#VimyRidgeHeroes: Grace MacPherson

#VimyRidgeHeroes: Grace MacPherson

Posted on March 30 by Ted Barris in Non-fiction
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Some of the 7,000 Canadians wounded in the battle for Vimy Ridge couldn’t believe their eyes when they were taken from the battlefield following their victory in April 1917. Suddenly, after weeks or months in the front lines knowing no one but their comrades-in-arms, some members of the Canadian Corps awoke to the strangest looking stretcher bearers. Instead of male medics and physicians, they came face-to-face with ambulance personnel such as Grace MacPherson.

“Somehow [the wounded men] always put us on pedestals,” she said. “Women ambulance drivers were considered more glamorous than nurses. We wore blue uniforms … with short skirts, high boots, and caps. We drivers were just idolized.”

Idolized by Canadian troops with wounds, breaks and contusions, perhaps. But for nineteen-year-old Grace MacPherson, eager to serve in the Great War, gaining that kind of respect and admiration was a long time coming.

From the very night in 1914, when she read in Vancouver newspapers that Britain had declared war on Germany, she announced to her family that she was going overseas to drive Red Cross ambulances. In the months that followed, she contacted the war office in Ottawa and the Red Cross in Britain. Neither appeared interested in helping her make her way to the battlefields of Europe. So she saved what she could and eventually paid for her own passage across the Atlantic. The next hurdle she faced was Canadian army inertia. Waiting patiently for an answer at first, Grace finally forced the issue, demanding and getting an audience with the commander of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Sir Sam Hughes himself, in London in 1916.

“I’ve come from Canada to drive an ambulance,” she told Hughes and an entourage of officers in Hughes’s luxury suite at the Savoy Hotel.

“I’ll stop any woman from going to France,” Hughes blustered. “And I’ll stop you too.”

“Well, Sir Sam, I’m going to France,” she insisted. “And I’ll get there with or without your help.”

The situation on the Western Front and Allied politicians’ views of the way the war was being directed, suddenly overtook Sam Hughes and allowed Grace MacPherson to realize her wish. Hughes was relieved of his duties not long after Grace’s encounter with him at the Savoy. And the war office suddenly decided that men in the ambulance corps could better serve the war effort closer to the front. The job of driving ambulances to and from the 50,000 hospital beds located near Etaples, on the coast of France, passed to women volunteers, including a persistent Grace MacPherson.

There was more to serving in the ambulance corps, however, than hopping into the driver’s seat and transporting wounded soldiers heroically off to waiting surgical crews in the military hospitals. Red Cross motor ambulances proved to be very basic vehicles. They had no windshields, no lights and their tires were notoriously vulnerable to punctures. Maintenance and repair, including repair of flat tires, were the driver’s responsibility.

In addition to coping with the vehicle’s temperamental auto-mechanics, drivers had to keep areas in the back of the ambulance clean and stocked with medical supplies. The women sometimes worked as their own stretcher-bearers.

On Easter Monday — April 9, 1917 — a force of nearly 100,000 Canadian Corps troops spearheaded an attack against a deeply entrenched German force atop Vimy Ridge in north-central France. In the next four days, the Canadians accomplished what no Allied force had managed over the two previous years — they seized Vimy from the Germans and held it. The cost was dear — 3,598 Canadians died in the effort; nearly 7,000 more were wounded and needed immediate medical attention. 

Right after midnight on April 9 — as the first Canadian wounded arrived at Etaples from Vimy — ambulance driver Grace MacPherson began the first of a dozen trips from the railway station to No. 1 General Hospital. She described the Vimy wounded as “a very sorry looking bunch.” Still, she never allowed their disabled condition or their depressed frame of mind to dissuade her from her work.

If a passenger groaned from the back of the ambulance, Grace would say: “You cut that out! Nobody’s riding in my ambulance moaning like that.”

“Oh, I got a leg off,” he might say.

“Look, I bashed my thumb today,” she’d respond, trying the distract him from self pity.

The patient might then say: “You’re a queer sort of bloke.”

“Listen. You’re going to get the best ride you ever had in your life,” she’d say ultimately. She refused to allow herself to express any sympathy openly, for the patient’s sake and for her own sanity under those stressful conditions.

Whether a form of self-defence or just her inherent determination, Grace MacPherson’s sometimes tough demeanour served her well. Not long after Vimy, when the Germans retaliated with aerial bombing of the barracks near the hospitals in Etaples, Grace again found herself in the middle of the action. She recalled transporting numerous wounded, several wrapped in blood-soaked blankets in the front seat next to her. She held one injured soldier by the shoulder as she drove. In two separate bombings, the Germans killed 70 people, including nursing sisters, operating room surgeons, medical orderlies and patients.

For nineteen-year-old Grace MacPherson, the service she had fought so strenuously to deliver, not only engendered a sense of purpose, but it also inspired a sense of national pride too.

“We were thrilled to be in on a big adventure,” Grace MacPherson said finally. For a year and a half she had served King and Empire for about 14 shillings a week. But serving as a Red Cross ambulance driver was never really about pay or recognition. “I was just proud of the ‘Canada’ flash on my shoulder.”


Ted Barris is the author of Victory At Vimy, Canada Comes of Age: April 9-12, 1917, published by Dundurn.

Ted Barris

Posted by Kendra on October 30, 2014
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Ted Barris

Ted Barris is an award-winning author, journalist, and broadcaster. For more than forty years his writing has appeared in the national press, as well as in history, news, and arts magazines, and he has authored seventeen non-fiction books, including the national bestsellers Victory at Vimy, Juno, and The Great Escape. In 2014, The Great Escape received the national Libris Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award.