Church honours First World War barge heroes

A special garden dedicated to the memory of unsung World War One heroes who served on floating hospitals has opened in Edinburgh.

Located in the grounds of Polwarth Parish Church on the banks of the Union Canal, the Peace Garden honours brave nurses and others who evacuated wounded military personnel on barges along canals in countries like Belgium and France during the Great War.

Sisters fishing
Sisters fishing. National Library of Scotland

Vessels were requisitioned and converted to hospitals, each with 30 beds.

The nurses worked in dangerous conditions to treat people with serious injuries, travelling in flotillas of six barges piloted by engineers from Britain's Inland Waterways.

They transported the wounded to hospital bases in towns including Boulogne and Rouen and were very exposed to aerial bombardments because they could only travel by daylight.


Nurses faced the risk of inhaling toxic gas fumes which clung to the clothes and hair of patients.

The Peace Garden is the brainchild of Professor Yvonne McEwen, director of Scotland's War 1914-1919, an organisation established to advance and disseminate knowledge of the country's role in the conflict.

Polwarth Peace
Polwarth Parish Church is known as the Kirk on the Canal

It features a stone bench, a commemorative plaque and is complemented by an exhibition of beautiful photographs of barge medical staff in the church's Drennan Hall.

The historic images have been loaned by the National Library of Scotland.

The exhibition includes a diary written by Sister Millicent Bruce Peterkin from Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.

She wrote: "Undoubtedly one of the greatest drawbacks to the barges was the want of windows on the sides, which would have given us more light and air.

"The lack of air became most apparent during the last few months of the war.

"This was especially so if the load consisted of gassed cases for, notwithstanding the fact that they were supposed to be washed all over and have their gassed uniforms removed in hospital, they still seemed to constantly exude the smell of the gas, their breath being especially foul.

"Frequently, also, they were badly burned and covered with huge watery blisters, which, when burst, seemed to smell badly.

"More than once, after evacuating such a load, I felt myself quite ‘gassed' myself with sore eyes, sickness and difficulty in breathing, similar symptoms being shown by other members of the staff."

 Nursing Patient
Nursing a patient. National Library of Scotland

Prof McEwen and Kirsty Connell of the Scotmid Co-operative, which awarded a £1,000 community grant to the Friends of the Polwarth Canal Garden group for the bench, officially opened the garden today at noon.

The wording on the plaque reads: "This garden is dedicated to the memory of the nurses, doctors, orderlies, Royal Engineers and Inland Water Transport staff who, with great dedication and skill, cared for and transported the sick and wounded on Hospital Barges in all theatres of war in World War One."

A special place

It was chosen by Prof McEwen, who works in the department of war and conflict studies at the University of Wolverhampton.

She said: "The teams of staff serving on the barges, including nurses, doctors, orderlies, Royal Engineers and Inland Water transport staff, have never received the recognition they rightly deserved.

"Thanks to the kindness and generosity of Polwarth Parish Church and community sponsors, the Peace Garden has moved from aspiration to reality."

Professor Yvonne McEwen and Rev Jack Holt
Professor Yvonne McEwen and Rev Jack Holt at the Peace Garden

The project was co-ordinated by Maureen Bowman, convener of the Canal Garden Group.

Dawn Whittaker, a group member, said: "We were delighted with the large donation from Scotmid, which enabled us to begin the work on the Peace Garden.

"We were pleased to be able to work again with Scottish Canals and Yvonne McEwen to make the canalside land beside Polwarth Church and the Union Canal a special place.

"Our hope is that it will be a place of tranquillity for all who visit."

hospital barge
Inside a hospital barge. National Library of Scotland

The congregation, along with community groups and armed forces veterans, have already created three unique gardens in the grounds for the enjoyment of all.

The church hopes to take advantage of its special location beside the canal to expand its mission work.

Scottish Canals has installed three leisure moorings next to the building and members are currently fundraising to buy a narrow boat which would further enhance the visitor experience and be used for a variety of activities such as weddings and educational and spiritual pursuits.

The church is taking part in the annual Edinburgh Canal Festival on Saturday and will launch a new partnership with a city-based charity called People Know How, (PKH) to purchase a vessel.

Polwarth Parish Church
Polwarth Parish Church in Edinburgh

The campaign has been dubbed ‘All Aboard' and the charity, which helps people fulfil their potential, will be the main users for its Positive Transitions Service, which supports children, young people and their families through primary and secondary school.

Ian Murray, MP for Edinburgh South, will lead the partnership launch ceremony and representatives from the Church of Scotland, Scottish Canals, Armed Forces Covenant, Edinburgh University, local community council, schools, care homes and businesses are expected to attend.

A model narrowboat made out of re-cycled VHS cassettes and two bosun whistles, used on naval ships by a boatswain, will be on display.

This month, Polwarth Parish Church is running a pilot project , funded by the Kirk's Go For It fund, which involves PKH taking children on educational trips up and down the canal on the hired Reunion boat, Lochrin Belle.