjoyed contemporary classical music. Both Maud and Annie had left their prairie beginnings behind and were looking forward to pleasant, quiet lives in town.
But then, the world went mad. In August 1914, German armies struck east into Poland towards Russia and west through Belgium to the borders of France. French and Russian armies counter-attacked. A million men died in the first month of World War I, and the nations of the world began to align themselves into two hostile camps. Initially, it was the Axis Powers (Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire) opposing the Allies (France, Russia, and England) but the conflict began to spread and soon every nation in the world was choosing sides.
The Johnstons were quick to make their decision. They were a peculiar breed of Irish immigrants, Scotch-Irish, Anglican-Protestant, Orangemen from the tiny town of Enniskillen, Fermanagh County in the North of Ireland. As such, they were bound by a long, violent history to the English Crown. Their ancestral home, Enniskillen, was the only Protestant stronghold in Fermanagh County that escaped destruction during the bloody religious wars of the seventeenth century.
At the 1690 Battle of the Boyne in Ireland, Enniskillen had provided a personal bodyguard for the English King, William of Orange (thus the name “Orangemen”). For three hundred years Enniskillen has supplied the English with two regiments of warriors, the Enniskillen Dragoons and Fusiliers. Maud wrote proudly in her diary “we are descended from the noble 600.” At first I didn’t know what she was saying; then among her books I stumbled upon Tennyson’s famous lines about the Battle of Balaclava, “Into the valley of Death rode the Six Hundred ... the brave Enniskillens and Greys” (from Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and “The Charge of the Heavy Brigade”). Apparently, when England was engulfed in war in 1854 and again in 1898 and 1914, the Johnstons felt it would be glorious to fight for the homeland.
Maud wrote proudly in her diary that “Will was tough and wiry, and could ride a horse and fire a gun with great skill ... In 1902 he enlisted with the Fifth Canadian Mounted Rifles to fight in the Boer War ... Then, when War broke out in August of 1914, he sold his cattle, his horse and gear ... He joined a new fighting unit, the Princess Patricia’s Regiment Canadian Light Infantry.” In August 1914, Annie wrote a letter to Maud filled with pride:
A month later (September 1914) Will’s Regiment departed for Europe with the first contingent of Canadians, some 32,000 soldiers. Sailing with them were 105 nurses in stylish blue uniforms; the troops had nicknamed them “the Bluebirds.” None could have imagined the carnage that awaited them.
Princess Patricia’s Regiment entered the mud-filled trenches of Flanders on Christmas Eve 1914. They were stationed in front of the small town of Ypres, the last small corner of Belgium still held by the Allies. In the spring of 1915 the Ypres Salient was a high priority objective for the German Army, as it would remain throughout the War. Maud wrote in her diary:
Cold rain, the concussion of enormous artillery explosions, the high-pitched whine of sniper bullets, and the shock from the sudden death of a comrade stalked the men constantly as they rotated between the forward, secondary and reserves lines of trenches. In January, Will wrote a letter to his family describing the bitter conditions at the front:
In three months Will’s Regiment would suffer 140 dead and 400 incapacitated by sniper bullets and artillery wounds, pneumonia, typhoid, and trench foot. By March it was clear that the Allied armies would need many more nurses and much better medical support. Maud wrote in her diary, “the call went out in Canada asking each major town to provide two nurses ...”
In March 1915, Annie Johnston put on her Manitoba overcoat, gloves, boots and muffler, and left her cozy nursing station for the long walk across town to volunteer for war-time service as a Red Cross nurse. She was an ideal candidate, a mature (36 years old), independent, trained and experienced nurse.
When her mud-spattered brother Will heard that Annie had volunteered he sat down in a cold, damp barn
Maud wrote in her diary that in April 1915 Annie “... was chosen to represent Winnipeg as a nurse at the front... Annie was engaged to be married; but if her fiancée was going to Europe, she was too. And, perhaps she sensed that their relationship wasn’t quite right. Within a few months ... Annie began hearing rumors that he had been seen all over London arm-in-arm with a certain English lady (whom he later married and brought back to Manitoba).” At about that time Annie learned she had been accepted into the Red Cross, so she returned her engagement ring and packed for overseas.
Maud preserved a photo and story from the Winnipeg News Bulletin (undated):
At the time military nurses were all addressed as “Sisters,” but unlike the British Nursing Corps who served
Years later Annie told her daughter Edythe that she had converted all of her cash into gold coins she had sewn into the lining of her heavy coat. In his letters from Flanders her brother Will had written that there were few paydays in France, and that the only useful Canadian money was “good old-fashioned gold coin.” According to Maud’s diary:
Her first letter from London is filled with the wonder and excitement; she only casually mentions the Lusitania:
When the above letter was written, people in England were dimly aware that a ferocious battle had been raging in Flanders for more than a month. It would be many weeks before Canadian newspapers began to carry stories of the slaughter in front of the little Belgian town of Ypres. The troops on the front lines nicknamed the place, “Jeepers.”
On 4 May, the remnants of Will’s regiment held the last shallow trenches on high ground in front of Ypres, a place called Bellewaerde Ridge. For five days the Germans pounded them with artillery, sending waves of infantrymen forward. One by one, the Canadian trenches were obliterated. Day by day, hour-by-hour, the men held whatever firing positions they could maintain; small parties scrambled to the rear for water and ammunition. At 3 PM on 8 May, when relief arrived, the PPCLI held a single trench. They had suffered 80% casualties.
Will was lucky to survive. On 5 May, he was severely wounded at a place the troops called “Hell Fire Corner.” A month later (4 June) he wrote a letter to the family from a hospital bed in England describing his gruesome journey through the medical evacuation system, the same Casualty Clearing Stations that Annie would soon know first hand.
In her diary, Maud wrote that “at about the same time Will arrived at the Manor House Hospital at Folkstone, sister Annie ... passed by his hospital as a nurse ... It was an ironic twist of fate that she did not know he was there. They would not see each other until after the Battle of the Somme (June - September 1916).”
Just before Annie left England she sent a lengthy letter to the family. She was still enthralled with England; but she also recorded her first encounter with the grim realities of war:
Annie sailed for the Island of Malta in the Mediterranean on 15 May 1915. Her ship, the old P&O Liner Mongolia carried more than a thousand soldiers but only a handful of nurses. Despite the recent sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine, the Mongolia sailed without a naval escort. The old luxury liners were the fastest ships afloat; there wasn’t a warship in the German or British Navy that could keep up with them. It was assumed that the Mongolia would easily outrun any threat. Still, as they sailed from England Annie and her shipmates must have looked out over the cold, gray Atlantic and wondered whether a German U-boat might be lurking nearby.
In the spring of 1915, the Allies were facing both a military and a medical disaster in the Mediterranean. In January that year, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, had dispatched a fleet of English warships to the eastern Mediterranean with orders to attack Turkey. Churchill hoped to drive a wedge between Turkey and her Axis allies. The operation was a complete disaster. In March the British lost three battleships and scores of supply vessels to Turkish shore guns and mines.
Then, in April, some 70,000 Allied troops were put to sea in small boats off the coast of Turkey. These “Anzac” (Australian and New Zealander ) raiders had orders to seize the beaches and move up into the surrounding hills.
Unfortunately, no one seemed to notice that the coastline of Gallipoli consisted mostly of steep, rock cliffs that rise directly out of the surf. Wave after wave of Anzac soldiers headed for shore into intense enemy fire from the bluffs above. Those who survived frequently landed on the wrong narrow beaches where they were forced to dig trenches and build barricades as best they could and scramble up steep slopes under intense enemy fire from above.
Once ashore, the troops suffered horribly from the scorching Anatolian sun, from debilitating humidity, and an intolerable lack of necessities, like drinking water, food, medical care and ammunition. The Allied navy was not prepared to supply the landing force once it had been dropped ashore.
For months, the Turkish army rained artillery shells down on the beach and on any warship that came close to shore. In May 1915, the Allies lost three more battleships as well as numerous smaller supply ships. In four months of fighting in the eastern Mediterranean, the Allied forces had been reduced by a third. Thousands of soldiers and sailors were dead and tens of thousands had been evacuated with battle wounds, fever, exhaustion and dysentery.
The nearest British hospitals were in Egypt, but they were soon overwhelmed with the appalling flood of casualties. In May, the Allied Command began rushing doctors and nurses to Alexandria and Cairo, to the Island of Mudros (off the coast of Gallipoli), and to Malta.
On 22 May 1915, Annie Johnston arrived at the Port of Valetta on Malta. She later described her arrival to her sister Mary:
By the summer of 1915, the assault on Gallipoli reached a stalemate with both sides digging deep trenches and blasting the enemy with artillery. Both armies suffered horribly from lack of drinking water, food and sleep. Both were filthy, their latrines overflowing and their mess halls swarming with bloated flies. There was never enough water for bathing or washing.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1915, small groups of Turkish defenders led by determined leaders like a young Mustafa Kemal (future Turkish Prime Minister and founder of the modern state of Turkey) held off thousands of Anzac invaders trying to scale the steep cliffs around the Peninsula. The death toll on both sides was horrendous.
In August 1915, the Allies made one last desperate attempt to break the deadlock by landing another Anzac army at Suvla Bay at the North end of the Peninsula. That landing was also a catastrophe, resulting in some 52,000 casualties.
At Malta every ship from the front unloaded hundreds of casualties, all caked in mud, streaked with sweat, most feverish, dehydrated, and anemic, and a great many with horribly infected, festering wounds. The nurses and doctors on Malta would work frenzied 24- and 36-hour shifts stripping, washing, cleaning, amputating and bandaging. And then they would collapse in bed. Annie had little time for letter writing.
Between September and December 1915, the fighting slackened but the terrible toll from fatigue, dysentery, and pneumonia continued. By the end of the year there were still some 50,000 casualties in the evacuation hospitals. In January 1916, the first winter storm swept over the Dardanelles leaving almost 300 dead in the trenches of Gallipoli from drowning, and countless more suffering and dying from exposure.
A month later (February 1916), Annie Johnston and her friend Burnsie posed for a last photograph in the bright Malta sunshine. The worst of the fighting was over at Gallipoli, and they were on their way back to England. The two friends appear relaxed, their calm smiles masking the appalling strain they had endured in the hospitals at Malta. They appear to be completely unconcerned with the frightening possibilities of meeting a hostile submarine on the long sea voyage home.
Later, Annie described her return to England and her subsequent journey to France in rather stoic terms:
Day after day, week after week, endless streams of shattered young men were brought into Annie’s surgical ward behind the lines. Months passed and the accumulation of horrors intensified. The mud and blood, burned and mangled limbs, the triage or sorting of victims into categories of “nearly dying” and “dying,” those who could be helped and those who could not. A great many of the wounded died, the luckier ones received a “blighty,” a wound that would send them home as “disabled veterans.” The work placed an impossible strain on nurses and doctors.
What appalling, heartbreaking, wretched hardships she hid from her family in her letters with brief, stoic words “... busy for eleven months without leave.” Then, in the midst of all this horror Annie learned that her nephew Willie Thompson, her sister Susan’s son, had volunteered and would soon arrive in France. In August Annie wrote a comforting letter to her sister:
After the war Annie rarely talked about her wartime experiences. Her daughter Edyth wrote that with family and friends she always preferred to talk about the brief periods of rest rather than the long months of weary, heart-rending work. Her youngest sister Mary later interviewed Annie and recorded the story of one such respite:
In July 1917, Annie Johnston was recalled to London by an unusual telegram from Lord Chamberlain in London:
Shortly after arriving in London, a letter came from the War Office:
On 3 August 1917, Annie Johnston received the Royal Red Cross Medal for her nursing services at Malta. She had a brief stay in London, and then she was dispatched back to Rouen, France, and forward to Casualty Clearing Station # 10, a few miles behind the front lines. She later told her sister Mary:
Thousands of miles away in Wisconsin, Maud had heard enough. She penned a fierce, passionate, eight-page letter to her sister Susan in Manitoba:
Nothing was done and both Annie and her brother Will remained in Flanders. In September 1917, their nephew Willie Thompson joined them. By then another horrific battle had erupted in front of the town of Ypres at Passchendaele Ridge. The brilliant Canadian author Sandra Gwyn has called the fighting at Passchendaele (July - November 1917) the “nadir of violence” for World War I. For four months the battlefield was a nightmare of torrential rains, fog, machine gun and sniper fire, withering barrages of poison gasses and explosives, and crazed, mud-encumbered bayonet charges. An English poet who was there, Siegfried Sassoon, later wrote, “I died in hell, they called it Passchendaele.”
In November, the gunfire slackened and the fighting ended in yet another stalemate. Unfortunately, the nephew Willie Thompson was not as lucky as his Uncle Will. By then, young Willie and half a million others had perished in the fighting. According to eyewitness accounts, a great many bodies of the dead were not recovered for months as they had been sucked down into stagnant ponds of muck.
Annie Johnston later talked with her youngest sister Mary about her experiences behind the lines at Passchendaele:
At the end of November 1917, Annie’s brother Will was given ten days leave from the front, and he went looking for his sister. According to Maud’s diary, he found her “in a tent hospital near the front line ... He was concerned ... as it was situated near a road that would carry the wounded easily to the hospital with no thought of its danger from the air as the road was also used to carry munitions. Will protested (but nothing was done) ... and a few weeks later the Hospital was shelled by the Germans.”
Will’s concern for his sister was well founded. On 19 May 1918, the Canadian Army Base and Hospitals at Etaples, France were bombed by German aircraft. Almost two hundred patients and three nurses were killed and many more were severely wounded. Quite possibly Annie was there, as she had been transferred back away from the front lines that Spring, to #8 General Hospital for Officers at Etaples. But, by then, she wasn’t writing many letters to the family.
At some point in early 1918, an old friend from Winnipeg had reappeared in Annie’s life. Robert Fletcher Argue was a kind, handsome, talented young college graduate and a Staff Officer with the Canadian Army Headquarters in England. He and Annie had been members of the Choir at Grace Church in Winnipeg before the War. According to Maud, when Fletcher heard that Annie was in France and that she was no longer engaged to be married, he came looking for her. In her steamer trunk Maud preserved a portrait of the handsome young couple, both in uniform, and both quite obviously in love.
By the summer of 1918 Annie was working in a convalescent hospital in England; she had finally asked for a transfer, to be closer to Fletcher. They were both working in London the day the war ended, 11 November 1918. From Wisconsin, Maud was sending them regular letters and packages of coffee and chocolate, and jars of bacon and raspberry jam.
Annie and Fletcher were married in London in the spring of 1919. They returned to Canada with the last of the Canadian Expeditionary Army in July 1919. In Winnipeg Fletcher returned to his Alma Mater, the University of Manitoba, and Annie returned to her nursing. For years the two sisters exchanged letters filled with details about their husbands and children, their work and family vacations.
Then, twenty years after the end of the Great War, Maud sat down, organized her letters and photographs, and began writing everything she could remember into her diaries. By then, January 1938, the world was on the brink of another catastrophe. In Asia the Japanese Imperial Army was smashing its way down the coast of China from Manchuria to Shanghai. In Europe the Nazi thug Adolph Hitler had seized control of Germany and Austria, and was poised to move on Poland, the Low Countries, and France. The world was again on the brink of War. In Wisconsin Maud sent a note to her sons:
As well as the private papers of my Grandmother Rachel “Maud” Johnston Giffin and her siblings, I have relied on the following sources for background information:
Argue, Annie Eliza Johnston, Memories of WW I – as told to Mary Edna Johnston Purvis her sister. 1960. An unpublished essay circulated among the Johnston family.
Baragar, F. D., Ripples from the Creek. Winnipeg: F. D. Baragar, 1969.
Burt, A. W., Selections from Tennyson. Toronto: Copp, Clark & Co., 1891.
Christie, N. M., ed., Letters of Agar Adamson 1914-1919. Napean, ON: CEF Book, 1997.
Ferguson, N., The Pity of War. New York: Perseus, 1999.
Giffin, Rachel “Maud” Johnston, 1938 Diary for her son John Giffin. Unpublished, 1938. The original is with grandson, Phil Giffin in Portland, OR.
Graves, R. (1929). Goodbye to all that. New York: Reprint 1985 by Anchor Books.
Groom, W., A Storm in Flanders – the Ypres Salient 1914-1918: tragedy and triumph on the Western Front. New York: Grove Press, 2002.
Gwyn, S., Tapestry of war: A private view of Canadians in the Great War. Toronto: Harper Collins, 1992.
Hodder-Williams, R., Regimental history of the Princess Patricia Regiment Canadian Light Infantry Vol. 1 & 2. Toronto: Hodder & Stroughton, 1921.
Marshall, S. L. A., World War I. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964.
Masefield, J., John Masefield’s letters from the front 1915-1917. Peter VanSittart, ed. New York: Franklin Press, 1985.
Robertson, J., Anzac and Empire: The Tragedy and Glory of Gallipoli. Darlinghurst, NSW: Mead & Beckett, 1990.
Sassoon, S., The War Poems. R. Hart-Davis, ed. London: Faber, 1983.
Stacey, A., The Johnston family: Joseph and Margaret and their descendants. Privately printed by Allan Stacey of Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1994.
Wilson, B., The Life of Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal Vol. II. Boston: the Houghton Mifflin, 1915.
Page revised: 3 February 2013