Helen Kerr was initially given the rank of 2nd Lieutenant when she joined the military in January 1944 and reported to London (Ontario) Military Hospital. “I was being paid the same as a man of equal rank, more than I had been making as a civilian nurse prior to joining the military,” she says.
Upon receiving her certificate of qualification as a Lieutenant Nursing Sister, Helen went on to military training in Kitchener, Ontario, before travelling to Windsor, Nova Scotia, and boarding the Lady Nelson, one of two Canadian hospital ships in May 1944, for the voyage to England.
“The sea was very choppy. We went to Liverpool; I enjoyed the crossing. There was ample food. If I got nauseous, I went up and walked the deck and the fresh air and wind revived me.”
As a nursing sister in Canadian Army Hospitals in Britain and France during the Second World War, Helen cared for injured English, French, Canadian and, occasionally, German soldiers.
She was first stationed in Horley, a 1,200-bed Canadian Army Hospital caring for D-Day casualties. “It was great to be nursing again,” she says, recalling that many of the soldiers had wounds that were non-life-threatening “but heartbreaking in many ways. They were still in post-battle shock and avoided talking about their experiences.”
In October that year, she moved to Dieppe where she was stationed at Chateau Mesnieres-en-Bray, an old chateau near Normandy that had been converted into a Canadian Army Hospital. It was there she met her future husband just prior to being transferred in January 1945 to the ex-German hospital St. Omer, 20 miles from Dunkirk where the Germans were still bottled in.
She met British Army Captain Alex Kerr at a Boxing Day dance on Dec. 26, 1944 and was somewhat surprised by her answer when he asked her to marry him at a New Year’s Eve dance: “I don’t know why, but I said yes. But I told him I couldn’t really marry him as I didn’t want to live anywhere but Canada. He said that’s OK, we’ll go there!”
In March 1945, she left for England and then on to Scotland for their wedding on April 12. Alex left on the River Clyde on May 8, VE Day, in charge of a group of men who arrived at the ship in leg irons from HM Prison Barlinnie — all had volunteered to fight in order to get out of jail.
As married nurses weren’t allowed to be that close to the fighting, Helen remained in England, working at Basingstoke Neurological and Plastic Surgery Hospital, caring for Allied soldiers suffering neurological and spinal injuries. When Basingstoke closed, she was transferred to #11 Canadian Army Hospital at Taplow, Lady Astor’s Estate.
She then served at Bramshott, the last Canadian Army Hospital in England where she remained until she and Alex left for Canada on May 30, 1946.
Upon her return to Canada with her new husband, they had three children, and Helen worked in hospitals in Sarnia and London before transferring to Northwestern General Hospital in Toronto where she was a head nurse of the psychiatric unit until her retirement at the age of 65.
She went on to write Tender Years, a book that chronicles her family's attempt to work a homestead in Saskatchewan before the drought, grasshoppers and the depression drove them back to Ontario.
Incidents of whooping cough, mumps, chickenpox, smallpox, scarlet fever, injuries and quarantines for the family of eight are recalled in detail in her book. One particular crisis involved her eating a poisonous flower, sending her into a state of delirium for 24 hours where she saw imaginary bugs crawling up the walls!
“My mother’s Quakerian philosophy ‘Just grit your teeth and bear it’ was instilled in me at an early age, it still causes me to clench my jaw in time of stress!”
Helen also chronicles her time at a nursing college located at the Ontario Psychiatric Hospital in London, where patients were treated with care and given great responsibilities to keep the facility going. It nurtured an interest in Helen to dedicate her career to caring for those with mental illness.
The last part of her book details her services during the Second World War, both in England and France, and the many heroes she cared for.
Helen turned 101 in 2020.