AS A ROYAL ARMY MEDICAL CORPS DOCTOR on the front lines of the Salonika Campaign, Alex Bremner was often in as much danger as the soldiers he was trying to save. His light-hearted, teasing letters to cousin Anna are peppered with hints of danger, fatigue, and a longing for home.
15 October 1916: “We’ve done our bit here for a while and I’ve got safely through this time and only a lucky one can hit me now.”
19 January 1917: “You made me laugh when I read your letter saying you might be commandeered. That’s a long word to spell. But cheer up they won’t conscript you yet… What did you do on Xmas day? I had a fairly quiet day. Nothing to do and all day to do it in. Aeroplanes are flying about all over the place and making a horrible noise so if you can’t read this letter just blame the aeroplanes. I can’t remember any girl called Jeanie, but if she’s as pretty as you say it’s just as well for my peace of mind that I don’t remember her.”
22 February 1917: “Here all the moving I do is Front line, Support, Reserve and then the same all over again… I’d risk all the submarines to get home for a few days…”
Alex finally got his wish, and in April 1917 came home for a two-week leave. His young cousins were determined to protect Alex as best they could when he returned to war. 14-year-old Josephine gave him a lucky coin, and 16-year-old Anna cut a farthing in two, giving half to Alex and keeping the other half for herself. He put both in his pocket. Now he would be safe.
After farewells in Edinburgh and a failed attempt in London to be posted closer to home, Alex began what would be a life-changing journey.
Armed with his lucky coins and snapshots, he boarded a ship at Southampton for Le Havre, travelled overland to Marseilles, and waited for transport back to the Front.
Alex embarked on the HMT Transylvania,crowded on board with nearly 3,000 reinforcement troops, nursing sisters and other Royal Army Medical Corps personnel. They set sail on the evening of May 3, 1917 bound for Salonika and Alexandria.
To evade German U-boats, the ship sailed in a zig-zag pattern, staying close to the Italian coast. They were escorted by two Japanese destroyers. However, around 10 o’clock the following morning, while the troops were on parade, a torpedo hit the ship’s port-side engine room. The ship immediately came to a stop and began to sink.
“Women first!” came the shout, and the 66 nurses on board were lowered into a lifeboat and rowed towards shore five miles away. As they set off, one of the nurses cried “Give us a song, boys!” and the troops on deck standing in line five deep “at once responded, singing, first, ‘Tipperary’ and then, with a touch of grim humour, ’Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty’.”
TheMatsu destroyer came alongside to begin a rescue, while the Sakaki attempted to occupy the Germans. But 15 minutes later, another torpedo hit the ship and she started to list heavily. Within 50 minutes she would sink.
Like many others in the R.A.M.C., Alex was most concerned with helping the injured. Up until the very last minute “he stayed with his patients and went down with the ship but came to the surface again and, while in the water for four hours, assisted others onto life-rafts, ignoring his own safety.”
After four hours in the sea, Alex was brought to Savona, where the Italian citizens welcomed the survivors and buried the dead. 89 R.A.M.C. men were lost that day. In total, there were 412 casualties, with bodies picked up and buried in cemeteries in Italy, France, Monaco, and Spain. Many were never found.
A week after embarking on the Transylvania, Alex was back in Marseilles. Left with nothing but the clothes he wore on his back and the two lucky coins in his pocket, Alex’s letter home to Anna was a masterpiece in dramatic understatement:
10 May 1917 [Regina Hotel, Marseilles]: “Back again here. We left here a week ago and arrived back yesterday without any clothes except shirt and trousers and tunic and they were wet with seawater. I can’t say any more as the censor wouldn’t pass it. Thank goodness I can swim even though it was only for four hours.”
However, he did have something to say about another doctor who jumped to safety early on. Perhaps the keen loss of some of his R.A.M.C. friends, who were also returning from leave, prompted Alex to say:
“Dr. ---- is with our party. He was lucky. He was quite dry and had all his clothes. Some people always hurry and only the ones who don’t care a bit and who wait till the last have to swim. I’m all right and hope that we get a move on again. Only two chums left now. We two stuck together.”
To ensure it passed the army censors, Alex could only hint at what had happened and how he was coping:
“You can tell Bella that I’ll write her as soon as things are more normal. I think that you understand what happened to us. Don’t you? I lost all my snapshots etc. but have still got Josephine’s lucky coin and your farthing so I think I shall never be killed. What do you think? It was cold in the water. There is no more news… Love to all from Alex.”
While waiting in Marseilles for transport back to Salonika, two other significant events occurred. First, he was sent on a mysterious mission: “I volunteered to go on some dangerous jobs and am back again all right. I’m glad I went now, but at the time it wasn’t at all pleasant. I wish I were back again in Edinburgh.”
Then, Alex bumped into his Salonika adjutant who was home on leave to Ireland. “He told me that if I didn’t go back to the 7thRDF [Royal Dublin Fusiliers] that they would be very angry so I think I’ll go. Perhaps I won’t be killed and if I am not it will be all right. He told me that unless I went back the other fellows wouldn’t like to go into action. I know they all like me as they know I always go out when they go so I think I’ll go back soon.”
No further letters to Anna remain. But a coin bracelet held together with a bobby pin that Alex sent her from Port Said, hints at his next chapter. Alex signed on for another two years, remaining with the 7thRoyal Dublin Fusiliers. In September 1917 they left Salonika for Alexandria to join the allied offensive against the Turks in Palestine.
In May 1919, he was demobilised with the rank of Captain, R.A.M.C. (T.). A few months later, Alex married Ella Elphinston, a graduate of his class at The University of Edinburgh. They moved to Sheffield where Ella set up a pediatric practice and Alex took on a general practice. Alex also devoted long hours at the Children’s Hospital, was a university lecturer on childhood diseases, and championed the care and rehabilitation of rheumatic children.
Alex was done with war. At least, until 1939. But, that would be another story.
And the lucky coin? Anna’s descendants still have her half, reminding them of cousin Alex and his World War I story that might otherwise be forgotten.
SOMETIMES WHILE RESEARCHING and writing my family history I find a person whose story resonates with me. This is one of those. Alex Bremner didn't leave any direct descendants to remember him, but as Remembrance Day is nearly upon us I thought it fitting to share what I have written of his story so far, so we can all remember him and the other men and women who sacrificed. #LestWeForget
THE THINLY-SLICED CARROTS
fall away from the knife.
A turkey basks
In the oven heat.
We wipe our hands on a tea towel,
Straighten our aprons.
Our hair curls from the heat and
The last-minute preparations
Of our Thanksgiving feasts.
Minnie and me, 100 years apart,
Sharing the same kitchen routine,
The same spirit of joy.
Friends, Family, Food -
Blessings from God.
COUSIN KAROLYN, ONE OF THE guardians of our family's female past, has an old, wide-ruled school exercise book that is held together by black tape. On the cover is written simply “Old Recipes”.
Karolyn’s mother, my Great-Auntie Grace, transcribed in her vintage handwriting the precious recipes of her life that included: her Mother’s Pumpkin Pie, her sister Margaret’s Rhubarb Upside Down Cake, Mrs. Codnille’s pastry, and Mar Evan’s Tutti Frutti.
Reading each recipe title is a memory stamped in dough: mix, roll, bake and remember laughter and cake shared over tea, a plate full of cookies at the church bazaar, a festive Christmas table adorned with homemade pie. Decades have passed, but each recipe is forever connected with the woman who shared it.
As I stumble across the images on my computer, I am tugged towards the homemade past, my female ancestors and their friends, who shared joy, tears and sisterhood through food.
And so, in spite of pending deadlines, I drag out the flour canister, brown sugar, raisins and butter. I stir in chopped nuts, drop the dough by teaspoonful and bake in a “moderate oven”. My effort to recreate great-great Auntie Pitt’s Perfect Raisin Cookies is a Perfect Recipe for Remembering.
IT'S NO SECRET THAT I AM PASSIONATE about recording family stories. But what is the best way to preserve and share them? In spite of the wonders of the digital age, I am still a believer in print.
There is something magical about holding a tangible object in your hands, words and photos imprinted on a page. No matter how big or small your storytelling project may be, I think that there is value in having a hard copy to read yourself and share with family members.
In 2017 I decided to write the story of my 2nd great-grandmother, Renate Fooken Pedersen. She died in childbirth in Sims, North Dakota around 1901, but we had no records to back that up. A few years ago, I obtained a photo of her from a distant cousin; she stands outside in a muddy farmyard, tenderly holding a baby, and gazing out to the viewer. Her photo has sat on my living room side table for many years, and every time I looked at her I wanted to know more. My quest was to piece together the story of her life as best I could, using her photograph as a jumping off place.
I spent several months doing just that, weaving together the facts I discovered into a non-fiction narrative essay, and when I finished writing her story, I wanted to share it with my family members. I chose Blurb.ca as my self-publishing choice and was pleased with the results. My writing was essay length with photos, and so a 7 x 7 inch photo book fit my needs exactly.
Here are some of my tips to help you with your project:
When I received Remembering Renate in the mail, I was so excited. It is the best feeling to open up your package and seeing the final tangible product of all your research, writing, and design.
Let me know if you publish your family’s stories and how you decided to do it!
YESTERDAY AND TODAY WERE SNOW DAYS in what otherwise would be a very mild winter for us in the Vancouver Lower Mainland region. Schools were closed, and many people worked from home to avoid the roads and backed up transit. I just got back in from clearing off my car and re-parking it in front or our house (it had been ‘stuck’ in place down the street for the past few days). As I worked, I heard children’s delighted screams as they played in the snow and slid down the hill at the park. It reminded me of snow days from my own childhood.
I grew up in Powell River, and have glowing memories of donning a snow suit and sliding down the hill at Sunset Park on crazy carpets and toboggans. We made snow angels and threw snowballs, coming home with rosy cheeks. One year when I was about seven, long, clear icicles grew from the eaves of our house. Dad snapped them off and we sucked on them like popsicles. They didn’t taste very good, but it was fun.
For Christmas when I was about 11, my sister and I received matching ten speed bikes for Christmas. We couldn’t wait for Spring, so created our own track in the back yard and rode around and around in the snow for hours.
When I was 16, my dad helped teach me to drive, and a snow day was an opportunity to learn. Dad brought me and my sister to an empty parking lot at the old Brooks School and showed us how to get out of ice skids by turning the steering wheel into the slide, rather than jerking it in the opposite direction and hitting the brakes, a normal reaction and which would cause an accident. Not only did he show us, but he made us do it while he was sitting in the passenger seat. We became comfortable with having the car get out of and then regain control.
This skill has helped me avoid several accidents over the years. When I was at university I worked as a late-night janitor, cleaning the faculty offices and classrooms on campus. One winter night I drove home at 2 a.m., turned left onto my Provo street, and found my car sliding hopelessly towards the deep rain gutters. I remember thinking that there was nothing I could do, but I let up on the brake like my dad taught me, and the car came to a stop and stalled right on the edge of the gully. I carefully backed up and drove the remaining few meters home, shaken but safe.
Another time right after university graduation, I was living and working back in Powell River. I rented a basement suite in a house south of town on Byron Road. I made it up the first hill, but when I was turning right to go up the second hill, the loss of speed caused me to lose momentum. I started sliding backward towards a forested embankment on the opposite side of the street. I had the idea to quickly change gears into reverse, cause the car to slide around so that I was facing back down the first hill, and quickly change into drive to stop the slide and start going down the hill. It worked! I was shaken but managed to park at the bottom of the hill and decided to walk up and down the kilometre or so until the roads were better.
Although there is something fun about being out in the snow, there is also something peaceful about cozying up inside to watch the flakes come down and read a good book.
Writing prompt: How about you? What are your snow day memories?
TODAY WE REMEMBER THE END OF WWI and all those who served, were killed and impacted by the Great War. A few months ago, I was the keynote speaker at a family history conference in Victoria and a year previously had been given the topic: 100 years since the end of WWI. I was flattered to be asked to speak but was concerned about what I would say; although I loved history, I knew very little about WWI.
As I am neither a professional historian, nor an expert on WWI, I decided to focus on what I do best: gathering stories. I chose to study Duncan, BC and spent many hours at the BC Archives in Victoria where I read about Duncan and the War through the Cowichan Leader from 1914 through 1918. I found myself immersed in the initial excitement followed by the unsettling reality of war that was revealed through graphic and tragic letters from the boys at the front. I was caught up in the town’s fervor to wrap bandages, raise money, send parcels, and preserve food – anything to help with the war effort.
I felt an overwhelming sadness on the battle days when everything was being reported as normal at home in Duncan (whose chickens laid the largest eggs?) while I knew that thousands were at that moment being killed at places like Vimy Ridge. By digging deep into one town’s war experience, I was able to feel a small glimpse of what it was like to live through the war, as a soldier and as a loved one at home.
We have a tendency to think that those who lived before were naïve and led simpler lives; as I read articles in the newspaper I realized that their concerns were similar to those we see in the news today – how will returning veterans be reintegrated back into their communities and into the workplace; how have the horrors of war impacted them; how should immigrants (“enemy aliens”) be treated; the importance of buying local and supporting the local economy through troubling times; recycling products and saving food.
Immersing myself in local history and focusing on the community helped me to better understand my own family and what their lived experience was on the home front through the war. As a result of my year of research, Remembrance Day is more personal, more poignant, more sad.
Do you have any family members who served in WWI? If you haven’t had a chance to delve into WWI history, I would encourage you to do so. In Canada, we have an amazing array of digital archives and records to help you learn about the experience of your WWI ancestor. Check out the Library and Archives Canada site for photos, personnel databases, war diaries, and more.
I AM DRAWN TO THE PAST.
Although my father’s parents were both deceased by the time I was 11 years old, I can still map out the layout of their home in my mind: the black flagstones in the entranceway where I gave untutored tap dance recitals in my black patent shoes, the sliding screen door that grandpa walked through by accident (accompanied by some very choice words not fit for small ears), and the piano with the cushioned bench that I have in my home now; I loved to pretend that I could play elegantly just like Grannie Inkster.
Perhaps the fact that my beloved grandparents died when I was so young impressed on me the fragility of a life, the transience of unpreserved stories.
As a teenager and young adult, I travelled to Duncan, BC and interviewed my great-aunt, neighbours, and childhood friends of Grannie. One of them gave me the photo above; Peter had transferred from Nanaimo to work in the Nanaimo Duncan Utilities office while native Duncanite Kay worked next door at Fletcher Music.
I also met with a man who had served overseas with Grandpa Inkster in WWII in No. 16 Canada General Hospital Army unit. He provided me with photos, memorabilia, timelines, and most precious of all: stories.
A passion for stories has stayed with me and sharing these glimpses into the past brings me joy. Join me as I memorialize some of my family story adventures and as I share how you can do the same.