Manitoba History: Annie’s War

by Phillip Giffin
Portland, Oregon

Number 55, June 2007

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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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.

Annie and Maud

Annie and Maud.
Source: P. Giffin

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.

My grandfather's motorboat

My grandfather’s motorboat, 1908.
Source: P. Giffin

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:

August 31, 1914
12 Frontenac Avenue, Winnipeg

Dear Maud:

Just before your telegram came the express man arrived with Willie’s club bag from Ottawa. His name was on it, also Princess Patricia No. 552.

This Regiment is the best from Canada. Princess Pat is the daughter of the Duke of Connaught who is the Governor General of Canada. She is also the grand daughter of Queen Victoria. The Regiment is composed of men who have seen service before and will be the first to go to the front. They left Montreal on Saturday.

Poor lad, he was terribly busy before he left getting his things in shape ... I am so proud to think that he is in the Princess Pats. He sent me a picture of his regiment. They are a fine looking bunch; and, as I told him they should put a few bullets into the Germans.

It is terrible, terrible to think of this war and to think that Willie will soon be at the front. But if you were only here and saw the scores of people who were giving their husbands and sons, you could not think of being any less brave ...

I wrote him the cheeriest note I could compose ... I simply don’t dare think of consequences. It was his duty and he has faced it bravely ...

With Love, Annie

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:

It was a terrible time for Canadians at the front—the Germans were concentrating on their positions ... At home people knew something was going on, everyone spoke in whispers. There was great apprehension everywhere but nothing definite. Then the newspapers began running long casualty lists ... It was appalling ...

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:

January 13, 1915
27th Division, 80th Brigade
BEF [British Expeditionary Force], France

Dear Sister:

Just a few lines to you while I have the opportunity ... The shellfire and chances of being shot don’t bother us like the hardships ... People talk about the cold of Western Canada. If you saw a regiment just relieved from the trenches, dragging themselves back to their billets ... Some of the men’s feet swell up so from standing in the mud and water so long that that their boots have to be cut off them. Our clothes are so soaked and muddy that it is an awful drag to get back out of the firing line. Some of the boys had to throw away their raincoats to do it ... (But) I can stick it through if the others fellows can ...

Love, Will

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
in Flanders and scribbled a note:

March 25, 1915
BEF [British Expeditionary Force], France

My Dear Sister Maud:

I received snaps and cake today and was happy to get both ... I had not heard that Annie was coming out ’til I got your letter. I’m afraid she will see some hard sights. No one can realize what a terrible war this is till they see a little of it for themselves. All along the trenches for hundreds of miles I suppose there is a continuous line of graves. Every little churchyard near the firing line has its graveyard nearly full and the war is not over yet. I never smoked in my life till I came here, but this trench work would drive a man to most anything ...

Your loving brother, Will

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):

Another member of Grace Church Choir volunteers for King and Country: Miss Annie E. Johnston leaves in a few days for England to take up the work of a nurse under the Red Cross. On resigning her connections with Grace Church, Miss Johnston was the recipient of a wristwatch, a black club bag with ivory fittings, and a check from the Congregation and friends ...

At the time military nurses were all addressed as “Sisters,” but unlike the British Nursing Corps who served
as enlisted personnel, the Canadian women were all given commissions as military officers. Annie and her life-long friend Mary Irene Burns soon appeared in newspaper photographs buttoned up in their winter uniforms: heavy blue coats, leather gloves and white fedora hats with pale blue ribbon bands. “Three More Winnipeg Girls Go To Front,” read another story line with photographs. “Miss Annie Johnston of the Medical Staff, Miss Burns of the Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Department, and Miss Aikman Head of the Operating Room, all of Winnipeg General Hospital will go to the Front as nurses under the British Red Cross Society.”

A Winnipeg newspaper clipping reported the imminent departure to Europe of nurses Annie Johnston, Mary Irene Burns, and Lizzie Ramsay Aikman.
Source: P. Giffin

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:

“Annie’s ship departed for England on May 1, 1915. They sailed through the Irish Sea only a few hours before the Lusitania, traveling over the same dangerous water with lights out and life preservers on. They did not know that the Lusitania had been torpedoed until they reached Liverpool. Annie’s letters from England were very clear and vivid. She wrote several circular letters to the four of us sisters ...”

Her first letter from London is filled with the wonder and excitement; she only casually mentions the Lusitania:

May 8, 1915
12 Francis St.
London, England

Dear Susan:

... We have had a delightful time. Indeed the Lords and Ladies of London have treated us well. On Thursday we were at tea at Lady Paget’s, the Duchess of Buckingham and the Duchess of Bedford were there and we chatted with them as if they were old friends ...

Today ... we had a most elaborate luncheon served up in grand style ... a tour of St. Johns Gate Hospital, the oldest in London ... and afternoon tea with more Lords and Ladies ... In the evening we went to St. James Theater to see Sir James Alexander in “The Panorama of Youth” ... At intermission we were served coffee, cake and sandwiches on stage behind the curtain ...

Today at 10:35 AM we were at the train station to see six of our party off to Malta. After lunch we went to Hampton Court, the home of Henry VIII ... Everything has been carefully preserved ... tapestry, beautiful paintings ... the grounds are grand, filled with the most magnificent flowers I have ever seen ...

I fear you will think we are having a gay time. We would be enjoying ourselves very much if it were not for the thought of this awful war ... the sinking of the Lusitania was a terrible shock to us all. Our boat was the last one to come in before she was torpedoed ...

We have no definite word yet where we are to go ... I have heard nothing from William and have received few letters from Canada ...

My love to you all, Ann

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.

June 4, 1915
Manor House Hospital
Folkstone, England

My Dear Sister Maud:

I received your letter after it had been to France and followed me back. I was very glad to hear from you. I was wounded by shell splinters on May 5 and was sent over here ...

The hospital behind the firing line is more like a slaughterhouse than anything else. Doctors are rushing around with sleeves rolled up, blood all over, giving the men their first dressing, digging the bullets and shell splinters out, or cutting off limbs that are hanging by the skin. They do not seem to be very gentle either, but when you consider the number that go through their hands, it is something remarkable how they go so fast. Sometimes it is two to three thousand.

The hospital behind the firing line is more like a slaughterhouse than anything else. Doctors are rushing around with sleeves rolled up, blood all over, giving the men their first dressing, digging the bullets and shell splinters out, or cutting off limbs that are hanging by the skin. They do not seem to be very gentle either, but when you consider the number that go through their hands, it is something remarkable how they go so fast. Sometimes it is two to three thousand.

Love to all, Will

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:

May 12, 1915
12 Frances St.
London, England

Dear Maude:

This will be another circular letter ... To begin with I hope you won’t think that we Canadian nurses are all too giddy during this awful war. The fact is that the people of England can’t do enough for us, and we feel we must accept their hospitality. Besides, all this entertainment keeps us busy; and it would be intolerable to be idle here.

On Sunday three of us went to Shorncliffe ... about 3 hours run from London. It is an exceedingly large training camp and a hospital ... (Currently) with only 35 patients. It is about 2 miles from the station and we had a beautiful walk along magnificent hedges ... It would have been difficult ... if a “Tommy,” one of our own Winnipeg boys from the 90th Regiment, had not piloted us ...

Later in the day another “Tommy” piloted us back to the station ... He too was a Winnipeg boy. We ... felt like friends before long. Poor lad, he had been in action ... (And) scarcely spoke. He would say nothing of his experiences. He seemed so nervous and could hardly collect his thoughts. When he knew that we were from Canada and Winnipeg he could not do enough for us. It was really pathetic. He insisted on paying our car fare and getting us tea, etc. And he actually took his pocket-handkerchief and brushed the sand and dust off our shoes. We could not refuse to let him do it for it seemed to please him so much. I think he would have given us any mortal thing he had in his possession. Poor fellow he goes back to the front in a few days ...

On Thursday we went to Clevedon ... a hospital for Canadian soldiers. Rather it is a summer residence. The situation is perfect (for a hospital): acres of land covered with the most beautiful trees and flowers and the Thames River running through it all. It is an ideal spot for the poor boys to be treated in both body and mind. There were 106 of them there and they all seemed so happy. The quietness of the place, and the clean beds, good meals and kindness from the Doctors and nurses gives them a new outlook on life.

I met one fellow, quite badly wounded, who ... was a Sergeant in Will’s platoon ... One can’t ask the men much about the war. They don’t want to talk of it ... One can only try to say some cheerful thing to take their mind off the awful things they have gone through.

One young boy, also a member of the Winnipeg 90th, had 32 pieces of shrapnel in him. He is fine now. It is quite marvelous how quickly they recover. I really think the nervous effects are the worst of all. They all have rapid pulses.

After coming back from Clevedon we went to a memorial service in St. Paul’s Cathedral ... There were thousands there ... a most beautiful service, the music was beyond description. It was all a wonderful tribute to our Canadian dead. I am sending you a copy of the service and the newspaper clippings ...

Tuesday afternoon we had tickets for the theater ... a benefit for the “Officers Families Fund.” We were requested to go in our indoor uniform. The King and Queen and Princess Mary occupied a box to our left and we had a fine view of them. They looked exactly like their pictures. They were most simply dressed. The Queen had provided 400 seats for convalescent soldiers. The poor fellows cheered when the royal party entered and their majesties received it most graciously ...

Just now one of the nurses from Winnipeg ... came in to take us shopping. She showed me where to get a mask which the soldiers use when they come in contact with those awful gasses used by the Germans. I ordered one for Will.

This afternoon we have to go to headquarters and will likely know our fate. London is really wrought up over the loss of the Lusitania, also by the bombardment or rather the air raid of yesterday. Some of the citizens have taken upon themselves to punish the Germans who are residents here by refusing to sell them meat, etc. There have been some small riots, but I don’t think they really amount to anything.

The bombing is getting more intense all the time and it is hard to say where things will end.

Love, Annie

PS: May 13, Last night’s letters contained our ... directions from the War Office for sailing to Malta on Sat. May 15th. So, by the time you get this we will be miles away from London. We sail on the SS Mongolia ...

Feeling is running rather high here but it is quite wonderful how cool the people keep. Last night hundreds of kids up to 14 years of age came down our street saying, “We will fix the Germans.” There were several police with them who seemed to be enjoying the fever. I guess no damage was done. Good-bye for now.

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:

At Valetta we were taken to the Hospital of St. John Jerusalem, a very old fashioned place with no conveniences. One of the wards was 205 feet long and we were the first nurses with the exception of a few who had been commandeered en route to Africa. Only one or two hospitals on the island could receive patients at the time, soon there would be 40 hospitals fit to receive them ... Patients were arriving continually from Gallipoli, many of them with advanced gas gangrene wounds. The Doctors were mostly local Maltese men. Many of our patients died ...

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.

Annie Johnston (right) and friend Mary Irene Burns of the Winnipeg General Hospital, location unknown.
Source: P. Giffin

Later, Annie described her return to England and her subsequent journey to France in rather stoic terms:

We were sent to London for a rest at the home of Mrs. C. Lawson, an artist at Cloth Hall ... Then to Bologna, France where we arrived in darkness to be taken to a hotel ... I remember the bedding was still damp from washing ...

The next day we left Bologna for Rouen arriving at midnight ... a lorry took us to #5 General Hospital where we were given hot tea and put to bed in other nurses’ quarters. It was rather slow at the time ... so we were allowed to go into Rouen to buy bedding for our own cots ... I was put in charge of two surgical wards and Burnsie in charge of the Medical Ward.

The Battle of the Somme (beginning in June 1916) was the first real rush, right from the trenches. There were English doctors and a lot of untrained orderlies ... We were kept busy ... for eleven months without leave ...

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:

August 3, 1916
#5 General Hospital, France

Dear Susan:

Your letter, which you wrote such a long time ago letting me know that Willie had enlisted, arrived only a few days ago. It had gone to the No. 5 Canadian Hospital in Salonika (Greece) ...

... I am glad you can feel as you do about it (Willie’s enlistment). It is a big sacrifice to make ... surely some great good must come from it all. I had a letter from (brother) Will a few days ago. He was a patient for a couple of days in No. 6 Hospital; about 5 minutes walk from here. I saw him twice for a short time. He is looking quite well. Poor boys, they are all having a tough time of it.

Will saw Cousin Tom recently; He was quite badly wounded and in a hospital some place ...

The weather is very warm here at present. We are very busy. Have been since the first of July, and I suppose we will be for a very long time yet ... Tomorrow is the second anniversary of the War. I sincerely hope it may be over before another year arrives.

I must close now. Don’t worry if you don’t hear from me often. I’ll be sure to let you know if I get sick. But as long as I am well I will likely be too busy to write much or often.

Love to all, Annie

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:

After 11 months at #5 General Hospital Burnsie and I choose the South of France for our first leave ... For two days we did some sight seeing in Paris and bought some lace ...

Then we went to the Villa Roquebourne, Mentone, which was the beautiful summer residence of Mrs. Warre, a wealthy American ... who donated her residence as a rest home for nurses ... We arrived at the Villa about 8 PM after a tiresome, uncomfortable journey, and were given a hot bath and sent to bed in a lovely large room with windows overlooking the Mediterranean. Dinner was brought in on a tray, a wonderful beefsteak. Breakfast the next day was also served in bed ...

We had three wonderful weeks there, also in Nice, Monte Carlo ... and inland motor car to Grasse where lovely perfumes are manufactured.”

In July 1917, Annie Johnston was recalled to London by an unusual telegram from Lord Chamberlain in London:

To: Sister Annie Johnston

Your attendance is required at Buckingham Palace on Friday next, the third instant (of the current month). At 10 O’clock AM. In Service Dress. Regret that no one except those to be invested can be admitted to the Palace. Please telegraph acknowledgment.

Lord Chamberlain, London

Shortly after arriving in London, a letter came from the War Office:

1st August 1917


I am directed to inform you that Her Majesty Queen Alexandra has expressed a wish that all ladies who attend an Investiture at Buckingham Palace to receive the decoration of the Royal Red Cross should afterwards proceed to Marlborough House to see Her Majesty.

I am accordingly to request that you will attend at Marlborough House at twelve noon on August the 3rd upon your return from Buckingham Palace.

I am Madam, Your obedient Servant,

B. Grindle (signed)

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:

(After) traveling all day in the back of a lorry ... we came nearer to the front lines where the roads became worse and there was great desolation ... The station was all tents, nurses’ quarters, hospital, and etc. all within the hearing of guns. A big push was planned and for days on end lines of heavily loaded ammunition wagons in continuous strings passed on the way to the front.

Then the men, tramp, tramp, tramp day and night going to the front. After the Battle (of Arras or Third Vimy from July to October 1917) the men who went tramping forward came back wounded and dying.

There were always three clearing stations in the vicinity of the front, also a railway spur with cars to take any who could travel. Each car was loaded until it was full, then the next, then the third. As patients were brought into each CCS they were examined by the Doctors and the seriously wounded were operated on at once. Those not operable were put in a special ward and resuscitated; those able to walk were put on the train and sent back, those past hope were put in the moribund ward. By the time the third Clearing Station was filled the first could take a few more, and so on. It was astonishing how quickly they recovered and traveled out.

The worst cases were head, chest, and abdominal wounds. Head wounds were particularly bad, only a few were operable. Beds were close and conditions were difficult. Chest cases required a sitting position so the nurses and orderlies made constant rounds to raise some 60 patients per ward; and so it went.

Thousands of miles away in Wisconsin, Maud had heard enough. She penned a fierce, passionate, eight-page letter to her sister Susan in Manitoba:

July 29, 1917
Superior, WI, USA

Dear Sister:

I have had an idea in mind since last Christmas but have been afraid to put it in writing, but now I think I should have started it before. Our folks have been loyal supporters of the Conservative Party—and there are so many of us ... Why not try to use that influence to get common justice for Will and Annie?

... There is nothing dishonorable about it. In fact it is more than due to them. It seems a shame for Will and Annie to have to endure it for so long. I wish I could change places with Annie for a year. I know she would hate to leave while the boys are still there, but it must be dreadfully hard work. I wonder if you can imagine how it would be if you were transported over there?

People in the USA are just beginning to awaken to what is happening over there ... I feel sick about Will and I think the only hope is to apply to the Conservative Party. He has stood it for so long now that if he should break down ... I’m afraid it would be very hard to do anything for him, as his health would be so undermined. And I am afraid the end of the war is a long way off. What does your husband think of all this? I’d be willing to give a good bit to pay anybody’s traveling expenses in this matter ...

I must stop. We are all well ... This is my 5th letter today as I have written long ones to both Will’s, to Annie and to Tom.

Lovingly, Maud

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:

Our CCS [Casualty Clearing Station] ... was about three miles from the front. At night the bombardments were deafening ... and made a wonderful fireworks display. Nearby on a moveable base (perhaps a rail car?) was a large Bertha gun, which went off every night at a certain hour. It seemed to rend the sky ... but it gave us a sense of assurance.

German planes came over and although they tried to miss the Red Cross one Sunday during a terrific bombardment a few shells fell on the hospital grounds. We moved the patients to the shelter of a sunken road nearby. One was lightly wounded, also a Colonel ... Finally we received orders to evacuate ...

While we were at this CCS preparations were being made for a visit from King George V. His vehicle passed by and he ordered it to stop. He got out, walked across the field and asked that everyone be presented to him. He gravely asked each of us where we came from and how long we had served. Then he thanked us graciously for our service ...

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.

Fletcher and Annie Johnston Argue in London, 1919.
Source: P. Giffin

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 replied:

“... everything has arrived in splendid order ... and is most appreciated as we are sharing with so many because of the shortages in England ... and because we know so many in need ...”

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:

January 1, 1938
Superior, Wisconsin

To my dear sons Jack and Bob:

As you were too young to remember anything about the Great War, I wish to leave a record of what my people went through at the time ...

Just now, in 1938 there are wars and rumors of wars; and a more terrible war has just been averted, though some people still believe it is only postponed to an even more evil hour ...

In the year 1914 we had a glorious time at Lake Nebagamon all summer long ...


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