Martha Morkin

She was assisting a surgeon who was shot dead as he operated. Grief would have to wait; she had to finish the operation or risk losing the patient.

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Martha Morkin, like many veterans of the Great War, rarely spoke of her wartime experiences. In 1919, she put it all behind her, closed the door, and got on with her life.

Originally a public health nurse, Martha graduated from the Saint Boniface Training School for Nurses around 1906 and began a career teaching and lecturing on first aid, home nursing, hygiene and other health issues for farmers and women’s groups on behalf of the Alberta Department of Agriculture.

In 1915, her strong sense of duty led her to join the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. She was eventually posted to Canadian Casualty Station (CCS) No. 3 near Boulogne. The role of the CCS, which was located close to the front lines, was to receive wounded from the dressing stations on the battlefield, assess them, treat them and then, if necessary, evacuate them to hospital. With 400, and later, 800 beds, the CCS was extremely busy. It was also dangerous. It had to be closed twice in 1918 when it came under heavy shelling, and disease claimed many, including two nurses, one of whom died of cerebro-spinal meningitis, and another of pneumonia.

It wasn’t until very late in life that Martha spoke about the war, very briefly, with her niece. Her introduction to front-line nursing was horrific: her first patient was a gas victim who soon died a terrible death. She somehow managed to pull herself together and deal with the overwhelming rush of patients that day, but this memory always stayed with her. On another occasion, she was assisting a surgeon who was shot dead as he operated. She had no time to grieve; she had to finish the operation or risk the life of the patient as well.

After the armistice she worked with war refugees and demobilizing Canadian soldiers. But when she came home, she was restless and unable to take up her old life. She jumped at the chance to go north of Dawson City to set up the first hospital in the Yukon Territory. She lived alone in a cabin, hobnobbed with prospectors and explored the rugged terrain. Eventually, she left the north and served in a variety of executive positions for several tuberculosis societies in Canada and the US. She continued working until the age of 79, and finally entered a retirement home in California where she spent her last days. She died in 1975 at the age of 89.

Do you have an ancestor who served in the Great War? Submit their story and it could be included on this Great War Album website.