It was the strangest Christmas she had ever known while nursing at the Liverpool Military Hospital.
Summoned to the office of the hospital’s matron, Elizabeth Parker was told she had to pack her things and head to a school-turned-hospital, where she was to tend to 300 wounded German soldiers during the thick of the First World War.
It was a moment of internal conflict for the member of the Territorial Force Nursing Service. The Scottish-born nurse was dealing with a fresh wound of her own after she found out her favourite brother, whom she described as a brilliant scholar, was killed when bringing in German prisoners of war.
Parker was told she’d have to heal members of the army that took her brother’s life.
“I couldn’t touch them,” she told her matron in an exchange documented in an undated diary entry, though likely written in 1916 or early 1917.
“Sister, you have orders,” the matron responded after Parker’s uninterrupted tirade.
A rebellious Parker, likely age 20, rushed to her room with a longing to make a mad dash back to her home in Scotland.
The heart-wrenching assignment was likely a memory that stayed with her until her dying day, but Parker — who appears to be the last person to serve in the First World War to be buried in the Brandon Municipal Cemetery’s veterans section — didn’t define her life as a servant to the Allied war effort.
With help from cemetery administrator Sandy Jasper, the Brandon Sun has uncovered the life of the war servant through obituaries, diary entries and a granddaughter living in Brandon today.
Parker died in 1987 at the age of 101. The Great War was but an early chapter in the woman’s long life that took her all over the world.
After the long night nursing the German men, of which many had “dreadful” injuries Parker never thought possible, silence among the nurses blanketed the room. Only one voice had the energy to speak, her diary recalls.
“Well, of all the Christmases! Our boys out in France going through Hell to kill the enemy and we’ve absolutely slaved to patch them up again ... I don’t know how you feel, but I feel I should be shot at dawn.”
At the end of Parker’s diary entry, she said she remembered faintly hearing whispers from mangled German men who she thought may never speak again: “Danke schoen schwester.”
Thank you sister.
It’s one woman’s story that highlights the human misery of the war.
Within the year, Parker was honourably discharged as a nursing sister to marry her husband, Lt. Samuel Rutherford Parker, before moving to Regina in 1919 to have four children. She lived to see her son die in the Second World War, a tragedy marked by the Royal Canadian Legion by naming her a Silver Cross Mother. Parker also lost a five-year-old daughter to meningitis.
Her husband passed away in 1949 — a year after the couple moved back to Britain. It wasn’t until 1983 when she returned to Canada, to live in Brandon close to her son, a doctor who worked at the Brandon Mental Health Centre.
Brandon was her home and her final resting place, even though she called the United Kingdom home for much of her life. Home for her was wherever family was.
While in Brandon, Parker was renowned for her rose growing, and the well-travelled woman was interested in the arts, theatre and music.
Her obituary in the Brandon Sun from October 1987 noted her most memorable trip to Jerusalem and Egypt, where she rode a camel to the pyramids in 1978 at the age of 92.
She rarely spoke of the war — at least not to her grandkids.
Hellen Burnell, Parker’s granddaughter living in Brandon, said she never saw any signs of her grandmother’s service in the war, but it’s obvious by looking at Parker’s headstone nestled among fallen male soldiers that she was proud of that early chapter of her life.
“There’s a history of standing up for your country in the family, there’s no question,” Burnell said. “Our family has stood up.
“It’s sad when you lose family, but having said that, there’s a special feeling I have that she’s in the veterans section of the cemetery.”
Parker’s headstone bears the Territorial Force Nursing Service symbol.
“I’m very proud that she’s buried there and I’m very proud of the accomplishments she made and the inroads made for women in World War One,” Burnell said.
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Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition August 2, 2014