Canadian Nurses in World War One
Canadian Nursing Sisters in WWI – courageous women provided soldiers emergency medical care in the field, and security and comfort that only caring women could provide.
Through earsplitting, thunderous explosions and fearful eerie flashes in the distance, the nurses of the Canadian Army Nursing Service in WWI waited for the inevitable arrival of wounded soldiers. At the Casualty Clearing Houses, they worked at a feverish pace to give emergency care for bleeding gashes, broken and missing limbs, and devastating injuries of war. Using injury assessment, the wounded were evaluated and prioritized, helping to save lives. The nurses gave the soldiers hope and security in a bleak time, providing kindness, a maternal touch and the comfort that only caring women could provide.
Veterans Affairs Canada stated that from 1914 to 1918, some 3,141 single Canadian women volunteered to join the war effort for Canada. Most of these modern, independent women were high school graduates (a rare commodity for the time) and carried nursing diplomas to certify their valuable skills. An average age of 24 years old, many were sent overseas to areas such as Britain, France, Egypt and Greece.
Under the Canadian military, the women were rewarded with the rank of Lieutenant – though this meant authority in the medical field only. They were given the title of Nursing Sisters, reminiscent of the title religious nurses used, but had no connection. As Lieutenants, the women received generous pay, vacations and good jobs until the end of the war. While overseas, many traveled and explored the world, some to find husbands. Nurses from other countries were envious; their compensation and status were not nearly as liberal.
But, working conditions were grueling. Nursing Sisters worked in hospitals far from the action, others were stationed at Casualty Clearing Stations near the front, living in rough shacks or tents. The possibility of attacks and bombs was a brutal, terrifying reality for the nurses.
Rushed to the stations during battle, there often was not enough space for the massive influx of wounded men. Lying on stretchers, lying on the ground, the nurses stepped over and around patients to perform their duties. The nurses also had to guard the men against infestations of insects, fleas and rats. Hungry, the rats were fearless in their quest for food, even attacking the wounded soldiers.
A shortage of clean water forced the nurses to cope with the spread of infectious diseases. (Along with unpotable water, the supply was occasionally poisoned by the enemy.) Death was always waiting nearby. The nurses were required to make desperate, unwanted choices, “such as deciding to leave a dying patient alone to see to the pressing needs of those who had a chance to survive,” as told on Collections Canada. The war was a severe jolt to the women who had never before experienced such horrifying destruction.
However, because of the immediate care given to the injured soldiers near the field, many more soldiers survived the Great War. Transferred to stationary hospitals, some needed months to recover from their injuries; the nurses became attached to their charges and shared the emotional ups and downs of recovery along with them.
The diligent, courageous women earned respect and honours for their selfless work, their chief concern being the health and safety of their patients. For their bravery, commendations and medals were awarded. As with the soldiers, a number of Nursing Sisters gave their lives during the War. Six nurses were killed in hospital bombings, another 15 were killed when their hospital ship, the Llandovery Castle, was sunk, and 15 nurses died of disease. Several others died on returning home.
In recognition of the great sacrifices made by Canadian Nursing Sisters during World War One, a monument of sculptured marble was installed in 1926 in the Hall of Honour on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario.
This article was originally published on Suite101.com. Copyright Susanna McLeod