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From your loving daughter

Newfoundland and Labrador's women of the First World War

Campus and Community

By Kristine Power

The women’s letters, diaries, photos and documented observations describe the brutality of the First World War.

Upon close inspection, the personal belongings also reveal their collective resiliency and indomitable hope.

The physical items that once belonged to three Newfoundland and Labrador women who served with the Voluntary Aid Detachment are a part of Memorial University Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections Division.

Many are available for viewing on the Digital Archive Initiative.

They allow us to see into the lives of the semi-trained nurses, nurses’ aides, cooks, ambulance drivers and clerical staff at convalescent hospitals in Canada and overseas who contributed to the cause.

1/ Frances Cluett

Frances Cluett was born and raised in the fishing community of Belleoram, Fortune Bay, where she worked as a schoolteacher. In October 1916 at the age of 33, Ms. Cluett joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) – an organization of semi-trained nurses who provided auxiliary medical services during war. Within six months of joining, Ms. Cluett was working in a hospital close to the front lines where she experienced the atrocities of war first-hand. Pictured is a Newfoundland-issued passport photo from Oct. 31, 1916.

Photo: Frances Cluett Collection (Coll-174): 1.02.003

2/ Letters home

A letter from Frances Cluett to her mother, Matilda Cluett. 10 Gen. Hos. 31/3/18 Easter Sunday morning. "Dear Mother: I am going to Church at 11:15 am, for I am so terribly tired. We are awfully busy, nearly killed since this last rush: If this war does not soon end there won’t be a man living on the face of the earth. It is brutal; it is cold-blooded murder; it is hell upon earth . . . From the time I went on duty at 10 p.m., I did not stop a minute until 8 am next morning, except to have a cup of tea at 12 pm. I say again this war is simply horrible. What a blessing some of these boys mothers do not see their husbands and sons."

Photo: Frances Cluett Collection (Coll-174): 2.03.022

3/ General Hospital

This watercolour by Frances Cluett is from 1918 and shows the 10th General Hospital in Rouen, France, where she served. There are five watercolour paintings in the Frances Cluett Collection. They depict the buildings that made up the hospital grounds, including a sisters' bath house and tennis grounds and the view from the mess room window.

Photo: Frances Cluett Collection (Coll-174): 6.01.003

4/ Ruby Ayre

Ruby Edith Ayre was born in St. John’s and left for England to serve in 1915. She served at Lady Roberts’ Convalescent Hospital until November 1917. From there she transferred to the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, a part of the British Expeditionary Force in France until the end of the war. She served as a cook, orderly and ambulance driver, including driving German prisoners-of-war between the front lines and the prisoner-of-war camps. She was repatriated to Newfoundland in April 1919 after more than three-and-a-half years of overseas service.

Photo: Ruby Ayre Collection (Coll-322)

5/ Photograph album

Ruby Ayre documented her time at the Ascot Auxiliary Military Hospital, 1916-18. Her album includes photographs, clippings and mementos of Newfoundlanders in Europe and fellow nurses Janet Ayre, Mary Rendell and Nell Job. Under most of the photos are hand-written annotations.

Photo: Ruby Ayre Collection (Coll-322)

6/ Concert program

Ruby Ayre kept this concert program from Dec. 4, 1916, which includes performances by patients and medical staff at the Ascot Auxiliary Military Hospital.

Photo: Ruby Ayre Collection (Coll-322)

7/ Newspaper clippings

Ruby Ayre cut out this newspaper clipping that documented the granting of the title of Royal to the Newfoundland Regiment and a performance of the Newfoundland Regiment band. "This distinction comes as a fitting tribute to the loyal and ancient Colony, whose sons have fought so well and in so many battles. It is the first instance of such a title being conferred in the present war," it reads in part.

Photo: Ruby Ayre Collection (Coll-322)

8/ Janet (Miller) Ayre Murray

Janet (Miller) Ayre Murray can be seen in the back row, fifth from left, in 1918, with a Voluntary Aid Detachment group. Janet Miller was the first woman to enter the Newfoundland Law Society, but the war cut her law studies short. She moved to Scotland at the start of the war, where she married Eric Ayre of St. John's. Her husband, along with her brother-in-law, Bernard Ayre, died at Beaumont-Hamel. After this tragedy, she moved to England. Janet joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment where she served as an ambulance driver. When the war finally ended, she returned to St. John's and was involved in various social justice causes, including the suffragette movement.

Photo: Janet (Miller) Ayre Murray Collection (Coll-158): 2.06.006

9/ In Edinburgh, Scotland

Janet Miller and her fiancé, Eric Ayre, in 1915.

Photo: Janet (Miller) Ayre Murray Collection (Coll-158): 8.05

10/ Certificate of Identity

Janet Miller Ayre's Certificate of Identity of the British Empire Army for Civilians, Red Cross Brassard, September 1918.

Photo: Janet (Miller) Ayre Murray Collection (Coll-158): 1.01.004

11/ 'She who helps Man serves God'

Certificate of recognition of service, Berkshire Branch of the British Red Cross, April 1921.

Photo: Janet (Miller) Ayre Murray Collection (Coll-158): 1.01.008

“These collections are tangible touchstones that connect us to personal stories and experiences,” said Colleen Quigley, head of Archives and Special Collections with Memorial University Libraries. “Both scholars and community members can draw upon these unique primary objects to reflect and engage with our understanding of history and what it means to be human. The Archives and Special Collections Division is dedicated to preserving and providing free access, both in person and digitally, to these important archival items relating to the people and events that shape our understanding and identity.”

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