Nov 01, 2016
The First World War’s nursing sisters
The story of the nurses who served with the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) is told in the First World War permanent exhibit at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa and online at warmuseum.ca. Here are some highlights.
When the war began, only five of the CAMC’s permanent members were nurses; 80 more were members of the Reserve Nursing Service.
In total, 3,141 nurses served from 1914 into the early 1920s, with more than 2,500 seeing duty overseas. Trained nurses before the war, almost all of them came from hospitals, universities and medical professions from across Canada and the United States. All were women. Most were single and between the ages of 21 and 38; the average age was 24. They were all were volunteers, and there was never a shortage. For example, when a call was made in January 1915 to fill 75 positions, 2,000 nurses applied.
Nursing sisters was the title used to identify nurses in the CAMC up until the end of the Second World War. The exhibit information indicates that the title likely refers to an era when churches provided care for the sick and wounded, although these nurses were not members of any religious order.
To give them seniority over their patients, they were given the rank of lieutenant, making them the first women in the Commonwealth to be officers.
They were nicknamed bluebirds because their uniform included a blue, double-breasted blouse with open collar and a long blue skirt, worn with either a white veil or a wide-brimmed hat. A white apron was worn over top of the uniform. As with all other Canadian officers, they received an allowance to help them cover the cost of their uniforms.
As well as providing medical services for Canadian and Allied troops and enemy prisoners of war at the front, the CAMC operated treatment facilities and hospitals in the rear areas of France and Belgium, as well as in the United Kingdom, Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean. Nursing sisters close to the front lines were among the first to meet injured soldiers arriving by truck or rail, to clean their wounds and offer comfort. They assisted in surgery, cared for convalescing soldiers and diligently bandaged and rebandaged injuries to ensure oxygen entered wounds to kill anaerobic infections that could result in a patient’s painful death.
The war claimed the lives of about 50 nursing sisters, who were casualties of disease or enemy action. Twice in 1918, nursing sisters and other medical staff were killed when German aircraft bombed Canadian hospitals in France. In June of that year, a German U-boat torpedoed and sank the Canadian hospital ship HMHS Llandovery Castle.
The nurses returned home with advanced medical skills and new techniques that infused their profession with a heightened sense of legitimacy. They had won the affection of thousands of soldiers, who referred to them as sisters of mercy or angels of mercy.