Jessie Middleton’s wool nurse’s cape is weighted down with medals received for service in the Canadian Army during the Second World War.
Almost 70 years later, Jessie has received an additional award, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, granted for a lifetime of humanitarian service to Canadians. She is modest about the recognition: “When I get these things, I feel as though I’m receiving them on behalf of all those classmates and friends that I trained with or worked with in the army, because they also served, and I miss them.”
Now almost 97, Jessie has seen most of her contemporaries pass on, but she holds their memories close to her heart. Born in Murrayville in the middle of the First World War, Jessie was the 12th and last child of farmer James William Lee and his wife Edith Mary Brown. When Jessie was born, two of her oldest brothers were away overseas, fighting the Germans in the trenches of the Western Front: “All my life I knew about Hubert and Sam being in the first war. Occasionally stories would come out, but they talked very little about it.”
Jessie grew up in Murrayville and attended the local elementary school before going on to the old Langley High School on the Fraser Highway.
With 11 brothers and sisters, one of them 20 years her senior, she became an aunt when still quite young. When her sister Dorothy Barichello lost her infant son Georgie in 1924, the whole family was devastated. Jessie felt a need to intercede: “I was introduced at quite an early age to death. I had a helpless feeling [but really wanted] to help my sister.”
Girls graduating from high school in the mid-1930s had few career options. Those who chose not to marry and raise a family generally trained as secretaries, teachers, or nurses. Jessie had long wanted to nurse and enrolled in Royal Columbian Hospital’s training program.
Living in the hospital’s nursing residence and instructed by doctors and nurses of the “old school,” Jessie sometimes felt stifled: “Most of them were very officious in training.
“There were some who had a tender heart, but most of them were very stern in their attitude toward the student nurses — you toed the line.”
Jessie qualified as a nurse in September 1939, on the same day that Canada declared war on Germany.
Although hoping to serve in the army, regulations required that she reach the age of 25 before enlisting. While working in the maternity ward at Vancouver General Hospital, however, the effects of war came home to her.
“We had the girls come in when the Japanese were moved away from the Coast. [They were] brought in by the police from the PNE grounds where they were segregated. I thought it was terrible that they should be put in the barns.
“To me the barns on the farm were clean, but those were horse stalls and they had one cold water tap to get their water from. I wondered how those women came in as clean as they did. I really felt an admiration for them: non-complaining. I had a lot of sympathy for them. I learned eventually that war is war and it’s not nice.”
Jessie eventually enlisted in September 1942. She remembers acting “only slightly out of patriotism.
“It was the thing to do. There are times in your life when it’s the time to do certain things. You didn’t always do the right thing, necessarily. My friends were all joining up, you see.”
Commissioned as Lieutenant Nursing Sister Lee, Jessie was posted to a military hospital in Nanaimo, where most of her cases were related to accidents in training or illnesses like pneumonia: “A lot of people were sick. People got sick, you know, even in the army. I often wondered about them, how they fared overseas.”
A few months later, Jessie was sent to a hospital in Prince Rupert. There the apparatus of war was even more obvious than in Vancouver: “There were high searchlights placed at the entrance to the harbour. There was a net across the harbour to stop the submarines. When the ships came in, they just turned off their propellers and drifted across it.”
She was finally sent overseas in March, 1943. Her trans-Atlantic voyage on the luxury liner Queen Elizabeth proved anything but luxurious. Eight or 10 nurses were crammed into staterooms meant for only two.
The thousands of enlisted men crammed into the hold below fared even worse. Lack of space inside the vessel required each of them to spend 12 hours on deck every day.
The weather was cold and damp.
When the fog condensed on the woollen blankets the men wore to keep warm, pneumonia often set in: “Is it any wonder that some of them never set foot on English soil? They were carried off on a stretcher and carried back to Canada because they were so sick.”
Arriving in England, Jessie was assigned to a Canadian hospital on the Astor estate, just west of London. The hospital dealt with a gamut of injuries and illnesses — everything from burns and fractures to unimaginably horrible wounds sustained in combat.
Jessie recalls the heartbreak of one particularly sad case: “We had one patient – he was recuperated, he was healed, but his face had been burned. When he was transferred to our hospital — when I came on duty that afternoon, the nurse said to me, ‘Just wander down the ward and look around,’ — incredible — if you can imagine eyes, nose, all those parts gone. He had no ears.
He went and hid the day the Queen came to visit our hospital.”
In England, the war was inescapable. Bombs rained down on helpless civilians. Cities were devastated, and families were separated as children were sent away to safety.
Jessie recalls how the Royal Air Force tried to protect the island: “We had the Blitz. It wouldn’t even be sundown. You could go outside and as far as the eye could see, north and south, there would be one, two, three; one, two, three – the planes coming over, and you knew they were going to get it over there in Europe.
“About two hours later you’d have them straggling back, and sometimes the sounds of the planes and everything sent some of the boys a little off colour.”
Shell shock was not uncommon, with some patients reliving the horrors that had sent them to hospital: “Once they’d hear a plane overhead they’d go berserk.
“We had that occasionally in England, in our hospital.”
Despite the destruction and carnage, the British people persevered: “I felt that when I came back to England, the bombs were terrible, but it seemed to me, almost before the debris had stopped falling, they were out cleaning it up. They had such spirit.”
In July 1944, Jessie was sent to Italy to work with a mobile Canadian Army hospital then located near Avellino, an historic town on a plain northeast of Naples. The Allies had taken Sicily the previous year, but not without heavy cost for the Canadians.
A total of 562 Canadians were killed in action there, Murrayville native Robert Monahan, a contemporary of Jessie’s, being among the fallen.
When Jessie arrived in Avellino, the Allied invasion of the Italian mainland was well underway.
Her unit’s work focused on treating wounded Canadian soldiers.
“The Canadian Army was going up the boot of Italy very, very quickly. They would find a building that would do for us and then they’d find a better one a few miles up.”
Jessie’s work would later take her north to Jesi, an ancient town near the Adriatic port of Ancona.
There, the effects of war were impossible to overlook. The war was waging just a few dozen miles to the north and the legacy of its destructive powers was often overwhelming: “Ancona was horrible – hardly a brick left on a brick. Sometimes it did get to you.”
When the campaign in Italy wound down, Jessie and her colleagues were sent to northwest Europe.
The Allied invasion of France in June 1944 had proved a success, and Canadian troops were now fighting their way through the Netherlands.
Assigned to a hospital in Nijmegen, Jessie was as close to the action as she had ever been: “The first few nights we heard the sound of battle all the time when we were there. They had this attack of gliders.
“We saw them in the fields where they landed. They were just targets. There were parachutes caught in the trees. The men were just helpless. [The Germans would] just shoot them.”
As the battle raged the parade of arriving wounded seemed never to end: “They came all night long. The stairways were maybe eight to ten feet wide.
“They’d come up those stairs very easily: clump, clump, clump. You can imagine them coming up all night long: clump, clump, clump, up those stairs and to the beds.”
German prisoners were treated along with the Canadians: “I remember one young German boy. I swear he must have been 15. He had an abdominal wound and they did an experiment on him.
“He was to have nothing; no fluid or anything by mouth. And you’d turn your back and he’d somehow got a little something from somebody’s table. But he was a lovely little fellow: 15, blonde, blue-eyed. He was mischievous.
It was just a lark for him. They were just patients, never an enemy.”
For Jessie, every life was sacred, but no amount of training had prepared her for the horrendous injuries she encountered.
Decades later, Jessie’s eyes still fill with tears as she recalls her feeling of helplessness while dealing with wounds so grievous as to be beyond repair: “Every once in a while we would have one who was badly, badly wounded and was not going to survive.
“You just had to let them die. It was miraculous that their heart was still going, but there was no way to lead them out of their misery. They’d just lay there till they’d die.
“I remember one in particular; he was smashed so badly, and his name was Smith or Brown or something, and I thought, he’s going to die. He just lay there. You’d keep their mouths moist; there was nothing else you could do.”
When the war in Europe finally ended, Jessie was among the many who found it hard to believe that the world’s long nightmare was finally over: “We had either gone to a show or a party or something.
“We came out of that building and they were snake-dancing through the town. The lights were on.
“I thought, they’ve got to be crazy! What has happened? Of course, I couldn’t believe that peace had come. It seemed like it would never come.”
Decades later, Jessie is philosophical about the folly of human conflict, preferring conversation over combat: “There’s no way war is a way to settle things, it seems to me. Talk. I think my time in the army was maybe my least stressful, you know.
“They tell you what to do, where to go, when to go, when to come back and what to eat, when to eat it and what to wear.
“As long as you don’t mind taking orders it’s a good life, but there is the angle of a lot of other people losing their lives and their abilities, so that they can’t do what they’d like to do or should be able to do. So war is not really a way of settling things.”
Examining a photo of a military cemetery she shakes her head and says, “If only the dead could all rise up and shout, ‘No more war!’”
Warren Sommer is a consultant and author based in Fort Langley. He has a particular interest in Langley during the two world wars.