Armistice Day – Remembering Ruth Downey (1893-1945)

Ruth Downey 1914

Ruth Downey 1914

Yesterday was Veteran’s Day in America and Armistice Day in Britain and the Commonwealth nations. It was an opportunity to honor all those who have served in the military and those who gave their lives to preserve our freedom. The genealogy message boards lit up with discussions about the ceramic poppies memorial for the 888,246 people who died  in WWI in England. I encourage you to view it here. One of the British genealogists sent links to Lives of the First World War, a site that is building the stories for all those who served in WWI. Of course I got distracted from my current genealogy work and started evaluating what I have on my Canadian step great grandmother who was a nursing sister in England and France from 1916-1918.

Ruth left Canada on the Over-Seas Expeditionary Forces on January 31st, 1916.

Ruth Downey - Declaration of Officers

Ruth Downey – Declaration of Officers

I know from stories my Grandmother and Grandfather told me, that Ruth was first sent to England to the military hospital in Orpington, Kent, England. I found an article on line about the history of the hospital indicating that it was built with Canadian War Relief Funds and opened on February 19, 1916. Ah, this explains why the nurses left Ontario on January 31st! At the height of the war, the hospital had 2,080 beds. There were over 42,000,000 Allied troops and over 12,000,000 of them were wounded in the war from 1914-1918.  I imagine those 2,000 beds were always full.

Ruth was sent to France sometime in 1917. Most of my understanding of the WWI battle and nursing experience comes from the mystery novels I have read e.g. Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear, Anne Perry’s WWI series and Charles Todd’s Beth Crawford books. While I know fiction is a light substitute for historical works, I think it gives me a general sense of the soldiers’ and nurses’ daily life, camaraderie, fear and brutality of war. Though the individual experiences of Ruth have been lost to history, we can surmise they forever affected her.

Canadian Camp in France

Anglo-Canadian Camp – Hospital Room

In France, Ruth met her husband Horace Kemp, a soldier in the Canadian Forces. They married in England and Ruth returned home to Canada to give birth to their son Robert (my step-grandfather) in August 1918. The family stories portray Horace as somewhat of a cad; the marriage did not work out and by the early 1920’s Ruth moved to Los Angeles with her son. She worked as a nurse and raised her son as a single mother until she married her second husband Joe in 1935 when Robert was in high school.

And then WWII arrived. I wonder what she must have thought when she watched her son go off to the Pacific in 1942? All those memories of “her” war must have replayed in her mind and she must have been so scared for Robert.   Sadly, Ruth developed cancer in 1944, but was able to see her son return home before she died in 1945.

I wish I had known Ruth and I wished I had asked my Grandpa “Bob” more questions before he died. Imagine what I could have learned? But I will go on those WWI websites to document her service so others can see the difference she made while she was here.


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6 Responses to Armistice Day – Remembering Ruth Downey (1893-1945)

  1. Val Sanford says:

    Such a thought-provoking story, Rachelle. I’m so in awe of the WW1 nurses and ambulance drivers. Like you my knowledge comes from well-written historical mysteries and from historical biographies of battles and those who participated in them. Wonderful photographs.

    • Rachelle says:

      I completely agree about respect and awe for the women who served in WWI. Remember that nurse who served in the Vietnam War from our writing class? The things they saw…

  2. Garrison says:

    Bob was so proud of his own service, likely in part due to the connection it made with his mother. I recall going through some of his things in his workshop after he passed and noting the care he took with WWII memories. I did not realize that his mother had been a nursing sister. WWI was very brutal with chemical attacks. The things she must have seen, yet was able to come back and raise a successful child. How a amazing.

    • Rachelle says:

      Yes, Grandpa was very proud of his WWII service…another blog I will need to do! I am hoping to be able to get his service records in DC or St. Louis…not sure where the Telephone Corp’s records are kept. Oh, my work is never done!

  3. Kathleen Peppers says:

    Good read!

    Sent from my iPhone


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