Nursing sister Lillian Pidgeon of Kensington, second from right, was on a dock in Montreal, Que. in May 1915 ready to board a ship to England where she served for most of the First World War.
Lt.-Col. John McCrae’s war poem In Flanders Fields has provided solace to countless people since the Canadian physician penned it on a battlefield in Belgium during the First World War.
But it was a Prince Edward Island nurse who provided comfort to the Guelph, Ont., poet in the days leading up to his death on Jan. 28, 1918.
“I think it’s such a unique story when we’re coming up to Remembrance Day and we’re all (hearing) the poem, In Flanders Fields,... because there is such a unique connection between John McCrae and an Island nurse,” Katherine Dewar says of First World War Lieutenant Nursing Sister Lillian Pidgeon of Kensington.
Dewar's research on Pidgeon and approximately 115 other P.E.I. nursing sisters who were overseas in the First World War will become part of a book that will be published by Island Studies Press next year.
Born in Kensington in May 1889, at the age of 21 Pidgeon moved to Montreal where she enrolled in the Royal Victoria Hospital School of Nursing from which she graduated in 1913.
She was working at the hospital when the First World War broke out in 1914.
“She became part of a very elite unit called the McGill Unit, which was the #3 Canadian General Hospital (CGH). It was the brainchild of the dean of medicine at McGill University, Herbert Birkett,” says the Charlottetown author who co-wrote This Caring Place: The History of the Prince County Hospital and School of Nursing.
“He had this idea of (gathering) the best doctors and surgeons from McGill University and the best nurses from the Royal Victoria Hospital and the Montreal General Hospital to form a hospital unit to go overseas in World War One.”
The elite McGill Unit, was formed in March 1915 with the best doctors from McGill and 72 top-notch nurses chosen by the matrons of the two hospitals and the Matron-in-Chief Margaret Macdonald of the Canadian Army Medical Corps.
“(The McGill Unit) was the model for the other university units that were formed across Canada — there were eight others — and they managed to push that (hospital unit) model to the Americans in 1915 ...,” Dewar says.
The McGill Unit went overseas in the spring of 1915, arriving first in Liverpool, England, and then within days was transported to France.
Originally they were posted to a tented Canadian hospital in Camiers.
“The fall of 1915 was one of the wettest, coldest and windiest that they’d had in years. Those poor nurses were in tents that were leaking and when the wind blew they fell down at night, so they were out with hammers putting in pegs,” Dewar says.
“And then because it rained so much it got muddy. Their uniforms were long — they were right to the ground — so they had to pin them up on their waist and put on rubber boots to get from one tent to the other. Then they put in what they call duckboards, which is wooden planking. The mud at some point was up to their knees so it wasn’t easy getting around as a nurse.”
The hospital unit was relocated to a monastery in Boulogne in January 1916.
“It had a minimum of 1,000 beds and when they had big battles and a lot more casualties it expanded to 2,000 to 2,300 beds ...,” Dewar says.
“I can’t get my head around that they would get a message saying that there was a convoy on the way and to expect more than 500 patients. I’ve worked in hospitals and emergency rooms and I can’t imagine receiving 500-plus patients at one time. And so this is what they were faced with.”
In 1917, Pidgeon was made assistant matron of the 2,000-bed #3 CGH, which had a contingent of medical staff that included Dr. John McCrae.
“He started off as an artillery officer and that’s what he liked. He was up where all the action was. When this McGill Unit was formed, they transferred him to it and he was really annoyed. He wanted to be back where the men were,” Dewar says.
In January of 1918, Lt.-Col. McCrae was about to be promoted to the rank of colonel with his own command.
When the officer in command (OC) arrived to inform him, he found McCrae in the officer’s mess asleep.
By the next day, McCrae’s condition had worsened to where he expressed concern that he might be developing pneumonia.
The OC then ordered that nursing sisters Lillian Pidgeon and Mary Bliss leave their routine duties to act as special nurses day and night.
“You have to believe that these two nursing sisters were excellent nurses and possibly special friends to John McCrae,” Dewar says.
Despite the special care, McCrae, whose lungs had already been weakened by a gas attack and chronic asthma, deteriorated.
He died in the early morning of Jan. 28, 1918, of bilateral pneumonia, meningitis and a brain hemorrhage.
“So this nurse from Kensington, P.E.I., was at his side when he was dying,” Dewar says.
“When he died — apparently he was very much beloved by the nurses — they sent a pillow of purple violets for his casket. I think that was sort of symbolic of how they thought about him.”
In May 1918, Pidgeon was transferred to #2 Casualty Clearing Station near the front line during the Allied offensive’s push toward Lille where constant
air raids and shelling was the norm.
After the armistice in November 1918, she was granted leave to England and a short posting to a hospital in Buxton.
Before she left for Canada on Feb. 22, 1919, she was invited by King George to Buckingham Palace where she became the only P.E.I. nurse in the First World War to be invested with the Royal Red Cross 1st class, which is the highest military nursing award.
“(In a 1919 newspaper interview in Toronto after the war) they were asking her about it, she was very humble and she said, ‘It was nothing, I didn’t do more than the other nursing sisters did.’ She (also) said we had ‘a right royal time’ with the Queen Mother (during high tea after) at Marlborough House.”
AT A GLANCE
Lillian Pigeon’s life
After the war Lillian Pidgeon worked in Montreal. In 1930, she returned to P.E.I. to become Matron of the Prince County Hospital in Summerside.
Respected by those who served under her, and according to one she was “strict, perfectionistic and a very sophisticated lady” the benchmark for all those matrons who followed. She ran the hospital with militaristic efficiency and took a special interest in the School of Nursing. She resigned as matron in 1934.
In 1936 she was in Kensington to nurse her dying father. Where she was from 1936 until her death is unknown. Pidgeon never married.
She died in Toronto in 1978 and is buried at Streetsville Public Cemetery, Mississauga, Ont. Her name is on the headstone with her brother, Franklin, his wife, Jennie, and her nephew, Robert.