The rattle of machine-gun fire, the crash of exploding shells, the roar of allied artillery, the rumble of tanks, the bark of orders, the moans of wounded and dying soldiers, the torrential rain, the mud, the cold - these were sights and sounds of trench warfare in First World War France. And plowing its way through the undulating quagmire was a battle-scarred military ambulance, driven by an intrepid 20-year-old widow named Alma Dolling.
Alma’s natural talents and education gave no clue of how her tragic life would evolve. She was born in Kamloops, British Columbia in 1896 to Walter and Elizabeth Clarke. Kamloops had developed as a supply station for the surrounding area, courtesy of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Her father was the owner, publisher, printer, editor and distributor for the local weekly newspaper, the *Kamloops Standard*. Her mother was a competent musician and taught violin and piano. It was not long before Elizabeth realized her daughter had exceptional musical gifts and little Alma thoroughly enjoyed all the accolades her performances produced.
Alma had a delightful personality - warm, outgoing, energetic - and was adored by almost everyone. Her early education was at St. Ann’s School, where her teacher described her as brilliantly clever, well-adjusted and “full of happiness and music.” When she was only six, the family moved to Toronto where she found herself in Raymond Massey’s class at Havergal School. Massey went on to become a successful actor, while Alma went on to become a successful musician.
A year later, the family moved to Victoria, where her father pursued his journalistic career. With her mother’s careful coaching, Alma established herself as a child prodigy in great demand in musical circles. Her blond ringlets, her sunny personality, her ready smile and her brilliance at the piano made her an instant success everywhere she went. But the fuss that was made of her and the strain of having to give better and better performances began to take its toll and her natural sweet, delightful innocence faded, giving way to a self-centred petulance.
After 10 years in Victoria, the family moved back to Ontario where she studied at the Toronto College of Music. Alma had developed into a ravishing beauty. She had an oval face, sensuous lips with an appealing pout, and daringly flaunted polite morality. She drank cocktails, smoked in public, and wore fashionable shapeless dresses that did little to hide her shapely figure. Her hair was close-cut like a boy’s and she paraded all her assets recklessly. She was emotional but with little trace of compassion or concern for others. She was loud and gregarious, but only when she was the centre of attention and she could not understand it if she met someone who did not instantly fall at her feet in admiration. It was during this time in Toronto that Alma gave what was perhaps the public performance of her life with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, where she played two brilliant solos - one on the piano and the other on the violin.
A few years later, her father was given a position as journalist with the *Vancouver Sun*, so the family moved back to the West Coast. Alma soon met a local realtor, Caledon Robert Radclyffe Dolling who advertised himself as a specialist in New Westminster and Port Mann properties. Dolling was born in England, trained at Sandhurst and was headed for a military career in the Indian Army. But failing eyesight disqualified him and hearing of the land-boom in British Columbia, he decided to seek his fortune in Canada.
In 1914, he married the gorgeous 18-year-old Alma Clarke. It was a love-match, as far as his narcissistic wife would allow her to make it. When war was declared, Dolling volunteered and because of the international threat, his poor eyesight was not considered a disqualifying factor. Because of his Sandhurst training, he was immediately given a commission and sent to Prince Rupert as the second in command, with his new wife beside him. A few months later, he was sent to the front line in France, while Alma sailed to London, where she could spend some time with him whenever he was given leave. In 1916, he was awarded the Military Cross. But at the Battle of the Somme, he was mortally wounded and Alma found herself a grieving widow.
While in London, Alma had held a government position in Whitehall. Immediately after her husband’s death, she offered her services as a nurse with the Scottish Women’s Hospital Organization. But it was the not the policy of this body to send women to the front line and that did not suit Alma, so she joined the French Red Cross, who were far less scrupulous. Here, as an ambulance driver, her courage in the face of enemy fire was outstanding. She was wounded twice and decorated with France’s highest medal for gallantry, the Croix de Guerre.
Immediately after the war, she returned to London, where she fell in love with a Coldstream Guard’s officer named Thomas Compton Pakenham, who was related to the Earl of Longford and to the illustrious Admiral Pakenham. Her lover was married and his relationship with Alma precipitated a divorce. The couple married in 1921 and then moved to New York, where their son Christopher was born the same year. But it was a disastrous marriage and, two years later, Alma moved back to Vancouver to stay with her mother, taking her baby with her and leaving Thomas behind forever.
With her mother’s encouragement, Alma took up her music again and was soon getting bookings throughout Vancouver. Then came an invitation to perform at a Banquet in Victoria, celebrating the passing of the Amusement Centre bylaw. After the performance, Alma was sitting relaxing in the Empress Hotel with her friend “K” and they heard the sounds of revelry from Empress Banquet Hall and the singing of, “For he’s a jolly good fellow.” Their curiosity aroused, the two friends sneaked in the room to see what all the frivolity was about. There, for the first time, Alma clapped eyes on the man who was the centre of attention, the tall, redheaded distinguished young architect, Frances Mawson Rattenbury, the man destined to become her third husband.
Alma wrote a note to her friend, “I had resolved, as you know, never to marry again, but to devote myself to my music. Well, my dear, if I don’t love him, I simply don’t know what love is!”
To be continued...
SEPTEMBER 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER ISLAND
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