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Marion Henderson

November 7, 2022

Soldiers in Front of Duchess of Connaught Hospital, September 1917

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Marion Henderson was working as teacher at Fenelon Falls Public School. In those days, there were few occupations that were socially acceptable for young women. Teaching was a good profession, and at the village school, she would have the chance to instruct a class where her students were of similar age. But her society still expected that most young teachers would marry, settle down and have a family.

While Marion’s sister, Lila, married Fenelon Falls’ pharmacist Alvin Gould and raised a family, Marion would live a much more adventurous life. In 1914, as the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne in Sarajevo set off a series of escalations that plunged the world into war, calls went out across the British Empire for young men to serve overseas. Before long, nurses were urgently needed to care for all the wounded soldiers. Marion Henderson was one of the many young women who signed up to do their part to help with the war effort.

For young men and women alike, setting out for overseas service would be the adventure of a lifetime—and no one quite knew what they would experience. As Marion boarded her ship to cross the Atlantic there were a lot of young men and women there to join her on the journey. As they sailed through U-Boat infested waters, practically everyone aboard was making many new friends.

When Marion arrived in Great Britain, she was taken to Cliveden, a beautiful home on a 375-acre estate near Taplow, in Buckinghamshire. Cliveden was named for its place on a ridge of the Chiltern Hills, situated above the River Thames. Home to the Astor family (descendants of the famous American financier) it is one of the most striking homes of the National Trust. When the First World War broke out, the Astors made their estate into a hospital—the Duchess of Connaught Red Cross Hospital, which treated Canadian soldiers. The first patients arrived in 1915 and it would serve until September 15, 1919, nearly a year after the armistice. Cliveden Estate, both before and during the war, was a world removed from the waterfront agricultural community she had left at Fenelon Falls.

For the young women and men who ventured overseas to serve during the First World War, their tour of duty presented a unique chance to see the world, accompanied by like-minded companions. Though they might have grown up in distant communities, most of them were young and had a lot in common. While we often focus on the experiences of active service, nurses and soldiers alike had time off. Many would make the most of it, touring the British countryside, attending social events, and, in Marion’s case, spending quiet time at one England’s most beautiful estates.

At the same time, Marion was part of one of the most scarring human tragedies in history. Convoys of Canadian soldiers arrived at Taplow’s train station for transfer to Cliveden. From Taplow Station, Ambulances brought the soldiers to the Duchess of Connaught Red Cross Hospital. It was just a few years since Henry Ford had begun production of the Model T, which introduced mass-produced, reliable, and relatively easy to maintain automobiles. Motorized ambulances, were then on the cutting edge of technology.

As the soldiers arrived at Cliveden, many were fortunate to be alive, having left their fallen comrades behind, “Somewhere in France.” But they were also now facing a lifetime of coming to grips with their war wounds—missing arms or legs, being scarcely able to breathe after a gas attack, or wondering if they would ever be able to get out of bed again.

Marion and the other nurses at the Duchess of Connaught Hospital did the best they could to help the soldiers recover from their injuries. Over the years, she treated many grisly wounds. The nurses did everything they could to make the patients feel at home, listening to phonographs and hosting Christmas celebrations. One Day in 1917, the Astor family even welcomed the Royal Family to the hospital.

As the soldiers lay convalescing in their beds, they often developed close friendships with the nurses that were caring for them. Marion had a sketchbook, where her patients would demonstrate remarkable artistic abilities and some even wrote verse to share with their nurse. When peace finally came in 1919 and the hospital closed, Marion would return to Canada and continued to help war veterans recover from the horrific injuries that they had suffered. She worked at Toronto’s Christie Street Hospital, then went on to have a nursing career.

Marion received several medals for her distinguished overseas service. In 1936, she was invited to return to Europe as part of the Canadian Legion Pilgrimage to attend the unveiling of the Canadian National War Memorial at Vimy Ridge. Thomas Cook & Son, the well-known travel company, put together the tour, landing at Antwerp and visiting the sites like Arras and Ypres, where her old friends, two decades earlier, had left behind life and limbs in defence of the Great Britain and the allies. As King Edward VIII unveiled the Vimy Memorial on July 26, Marion was one of the many Canadians on hand. It was an emotional event as this nurse and so many others who had served overseas looked back on the joys they shared and ordeals they endured as they made their First World War journeys.

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