John Nicolson is passionate about P.E.I. history.
He also loves making family connections.
So, when his father, the late Doug Nicholson, bequeathed him an old photograph album he had rescued from the waste bin, Nicholson was inspired to do something special with it.
The album was a photographic history of the 10th Canadian Field Hospital from January to July of 1902. And the 300 photos included were taken by 20-year-old William McKee from Charlottetown. He and 900 other Canadians enlisted with the third and last Canadian contingent for active service in the South African, Anglo-Boer War. This contingent consisted of the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles (CMR), the 10th Canadian Field Hospital and 10 nurses.
So, the album became a jumping off point for a book.
“I wanted to tell their story, but I wanted it to be readable, not a text book,” says Nicholson, who realized a narrative approach would work best.
But he needed a voice. So, he reached out to others.
In talking to Mary Duchesne, McKee’s great-niece, he developed an understanding for what the officer “with the gentle soul and subtle eye for humour” was like. Nicholson also researched the era before sitting down to write.
“I wanted to put the actual story into a story and give it some context,” says Nicholson, the author of “Reading Between the Pictures: South Africa 1902”.
Filled with photos, the 190-page, soft-covered book that tells the story of the 10th Canadian Field Hospital through a series of fictitious letters that McKee sent his father.
It describes how McKee took a ship from Georgetown to Halifax where he sailed for South Africa with the remaining CMR troops. It also describes their hospital work with wounded soldiers, the troops’ day-to-day life and how happy they were whenever new nurses and doctors would arrive to help them.
“McKee’s photos add flesh and bones to the written history of these people and the time,” says Nicholson, whose research led him to Canadian authors, including Carmen Irwin Miller, a military historian and former dean of arts at McGill University who had written four books on the Boer War.
“His written text mirrored the pictures (from McKee) that I had in front of me. That’s because Will had put the images in chronological order after he got back from the war.”
Besides McKee, the book also contains the names of Islanders who were involved in these units as well as information he was able to collect from Canadian military records.
“Hopefully, people reading the book will be reminded of their relatives, get in contact with me so I can find out what happened to these folks,” says Nicholson.
If he gets enough information, he will write another book. This time, the non-fiction volume will provide details on what happened to these service men and women after the war.
“Some of them we know about because they became famous. Others are bare bones.”
Nicholson believes it’s an important Canadian story to tell.
“Here’s a group of 61 people who went down to a war zone with the purpose of healing people. They did a really good job with some Canadian innovation and equipment. It’s kind of a good news story.”
The next chapter
- Copies of “Reading Between the Pictures: South Africa 1902” are available at Beaconsfield Historic House in Charlottetown.
- Author John Nicholson hopes to publish a second book, a non-fiction volume filled with stories about Boer War veterans.
- Anyone with information on Boer War veterans is asked to contact Nicholson at firstname.lastname@example.org.