More than 3,000 nurses served in the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC), including 2,504 overseas. Nicknamed “bluebirds” because of their blue uniforms and white veils, Canada’s Nursing Sisters saved lives by assisting with medical operations and by caring for convalescing soldiers.
Who Were They?
Canadian military nurses were trained nurses before the war. This professionalization ensured the exclusion of semi-trained women who, in the past, had sometimes filled the ranks of nurses in other armies. Canada’s nurses were all women between the ages of 21 and 38. The eventual average age was 24, and almost all were single. Many of the nurses had brothers or fathers serving in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. All were volunteers and there was never a shortage of candidates. In January 1915, for instance, there were 2,000 applicants for 75 positions.
Nurses had served in the CAMC since the 1885 Northwest Rebellion and compiled a distinguished record during the South African War (1899-1902). The Canadian Army Nursing Corps was established in 1908, but had only five permanent members by the start of the First World War. In August 1914, the Matron-in-Chief, Major Margaret Macdonald, an experienced nurse who had served in South Africa, received permission to enlist 100 nurses. Almost all were drawn from hospitals, universities, and medical professions from across Canada and the United States.
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 primary responsibility for cleaning post-surgical wounds and watching for secondary infections. Nurses cared for wounds daily, bandaging and re-bandaging injuries and ensuring that oxygen entered wounds to destroy the anaerobic infections that could result in a patient’s painful death. They served in several theatres of war outside 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 27 June 1918, a German U-Boat torpedoed and sank the Canadian hospital ship, the Llandovery Castle. All 14 nurses on board were killed.
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 “Sisters of Mercy” or “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.