Canadians played a vital role in both world wars and deserve to be well remembered. Here is a poignant story of two such families whose courage, bravery, love and sacrifice are particularly worthy of remembrance during this 100th anniversary year of the end of World War One.
Jean Scott Parkinson, the daughter of Tom and Jane Parkinson, was born in Whitewood, Saskatchewan. Her parents had emigrated from County Antrim, Ireland in 1885 and arrived in Canada amidst the turmoil of the Riel Rebellion; her father established himself as a school teacher in Whitewood, and later moved his family to Carmangay, Alberta.
Jean trained as a nurse though her graduation from Galt Hospital in Lethbridge was delayed when she herself fell seriously ill with typhoid fever and was hospitalized in 1917. In February 1918 she enlisted as a Nursing Sister in the Canadian Army Medical Corp; aged only 24, she was ranked lieutenant, joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) and followed her brother and fiancée overseas. She was posted to the Duchess of Connaught’s Canadian Red Cross hospital at Cliveden in Taplow in the Thames Valley, Buckinghamshire, England. Cliveden was the home of the Astors where Major Astor had generously gifted part of his estate to the CEF for the establishment of a military hospital.
Major Astor and Lady Astor displayed much devotion to the hospital. For five years Nancy Astor gave her life, fortune, and talents to saving lives. She knew many of the staff and patients intimately: she was often seen amongst the nursing staff, offering help and support, and talking with the wounded to raise their spirits; the low death rate at Taplow was attributed to her inspiring personality and presence. Nancy said she “knew the soul of Canada” and she became known as “The Angel of Cliveden.” She commissioned a marble statue of an angel which adorns the cemetery; the angel stands with outstretched arms facing to the West as if guiding the departed souls home. The sculptor is believed to have based the features of this statue on Nancy herself.
Jean was one of the youngest nurses there at the time, “a mere slip of a girl” and Lady Astor would have known her well — indeed Jean’s daughter, Patricia, tells that her mother was a particular favourite of Lady Astor. Jean took inspiration from Lady Astor: she was going to need that and much support from her nursing pals during the personal traumas that lay ahead in that fateful summer of 1918.
Jean’s brother, William Stewart Parkinson, joined the cavalry (Lord Strathcona’s Horse) and had already gone overseas in 1914 with the first Canadian contingent. In France, where his Irish cousins John Scott and Gavin Whittley had fought and died, Willie won a battlefield promotion to sergeant. In September 1917 he went to Belfast on furlough to visit his family. That October he was awarded the much-coveted Distinguished Conduct medal (DCM) for conspicuous gallantry in the field; he “displayed boundless energy and fearlessness when he led a bombing party to attack four lines of enemy defences, clearing 600 yards of enemy trench, and bombing 19 dugouts himself.” He was later awarded a bar to his DCM for further gallantry.
On August 8, 1918 came the start of the final Allied offensive, the aim of which was to drive the Germans out of France and force peace. On the first day of the offensive, at the battle of Amiens, Willie was badly wounded by machine gun fire while astride his horse. He suffered penetrating bullet wounds to his head and abdomen. The battle casualties were enormous and the hospitals overwhelmed. Willie was brought back to England but was so badly wounded he was left outside the triage tent, the doctors did not expect him to live. Astoundingly, at that critical moment Jean was searching amongst the wounded, recognized her brother, then begged and pleaded with the doctors and surgeons to treat him. Her strenuous efforts got him an emergency operation, and her personal nursing care ensured Willie survived, though he remained dangerously ill for a month. A fortunate brave man, he was invalided home to Canada in 1919 and lived for another 40 years.
Jean had a sweetheart, Clarence (Clall) Sherlock, to whom she was engaged to be married. The Sherlocks were a well established and much respected family in Lethbridge. Clall had been a school teacher and then worked as a reporter and editor with the Lethbridge Herald newspaper. He enlisted in 1915, was shipped first to the Whitley army camp in Surrey, England, then posted in July 1916 to France as a bombardier with the Canadian Field Artillery; he served on the front lines at the Somme and Arras. He was severely wounded and in 1917 returned to England to convalesce. After several months in hospital he was discharged from the CEF to join the Training Depot Squadron of the new Royal Flying Corps attached to the Navy (RNAS). He had a lucky escape in France when the propeller of his plane “scalped” the crown of his head! Despite this he rapidly rose through the ranks and was promoted to second lieutenant; he became a flight training instructor and flew training flights for nine months.
When Jean arrived at Taplow hospital in spring 1918 Clall was based at an airfield in Lincolnshire. He took 10 days leave and travelled to meet his fiancée. They often went for romantic walks through the beautiful grounds at Cliveden: one of their walks took them to the small cemetery in the sunken Italian garden which in 1918 the Astors had had consecrated and set aside for Canadian war dead from the hospital. At this time, Clall seems to have had a premonition of his own death, though Jean tried to laugh him out of such melancholy thought. He had nearly completed his own combat training and was being readied to go into front line service. He told Jean, should anything happen to him, he would like to be buried at Cliveden.
Sadly not long after, on the 19th of August 1918, Clall’s training aircraft was in mid-air collision with another flying machine. Both pilots and a pupil were killed instantly. Jean was told of his death by telephone and then she received a letter from Clall. This final letter he had written at the end of their holiday together, with instruction that it only be posted in the event of his death. In it he hoped she would never have to open this letter; he talked of the future, of being “companioned by death for over three years” and how he had never been afraid. “Death might be just around the corner,” he wrote, and repeated his desire to be buried at Cliveden.
Although the sacrifice of front-line combatants is well remembered, the sacrifice of trainee pilots is not well known. The astounding fact is more pilots were killed in training than in enemy combat. Such losses were kept strictly secret for a long time so as not to adversely affect morale and recruitment.
Permission was granted for Clall to be buried at Cliveden as he desired. He was given a full military funeral. His grave was covered with flowers: a white bridal-like wreath from his fiancée; and further tributes from the medical staff and nurses; his flying Corp, and the chief surgeon, Col. Mewburn, who was from his home town of Lethbridge and remembered bringing the boy in to this world 23 years previously. Twelve years later, in 1930, Lady Astor fondly remembered Clarence Sherlock to a reporter who was interviewing her.
The Honour Guard salute Clarence E. Sherlock in the War Cemetery at Cliveden. Lady Astor and Jean’s nursing pals stand solemnly on the the right.
Back home in Canada news did not arrive until the 22nd of August: first that Willie had been seriously wounded, followed only a few hours later by the news that Clall had been killed. Jean’s mother wrote to her daughter: “My Darling child, if I could only hold you in my arms… you are alone, yet not alone for Jesus never leaves his people… we and Clarence’s mother are praying God give you strength.”
More bad news was to come however. Clall’s brother Robert Sherlock was a graduate from McGill University in Montreal where he had studied Applied Science. In October 1918 he was located at an army camp in Halifax, Nova Scotia waiting to be shipped overseas. He fell victim to the terrible “Spanish flu” epidemic that raged during 1918-19, the worldwide spread of which was greatly aided by the large camps and troop movements. Robert died of pneumonia on 15th of October 1918. The flu epidemic of 1918-19 killed more people worldwide than all the combatants killed in WW1 itself. Sadly both Clall and his brother Robert lost their lives during WW1, delivering a terrible double blow to their poor widowed mother, Christabelle and sister Marjorie.
Jean returned to Canada in July 1919 where she continued to nurse wounded servicemen. Her love for Clall never died though in 1922 she married Fred Alexander, a veteran from Campbelton, New Brunswick; they had three daughters whom she raised with great love and devotion. She had to endure further challenges in her later life but she met all with her usual courage, positive pioneering outlook, and outpouring of love. She was an inspiring woman and deeply loved by many in return. She lived life to the full eventually passing away in 1987 in Fontana, California, aged 97; as per her wishes her remains were taken back to Canada to be buried with her dear brother, Willie, whose life she had saved.
Patricia sang the Red Cross Song her mother had taught her at the graveside in Union Cemetery, St.Paul, Alberta. Jean’s spirit lives on in her family, in those families whose loved ones she saved, and in the minds of her many friends whom she touched.
For me it has been a tremendous privilege to have known Jean — “Old Jane,” as she was fondly known to us — to learn her poignant story which she rarely talked about, and to pen this timely tribute to her, Clall, and their families who made such sacrifices so close to the end of that most terrible war.
We will remember them.
Trevor Whittley lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. Jean Parkinson’s daughter, Mrs. Patricia M. Murray, was the source of the story and photographs.
Acknowledgements & Sources
Mrs Patricia M. Murray, San Diego, California for sharing photographs & her mother’s story.
Whittley family, Buckinghamshire, field research
Mr John Whittley, military research and photo restoration
National Trust at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire, England
“McGill Honour Roll 1914-18”, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Lethbridge Herald Newspaper digital archives
RootsChat.com genealogical research and photo restoration
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Library & Archives of Canada – personnel records of WW1