Sophie Hoerner: Northern France

Her Story

Sophie Hoerner was born in Montréal on August 21, 1877, and trained at McGill University. Throughout the war, Sophie served with the No. 1 Canadian General Hospital beginning in early 1915, and then with the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital.

Sophie then served as home sister and later assistant matron of No. 3 Casualty Clearing Station.

A collection of letters within the Sophie Hoerner fonds at Library and Archives Canada gives insight to the first year of Sophie's service with the No. 1 Canadian General Hospital in northern France.

Her letters, sent home to her family and friends, are dated from May 12, 1915 to June 1916.

The following text uses excerpts from Sophie's letters to provide insight into her war experience through her own words.

“Nearly a week since I left home.”

Sophie headed overseas with the No. 1 Canadian General Hospital as part of the first contingent in May 1915. She was among 104 nurses from McGill, Laval and Kingston. She was stationed with the hospital in northern France, just outside of Étaples.

In her first letters home, Sophie describes the voyage aboard the steamship Metagama. These letters provide a window into what her daily activities were like before she went on active duty.

She writes,

"I tell you it is thrilling. I am having all sorts of thrills and bubbles inside me"

Along with seasickness and overcrowded conditions, the passengers on the steamship had to deal with the constant threat of enemy submarines. They were reminded of this threat by the British cruisers and other war ships that often accompanied their voyage. When news hit of the sinking of the Lusitania, Sophie writes that the news had

"made them think a great deal"
“We are now like machines. Are not allowed to think for ourselves.”

Inadvertently, Sophie's letters address the necessity of fitting into military life. Trained as civilian nurses, this must have been a common experience for most of the nurses who joined the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC).

Waiting for her orders in London, Sophie writes,

"There is a certain amount of excitement in not knowing what you are going to do next. It is so queer and strange for me. I have always run my own affairs and known what it is I wanted to do. Now, I am being run and don't know anything"
“Our hospital is to be 1,000 & 40 beds. The tents are beautiful, Indian tents.”

On May 24, 1915, the nurses arrive in Étaples at a "perfectly enchanting spot" and are set up in brown canvas tents. Sophie admires the tents, which hold 70 beds and 2 operating rooms, describing them as beautiful. At this time, the hospital is not yet ready for patients, but Sophie hopes that they will receive their first convoy within a week and writes,

"it is nice to be here from the start"

Her early letters are filled with descriptions of her new living arrangements. Sophie explains,

"We eat in a huge tent, two long tables. Breakfast at 7:30, bugle call at a quarter to seven, dinner at 12, tea at 4 p.m. and supper at 6. All lights out at 10:30, candles in little lanterns"

Sophie shows an early interest in the operating rooms, and writes,

"The operating room is wonderfully equipped, everything is new; all painted white inside, the outside zinc"
 Sophie writes that she would like to work in the surgical wards: "I would like to be in the operating room, but we can't choose, and just do what we are told and say nothing"

Sophie expresses her feelings about the work in one of her letters:

I am not allowed to state the exact spot in which the cars are running daily and nightly on their errands of mercy, but know the three centres from which they operate to be three of the hottest corners in the fighting. The British ambulance men are working for the French wounded. After one big smash they took a thousand men out of the firing line in one day. I feel now that nursing is not a sacrifice but one of the delights of life, and I am so glad I am here.
“First patients arrive last night.”

Sophie's patients hold a prominent role in her letters. Indeed, her purpose in being overseas is to heal the wounded. It is through her description of the patients that we, the readers of her letters, understand the impact that the war, with all its horrors, has on Sophie. Most significantly, her letters intermingle her daily, mundane activities with sometimes graphic descriptions of her suffering patients. Of course, the purpose of letter writing is to let others know what is occurring in one's life.

The result of Sophie's letters from the war is a mixing of happy descriptions of her travels to neighboring towns, social gatherings and daily chores, Sophie writes on a postcard:

Got one hundred and ten patients last night. They are all so wonderful, so patient and sweet to each other. Their one hope is that they may not be wounded till after dark as they can't be picked up till after dark and it is terrible to lie wounded on the battle-field all day. Some of the wounds are so dreadful that one's most vivid imagination couldn't even faintly picture them. I am well and so far have not been overworked. There are eighty of us. The outdoor life agrees with me. I am burned to a cinder. My nose is like a tomato.
(Postcard, June 7, 1915)

Early in her service Sophie learns about the cruel and devastating inventions of warfare:

"I wish I was allowed to write all I see and hear. Now the worst is this awful gas. It's terrible to see. It's impossible to supply the demand for respirators and to-day I heard that the Germans were sending burning pitch on our men"

Poisonous chlorine gas was used for the first time on April 22, 1915, and the use of various poisonous gases by both sides escalated throughout the war.

“We are a summer camp under canvas and get patients every second night. Eighty-two last P.M.”
I was up till 2 a.m. on the emergency staff. A bugle sounds and in a moment the staff are helping the patients. Those that are able go right to the baths where the orderly bathes them, and they come to a clean bed, warmed, and given a cup of cocoa and bread and butter. They are so grateful and want so little…. I have never seen anything like their spirit. No one could imagine the horrors of a war like this, unless they are here and could see for themselves. Of course a great many die, but the marvel is that so many who have the most awful wounds recover. We do little enough for them, goodness knows, but it seems to make the most wonderful difference.

As often is the case, Sophie quickly ensures that her recipient knows that she is grateful to be there.

In the same letter, she writes,

"This is most interesting and by far the most worth while work I have yet done. It's wonderful to me that I have had the opportunity of doing something for these brave fellows"

Sophie does get to serve in a surgical ward, a wish she had disclosed to her friends and family in her letters. Working in the ward brings her in close contact with the wounds suffered by the men.

To her mother she writes,

"I have never seen such awful wounds. You can believe everything you hear or read about Germans. They now put in their shrapnel glass, screws, needle points, anything they can find that will make a bad wound"

Nonetheless, her dedication and interest in her patients is always strong:

"So glad I came, the patients are a real joy, I hate to leave them"

"I am very well and just crazy about my work, so proud to be in charge of a ward. I hate to come off duty I am so interested in the patients, they are the nicest part of it"

Sophie's care for her patients extends past her ward duties. She tells her mother that she is tired because she has been writing letters at night for her patients who cannot do so themselves.

Sophie receives a letter from the sister of one of her patients:

 "I was so pleased to hear how my brother was, and think it was very kind of you to let me know and I am sure you will do your best to get him better. It really is hard to hear he is dangerously ill and we cannot see him, but we must look on the bright side, but our luck is quite out just lately. We have not heard from my other brother for two months now"  

“Convoys coming all the time now. Yesterday two in one day.”
As the number of patients increase in the hospital, Sophie's letters become more about the work, with fewer tales of social activities. In one very short, yet powerful, letter she talks solely about her work. Through the following excerpt we get a clear glimpse into Sophie's own heart-wrenching experience: Our soldiers are made of stern stuff. One man who died said to me, 'We are going to win but it is taking a lot of our best and will for a long time. I'm glad I was able to go and help them a bit.' He was hit by a shrapnel on the lower jaw which was fractured almost to smithereens. Speaking was out of the question but he wrote it down on paper.

In a letter to Mollie, Sophie writes,

"We have been dreadfully busy, seven hundred patients. As I sit here in my little hut, ambulance after ambulance bringing in the wounded, it's too terrible to watch and hear, and it goes on all night, too. Convoys coming all the time"

She goes on to say that although it is hard, she is well, and getting fat on bread and butter. It may be out of respect for her patients — perhaps her desire to equal their stoicism — that she never dwells on the hardship or the challenges that she faces. She is inspired and uplifted by her patients' 'spirit.' Her admiration for them is a constant sentiment throughout her letters.

As her letters continue, Sophie once again balances descriptions of her social and work activities. She continues to express her happiness to be involved and with her ability to provide comfort to her patients.

Although Sophie continued her service until the end of the war, these letters of her first year of service are the only ones that exist at Library and Archives Canada.

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