Rena McLean, who was nicknamed Bird, was the daughter of a successful businessman and Conservative politician. A student at Mount Allison ladies’ college in Sackville, N.B., in 1891–92, she graduated from the Halifax Ladies’ College in 1896. She then studied nursing at the Newport Hospital in Newport, R.I., completing her training in 1908. She was head nurse in the operating room at the Henry Heywood Memorial Hospital in Gardner, Mass., when she enlisted for service in World War I and was appointed to the Canadian Army Medical Corps on 28 Sept. 1914.
McLean left almost immediately for Britain and in November proceeded to France with No.2 Canadian Stationary Hospital. In Le Touquet (Le Touquet-Paris-Plage) she was one of 35 Canadian nurses who helped convert a luxurious hotel into the first hospital in France that was completely staffed by Canadians. There, in the spring of 1915, 1,100 Canadian soldiers, victims of chlorine gas at the second battle of Ypres, passed through the wards on their way back to Britain. Later that year McLean served briefly with No.12 British Stationary Hospital at Rouen and then joined the Duchess of Connaught’s Canadian Red Cross Hospital in Taplow, England. After a return to Canada on transport duty, she proceeded to Salonica (Thessaloniki), Greece, in October 1916 for service with No.1 Canadian Stationary Hospital. There was controversy in Britain over nurses having been sent to the Mediterranean and all were returned the next year. McLean then joined No.16 Canadian General Hospital in Orpington (London). Brief postings to the hospital ship Araguaya and again to No.16 General Hospital intervened before she was assigned in March 1918 to the Llandovery Castle, which carried Canadian wounded to Halifax. She died on the voyage back to England when the vessel was torpedoed and sunk by the enemy off the coast of Ireland on 27 June 1918. All 14 nursing sisters on board perished.
Rena McLean had been an attractive, fun-loving woman, kind and caring. As her last letter, written on board the Llandovery Castle on 16 June, illustrates, she had kept her morale high in spite of the years spent in some of the worst areas of the war. “Here we are once more approaching Halifax, but still as far from home as ever. . . . This trip more than half our patients are amputation cases and would make you heartsick only they are so cheerful and happy themselves. . . . This may be my last trip over and, if it is, that means that I don’t get home until dear knows when, for as soon as I get to England I am going to put in for France and once there it will be hard enough to get away.”
Plaques in memory of Rena McLean are located in St James United Church in Souris, in Mount Allison’s Memorial Library, and in the X-ray laboratory at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown. A 200-bed hospital for veterans in Charlottetown was named after her in 1919 but was closed within a year or so. The Five Sisters window in York Minster, England, is dedicated to the more than 3,000 women of the empire who served and died in World War I. Their names are recorded nearby behind ten Gothic panels; Canadian names are behind the sixth panel. In Canada, the Canadian Forces Medical Services School at Canadian Forces Base Borden, Ont., gives the Llandovery Castle Award each year to the most deserving nursing officer.
Rena Maude McLean’s medals are held by the Borden Memorial Museum and Arch. at Canadian Forces Base Borden, Ont. They were placed there by Dr Gustave Gingras following the death of his wife, Rena M. MacLean Gingras, a niece of the subject.
NA, RG 150, Acc. 1992–93/166. PARO, RET Geneal. Soc. coll., reference files. St James United Church (Souris, P.E.I.), RBMB. F. McK. Bell, The first Canadians in France: the chronicle of a military hospital in the war zone (Toronto, 1917). R. M. Manning, “Cows and convalescents: Government House as health and education centre, 1917–1924,” Island Magazine (Charlottetown), no.24 (fall/winter 1988): 19–24. Claud Mullins, The Leipzig trials; an account of the criminals’ trials and a study of German mentality (London, 1921). G. W. L. Nicholson, Canada’s nursing sisters (Toronto, 1975).