Nurses of World War I: Introduction

Stained glass window in Kingston City Hall’s Memorial Hall

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War 1, the War to End All Wars. Over the next 10 months leading up to Remembrance Day, guest contributor Dr D. T. Brearley will profile the lives of 40 women with a Belleville connection who served as nurses during the war.

Canadian military nurses were trained nurses before the war, had an average age of 24 and almost all were single. Many had brothers or fathers serving in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, all were volunteers and there was no shortage of candidates. More than 3,000 nurses served in the Canadian Army Medical Corps; they were nicknamed “Bluebirds” because of their blue uniform and white veils. Canada’s Nursing Sisters saved lives by assisting with medical operations and by caring for convalescing soldiers.

Nurses did not work in the front line trenches although they were often close to the front. As patients arrived by truck or rail, the nurses were among the first to meet wounded soldiers, cleaning wounds and offering comfort. They assisted in surgery and often had the primary responsibility for cleaning post-surgical wounds and watching for secondary infection. They served in several theatres of war outside of the Western Front, including Gallipoli, Egypt and Salonika.

Of the 2,504 Canadian nurses who served overseas, 53 were killed from enemy fire, disease, or drowning during the War. On two occasions in 1918, Canadian hospitals in Europe were hit by enemy bombers and several nurses were killed in the line of duty. On June 27, 1918, a German U-Boat torpedoed and sank the Canadian hospital ship, the Llandovery Castle. All 14 nurses on board were killed.

The Canadian Nursing Sisters were the only nurses of the Allied Forces to hold the rank of officers as part of the Canadian Army Medical Corps during World War 1 (Lieutenant) and they were the first women in Canadian history to vote in a federal election.

Nurses returned from overseas with refined medical skills that infused their profession with new medical techniques and a heightened sense of legitimacy. They had won the affection of thousands of Canadian soldiers who often referred to them as “Angels of Mercy”. A memorial to the war’s nursing sisters was erected in Ottawa in 1926 in the Parliament of Canada’s Hall of Honour.