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Active Duty (Biographies)

Alice Isaacson


In this section:

Souvenirs of War and Peace: The Alice Isaacson Photo Album
By Peter Robertson

Alice Isaacson's album consists of 647 photographs documenting events that she experienced, places where she lived and worked or that she visited, and people whom she encountered, between 1916 and 1919. The album is not an exact "fit" with her diary as it begins in 1916, around when Alice joined the staff of No. 2 Canadian General Hospital at Le Tréport, France, while the diary does not begin until January 1, 1917. As well, although the diary ends in May 1919, the final photos in the album were taken in July 1919.

The album was a collection of personal visual souvenirs, and, like the diary, was not intended to be seen by a wider audience. Alice put the album together some time after her return to Canada in 1919. This lapse of time — as long as three years — between acquiring the images and assembling the album might account for the photos that are positioned out of chronological sequence, as well as the factual errors and spelling mistakes in a number of Alice's captions under the photos.

The album contains photos (often taken by commercial photographers), of events that match up with Alice's diary entries, such as the official opening of No. 6 Canadian General Hospital at Joinville-le-Pont, on July 3, 1918 (Diary p. 40; Album p. 111), and the arrival of President Woodrow Wilson in Paris on December 13, 1918 (Diary pp. 118-119; Album p. 140). However, there are also photos that are not contemporaneous with the events and places recorded by Alice. For example, while on leave in Britain during June 1917, she acquired photos of Lynton and Clovelly by Francis Frith & Co. (Diary, pp. 58-59; Album pp. 23, 26), which were actually taken as far back as 1907, 10 years before Alice visited those towns.

There are many non-commercial photos in the album, either taken by Alice herself or acquired from her friends and acquaintances. Alice never mentions in her diary that she owned or borrowed a camera; nevertheless, the album contains photos which she must have taken. For example, she was, by process of elimination, the only person present who could have taken the photo of nursing sister Alice Thompson at Bagsworthy Farm in Devon on June 18, 1917 (Diary p. 59; Album p. 25).

The album documents a wide range of internal aspects of No. 2 Canadian General Hospital, in photos such as, The Operating Room! (Album p. 19) and Getting well too fast! (Album p. 21), the latter a photo of a group of convalescent patients. The fact that these were taken by Éditions Arnault, a commercial photographer in Le Tréport, indicates that security regulations about photography were less stringent away from the battlefront. Still, Alice seems to have put limits on the subject matter of her souvenir photos; for example, a diary entry such as Brain Ward frightful lately, from September 28, 1917 (Diary p. 84), is not illustrated by any photos in the album.

Roughly half of the photos in the album could be described as tourist photos acquired by Alice while she was off duty in France, at Le Tréport (Album p. 4), Troyes (Album p. 77), Joinville-le-Pont (Album p. 107) and Paris. They also depict periods of leave in Britain and Italy (Album p. 171). These photos show a Europe untouched by war, even in the midst of conflict. However, Alice also chose to include contrasting photos that depict Paris at war during March 1918 (Album p. 118) and a severely war-damaged Ypres in April 1919.

Personal albums of Alice's time often included photos of celebrities. Alice included some of these in her album, although she never met the subjects in person. Her celebrity photos include the Prince of Wales (Album p. 41), Captain Georges Guynemer (Album p. 188), Marshal Joseph Joffre, General Ferdinand Foch, and Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau. The album also contains images of events that Alice did not experience, such as French fighting at Verdun in August 1916 (Album p. 196), photos that she evidently acquired from a French patient at No. 6 Canadian General Hospital in 1918-1919, and a series of 20 photos of officers and nursing sisters of No. 6 Canadian General Hospital staff on leave on the Riviera during December 1917. Finally, she chose to include three photos of the Alhambra at Grenada, despite the fact that she never visited Spain.

Why did Alice create the album? On December 27, 1917 (Diary, p. 109) she wrote the following revelatory comment:

Thank God for an imagination, and a quick appreciation! Embellishing the perhaps otherwise commonplace in our daily life with both beauty and pathos! One goes about in the midst of men, intent on daily duties, and yet finding touches of beauty, and sudden expression of the deeper and holier currents in human hearts, that stand out like precious jewels in the sombre "sameness" and "commoness" of the day's routine. Or the sight of an old "tumbly" "maison" with rotting beams and moldy, moss-grown tiles, brings instantly to mind a whole panorama of characters who probably lived, loved and died centuries ago….

For Alice, the album was a stimulus to imagination, and assisted the process of recollecting the events, people and places that she considered to be significant in her life.