Of the nearly 620,000 Canadians who volunteered to serve in the First World War, 61,000 Canadians were killed and another 172,000 were wounded. It is easy to forget the uphill battle a wounded soldier would have faced just to survive his wounds. To suggest that trench warfare is unsanitary would be a gross understatement of the cesspool that these men often were forced to live in. Just existing in the mud without getting ill was difficult enough. Add being wounded to that and the threat of contracting a deadly infection should almost be a certainty.
This is where a too-often-overlooked group would do their heroic work. In the Casualty Clearing Centres of the First World War, a wounded soldier would see the first signs of proper medical care in the skilled hands of a nurse. The duty of these nurses was to clean and dress wounds, assist with surgery, and provide post-operative care to prevent infection. They also would provide much-needed comfort to soldiers who had hidden wounds that medicine cannot fix.
These women were usually single and between the ages of 21 and 38. They were referred to as ‘Nursing Sisters’ and because of the blue dresses they wore they were nicknamed ‘bluebirds’ by the troops. There was no shortage of volunteers either, in January 1915, 2,000 nurses applied for only 75 positions. They were also the only allied nurses to be given the rank of officers within the Canadian Army Medical Corps.
While some nursing sisters worked in larger hospitals far from the fighting, those who worked the Casualty Clearing Stations were close enough to the front lines to be in harm’s way. The stations were field hospitals close enough to the front lines to receive casualties quickly and efficiently but just far enough away to be out of direct combat. Being outside of the combat zone did not mean out of danger and they would be targets for the enemy’s long range artillery and air raids. Of the 2,504 nurses who served overseas, 53 never returned. The cruelty of modern warfare stole their youth and potential just as it did the soldiers who fought. Some of these nurses died from enemy action, including air raids or the sinking of ships while others succumb to disease that rampaged throughout the war.
The importance of their role in the care of Canada’s soldiers cannot be overstated. Without the care and attention they gave the young soldiers, it is unfathomable to consider how many more wounded soldiers would not have survived. There is little doubt that any soldier wounded on the front probably owes his survival in part to these courageous women. It is important to note that this was a time before antibiotics so treatment of infection was far more primitive.
Imagine being a young nurse in Canada, volunteering to travel by ship overseas to work in a tent with the sounds of the front rumbling in the background and the flashes of shells lighting up the twilight horizon like distant flashes of lighting.
Picture soldiers being brought in one after another in an endless parade of carnage bearing wounds from bullets, shrapnel, or poison gas. Some of these young men would have grotesque facial wounds, multiple gunshot or shrapnel wounds, missing limbs, chemical burns or be suffering ‘shell shock’. These soldiers may also be ill with trench foot, trench fever, dysentery or a number of other diseases complicating their care.
It is a testament to the human spirit that anyone can bear witness to such consistent horror and be able pull themselves up out of their cots the next day, knowing that it would be the same. Not only did they devote themselves to selfless service but demonstrated courage under fire proven by a total of nine Canadian nursing sisters being awarded the Military Medal for “gallantry and devotion to duty during enemy air raids.”
Their service did not end with the 1918 armistice either, nursing sisters remained overseas post war to help with the wounded and with the Spanish Flu Epidemic. About 1,500 nursing sisters were continuing to serve in mid 1919. Some remained abroad until 1920.
The sacrifice of our soldiers was immense but these courageous women made sacrifices as well all in the name of their profession. It is not easy to earn the respect and admiration of soldiers, but these women did so with their compassion, professionalism, and bravery.
I have no doubt that the thousands of veterans of the First World War never forgot the face of the nursing sister that tended to their wounds. Given the fact that every witness to these women in action are now gone, the duty is ours to not allow their contribution to Canada and their devotion to our soldiers to ever be forgotten.
On Remembrance Day, remember our soldiers, of course, but also remember the women who helped bring so many of those men home alive.
Michael Major is retired corporal in the Royal Westminster Regiment, an avid outdoorsman, and freelance writer whose work has appeared in journals as varied at B.C. Outdoors Magazine, Westcoast Families and the National Observer.
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