A Peace Garden is being dedicated today to Scotland’s First World War “barge sisters”, the nurses who transported seriously wounded soldiers in “hospital barges” along canals in France, Flanders, and later the Nile.
The garden, by the Union canal at Polwarth Parish Church in Edinburgh, is complemented by a display of photographs in the kirk’s Drennan Hall.
The nurses worked in cramped conditions ferrying soldiers with serious spinal, head and other injuries to hospital bases in towns such as Rouen and Boulogne.
The faced dangers from aerial bombing as well as inhaling the fumes which clung to the wounded soldiers’ uniforms and hair.
Director of Scotland’s War, Professor Yvonne McEwen, of the department of war and conflict studies at the University of Wolverhampton, who will open the garden, said: “The teams of staff serving on the barges, including nurses, doctors, orderlies, Royal Engineers and Inland Water transport staff, have never received the recognition they rightly deserved.
“Barges were requisitioned and converted to hospitals, each with 30 beds.
“The nurses worked in dangerous conditions travelling in flotillas of six barges, piloted by engineers from Britain’s Inland Waterways.
“The barges were very exposed because they could only travel by daylight.”
The exhibition includes a diary written by Sister Millicent Bruce Peterkin from Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.
Sister Peterkin wrote: “Undoubtedly one of the greatest drawbacks to the barges was the want of windows in the sides, which would have given us more light and air.
“This lack of air became most apparent during the last few months of the war... this was especially so if the load consisted of gassed cases, for, notwithstanding the fact that they were supposed to be washed all over, and have their gassed uniforms removed in hospital, they still seemed to constantly exude the smell of the gas, their breath being especially foul.
“Frequently, also, they were badly burned, and covered with huge watery blisters, which, when burst, seemed to smell badly.
“More than once, after evacuating such a load, I have felt quite ‘gassed’ myself, with sore eyes, sickness, and difficulty in breathing, similar symptoms being shown by other members of the staff.”
She continued: “As will be readily understood, the nursing of the patients in these crowded conditions was very difficult... however, I am thankful to say that I never lost any of my patients en route, though we sometimes had a hard fight to keep them alive.
“I feel that I must pay a tribute to those patients of ours, for they seldom grumbled, but bore pain and discomfort with wonderful courage, patience, and cheerfulness. And this gratitude for anything that we did for them was surely reward enough for any trouble we had.”
The peace garden includes a stone bench bought through a £1,000 donation from Scotmid Co-operative society.
This Saturday the church will launch a fundraising initiative with the charity People Know How with the aim of buying a barge, for occasions such as weddings.