Florence Mary Kelly can certainly be described as a medical angel of mercy.
The petite, spitfire Summerside woman was the only Island nurse who served in both the Spanish-American War and the First World War, providing physical care to soldiers under some of the most challenging conditions.
Kelly’s inspirational story is just one of many that Katherine Dewar of Charlottetown has uncovered in the process of writing a book about P.E.I. nursing sisters in the First World War, of which she has 100 documented to date
“They were strong, strong women,” Dewar says of her nursing subjects.
“I thought I might find 15 or 20, but I have at least 100. And I have absolutely amazing stories. These nurses were in England and France and Belgium and Palestine and Egypt and Russia and Greece. And they all have remarkable stories.”
Kelly’s remarkable story began with her birth in Summerside on Dec. 18, 1872 to Judge Thomas and Marianne (Campbell) Kelly.
She had a very privileged upbringing and was educated at a local private school before heading off to Mount St. Vincent’s Ladies College in Halifax, N.S., where she met Margaret Macdonald of Nova Scotia, who later became matron-in-chief of the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) 101 during the First World War.
They became lifelong friends.
Both attended the New York Training School for Nurses, which was attached to Bellevue Hospital in New York City.
After her graduation in 1895, Kelly worked in the Big Apple with the Public Health Nursing Corps, to which she would eventually devote 35 years of her working life.
In 1898, Kelly and Macdonald were among 200 of the finest nurses from the largest and most prestigious hospitals recruited into the American Army nursing unit during the Spanish-American War; four were from P.E.I.
“It was a short war. It broke out in April 1898 and the fighting mainly was over in August and she was mustered out in November of that fall. (The nurses’) contract was ($30 per month) for two years or until the war was over, whichever came first,” Dewar says.
Kelly was sent to Sternberg Hospital at Camp Thomas in Georgia where the nurses worked 18 hours a day. There was no hot water, and cold water was scarce. Soap was limited. Practically all of the nurses contracted dysentery.
“The camp where she was (over time) had 75,000 men. They were all in tents with no proper sanitation and contaminated water so that’s why they were getting typhoid,” Dewar says.
Kelly describes the conditions that she and the other medical personnel were faced with: “The newly established hospital consisted of 13 rough board huts, unfinished and unheated. Holes cut for windows but not glazed let in hordes of flies and mosquitoes that were constantly streaming through,” she said.
“When a Georgian rain storm came, the women could only close the openings with wooden doors, eliminating any ventilation. Their choice was cold, damp flooded huts or foul humid air in an overcrowded ward.”
After the war, Kelly went back to public health nursing in New York and returned home to Summerside regularly for summer visits.
When the First World War broke out, Kelly signed up with the Canadian Army Medical Corps in Halifax in April 1916.
“I have to tell you it was not easy to get in,” Dewar says.
“They had so many women nurses wanting to get in that corps. The war broke out on August 4, 1914, and by the end of August they had 1,100 applications from nurses and at that point they were only taking 100. So you had only a 10 per cent hope of getting in.”
One of the stringent qualifications for enlistment was being between the ages of 21 and 38. Although Kelly was at that time 44 years old, she used her sister’s birthday instead of her own when she signed up, thereby making herself younger. Macdonald, her longtime friend and matron-in-chief of the CAMC, altered her age as well.
Lieut. Nursing Sister Kelly was attached to the #9 Canadian Stationary Hospital Unit and sailed to Liverpool in June 1916.
“They made $2 a day and if they were in a battle zone they made an extra 60 cents, and they got $1 a day for messing and that was to pay for their food,” Dewar says.
Kelly was immediately sent to #2 Canadian Stationary Hospital in Outreau, France, and arrived on the eve of the Battle of the Somme, which in its first hour had thousands of British casualties.
Patients came in from the battlefield with horrendous injuries, gas poisoning, gas gangrene, gas burns, infections of all sorts and what was then known as shell shock and trench fever.
“They saw terrible, terrible things,” Dewar says.
In a speech after the war in 1920, Macdonald noted “the hours of duty averaged 18 out of the 24, but none ever murmured on that score. Often gas masks had to be worn; the roar of the guns became at times deafening. There was no slackening of work; it must be carried on during air-raids and under shell fire.
“Once when our hospital was under fire . . . the nurses had to retire to a cornfield for overnight . . . . Night after night was spent in dug-outs, yet their spirits never flagged.”
Kelly was transferred to a base hospital in England before being posted back to France at Doullens on April 16, 1917, where yet another terrible battle had raged — the Battle of Arras at Vimy Ridge.
“Part of the hospital was a cathedral that they had converted to a Canadian hospital,” Dewar says.
“A year after Florence had been there it was bombed and several nurses were killed, so she escaped that, but she didn’t escape the strain of the battle. She nursed the patients from the Battle of Arras for three months. She became physically ill, with (what looked like) from her records, a kidney infection and (was then diagnosed with) neurasthenia, which was a catch phrase in those days that
something was wrong with your nerves . . . .”
So on July 3, 1917, this battle-fatigued nurse became a patient and was evacuated back to England shortly thereafter.
Kelly was in a total of six hospitals and rest homes before she was declared fit for service on Aug. 31, 1917, at Orpington in the Greater London area.
She was transferred back to France just before the war was over and subsequently served at a number of hospitals there and in England before being sent back to Canada in August of 1919.
“Nurses were there almost a year after the war was over because there were still lots of sick people,” Dewar says.
A month before she came home, Kelly received an invitation from King George to Buckingham Palace where she was invested with a Royal Red Cross 2nd Class after which she had tea with the queen.
Kelly, who never married, continued her career well into her 70s, working in private duty nursing after she retired from public health nursing in 1944.
She routinely returned to P.E.I.
Kelly died in New York in 1957 at the age of 85.
She was buried in Arlington Military Cemetery with full military honours in the section reserved for the Spanish-American War veterans.
“She, like the rest of (the nursing sisters who served), had the spirit of adventure, they were independent women. They looked after themselves. It seems that they could cope with whatever was fired at them,” says Dewar, who is seeking help from the public for more information about P.E.I.’s nursing sisters in the First World War.
“Some of them got married, but a lot of them didn’t and they went on to be influential in public policy after the war, like the starting of the public health system in P.E.I. for example . . . .
“They all were really courageous, adventurous women. This is one story. I have 100 of them.”
Katherine Dewar is presently writing a book on the nursing sisters from P.E.I. who were in the First World War.
She would be interested in speaking with anyone who has information, whether it is a reminiscences, pictures, scrap books, diaries, letters or documents of any sort.
She can be contacted at 368 9356 or email@example.com.