Remembrance Day: Dorothy Twist, volunteer aid detachment nurse

Dorothy Twist is the only woman whose name is on the Duncan and Cobble Hill Cenotaphs.

(Dorothy Twist is the only woman whose name is on the Duncan and Cobble Hill Cenotaphs. I’ve written about her before in capsule form. But this portrait, a compilation of the research efforts of John Orr for the Cobble Hill and Shawnigan Historical Societies, the Rev. Jim Short, and retired University of British Columbia professor of Canadian history Dr. Linda Quiney, is the most complete yet. Dr. Quiney’s book on Canadian VAD nurses is to be published by the UBC Press and she’s presently researching the Canadian and Newfoundland VAD ambulance drivers of the First World War.)


Dr Quiney specifically mentions Dorothy Twist in another article, “Filling the Gaps: Canadian Voluntary nurses, the 1917 Halifax Explosion, and the Influenza Epidemic of 1918.” In a footnote, she reports that “Dorothy, aged 30, was the daughter of Pearson G. Twist, a realty clerk in Shawnigan Lake, B.C.,” and references Wealtha A. Wilson and Ethel T. Raymond in “Canadian Women in the Great War” in Canada and the Great War, Vol. 6, published in Toronto by United Publishing of Canada, in 1921.

In a February 2014 email to John Orr , Dr. Quiney expressed her willingness to share her research of Dorothy Twist “although unfortunately it is very sparse”. She began by noting that Dorothy was a V.A.D. member (Voluntary Aid Detachment) not a qualified Canadian Army Medical Corps Nursing Sister “as is incorrectly cited in at least one random internet source”.

The daughter of Julia and Pearson Gill Twist of Shawnigan Lake, Dorothy had two sisters, one of whom became a registered nurse, and two brothers.

Dorothy’s British Red Cross Society (BRCS) Personnel Index Record Card and other (unconfirmed) facts indicate to Quiney that she was trained by the St. John Ambulance Brigade in Victoria and that she likely travelled to England independently and joined a British Red Cross VAD Nursing District, London 268, in December 1917: “If she had been passed over by St. John for overseas selection she may have gone to London on her own, and signed on directly with the British Red Cross VAD program, which would have guaranteed her a hospital placement and possibly a chance to go to a hospital in a war zone.”

Further to Dorothy’s professional credentials, a 1927 article in the Leader announcing the senior Twists’ golden wedding anniversary refers to Dorothy as a graduate nurse. In 1918, when reporting her death, the same newspaper identified her as Miss Dorothy Twist, V.A.D.: “We regret to announce that Miss Dorothy Twist died, probably from pneumonia, on September 26th at Frensham Military Hospital, England. The deep sympathy of the district goes out to her parents Mr. and Mrs. P.G. Twist, Shawnigan Lake.

“Shortly after the war [began] she went to England and worked as a V.A.D. nurse in Switzerland. Returning through ill health, she volunteered again and went out last May with two other nurses from the Victoria Central Nursing Division, No. 34. She was born in England and was serving at Frensham when she laid down her life.”

The Rev. Jim Short, who began researching the First World War casualties listed on the Cowichan Cenotaph while ministering at Duncan United Church, received this information from Dorothy’s niece, Cicely Ireland of Hamilton, Ont. in 1996: “[Dorothy] came to Canada with her brother Hugh Twist (my father, who was seven years older than her) in 1912. She went to live in Victoria where she was employed as a secretary to the manager of the Imperial Bank. The parents followed and lived in Shawnigan Lake till they passed away in the 1920s.

“When the First World War broke out, both Dorothy and Hugh returned to England — where she served with the V.O.N. in the Aldershot Military Hospital. In 1918, she passed away in that hospital during the flu epidemic, two weeks after her brother Hugh had visited her in Aldershot. She was probably buried in Preston, Lancashire, her hometown. [See below.] Dorothy’s other sister died in 1974 and Hugh died in 1977.”

In her initial correspondence Dr Quiney stated: “The BRCS record notes that Dorothy worked as a VAD nursing sister at the Frensham Hill Military Hospital, Farnham, Surrey, just outside London, from [8 July, 1918] through [4 October, 1918], the recorded date of her death, at age 30. The cause is listed as Pneumonia Influenza. Since Dorothy was a VAD working under the auspices of the British War Office when she died, she was buried at the Aldershot Military Cemetery (Plot AG374) with full military honours, just as any serving soldier or military nurse. Unlike the CAMC, who did not recognize its VADs as military personnel, only as civilian volunteers, she was also awarded a British War Medal posthumously.”

According to Dr Quiney, “There is a fair bit of misinformation floating about the internet…” During a return visit to York Minster in April 2016, she was “amazed to find Dorothy’s name listed as a CAMC nursing sister which I know to be incorrect…but likely one of the many errors of the War Graves Commission in dealing with the thousands of service personnel lost during the war. This error might have given rise to the several others I have found who cite Dorothy as a military nurse.

“In reviewing the information from Dorothy’s niece, who cites Dorothy as a [Victorian Order of Nurses], I now assume that she was confusing the term with VAD. The VON were a voluntary Canadian nursing service who operated (and still do in a limited capacity) as a domestic nursing service only within Canada, largely in areas underserved by medical services. They were all qualified nurses (now R.N.s), with no connection to the military, and were not assigned to service overseas.”

She has since come upon the Debbie Marshall blog, Give Your Other Vote to the Sister, 2007, entitled, ‘Finding the First Forty-Seven: Canadian Nurses of the First World War.’ Marshall’s information “seems to clear up” Quiney’s question about Dorothy’s “Switzerland connection. Although Switzerland was a neutral nation during the war, it was instrumental in receiving and delivering essential food and supply packages to Allied POWs. According to information Marshall gleaned from the BRCS, Dorothy worked initially as a clerical VAD from May 1916, as secretary to Lady Evelyn Grant Duff, head of the ‘Berne Bread Bureau,’ a voluntary organization supplying bread to POWs in Germany. Dorothy went on to work for the BRCS POW Committee (I would assume in London where they were headquartered) between February and August 1917.

“It was likely after this time that Dorothy returned to Canada for nearly a year, since her BRCS Personnel Card cites her as serving as a VAD nurse at Frensham Hill [Military Hospital] from 8 July 1918 to 4 October 1918. I have cited her as being officially enrolled in the Victoria No. 34 Nursing Division of the St. John Ambulance Brigade.”

Quiney’s visit to Dorothy’s grave in Aldershot Military Cemetery in September 2014 cleared up conflicting dates of her demise: “…The official military headstone cites September 26, 1918 as the date of Dorothy’s death. I can only assume that the BRCS record shows the date when Dorothy was officially removed from their roster.”

Dr. Quiney’s research also clearly shows that Dorothy Twist is not the only known Canadian VAD death: “With help from interested researchers, I have added to the number since my dissertation (which cited 4 Canadians and 2 Newfoundlanders), and I now have confirmation of at least 5 Canadians and 3 Newfoundlanders, but likely there are more.

“Unfortunately that is all that I have found to date regarding Dorothy, but the news of another name on a cenotaph is wonderful. It seems ironic that the only two VADs memorialized in Canada (as far as I am aware) are at opposite ends of the country, both on an island. [She’s referring to Ethel Dickinson of St. John’s, Nfld.] I will make a point of visiting the Cobble Hill memorial the next time we visit the island…”

The late Mabel (Chapman) Fleetwood recalled her mother telling her that Mrs. Twist was distraught when Dorothy insisted upon returning to England, so convinced was she that she’d never see her daughter again. As, sadly, turned out to be the case.

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