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History of Canada’s Nursing Sisters

Brief Overview

Military nursing had its beginnings in the Crimean War, although the tradition of  alleviating the sufferings of soldiers is an old one. The organizing of battle nursing and  the dispatch of women as nurses, begun by Florence Nightingale for the British, soon  found its way to Canada. 


It was in 1885 when Canada’s Nursing Sisters first took to the field, providing care to the  Canadian troops sent to put down the North-West Rebellion. From the North-West  Rebellion onward, Nursing Sisters joined every military force sent out by Canada, from  the South African War to the Korean War. Although the nurses in Canada’s military are  no longer referred to as Nursing Sisters, their contributions have continued into the  activities and missions of the present-day Canadian Forces. Over the years, the devotion  and efficiency of Canada’s military nurses have earned them a very high reputation  among the troops with whom they served and to whom they ministered.  


World War I


When Britain declared war on the German Empire, Canada was automatically compelled to fight alongside Britain in the Great War of 1914-18. At the beginning of the war there  were five Permanent Force nurses and 57 listed in reserve. By 1917, the Canadian Army  Nursing Service included 2,030 nurses (1,886 overseas) with 203 on reserve. In total,  3,141 Canadian nurses volunteered their services. Because of their blue dresses and white  veils they were nicknamed the "bluebirds," and for their courage and compassion they received the admiration of many soldiers. 

The introduction of Casualty Clearing Stations allowed mortality rates to drop significantly and was an advance unit, situated close to the front line, where  ambulances could deliver the wounded to be assessed, treated or evacuated to one of the  many hospitals. The early stage assessment and treatment available at these units proved  very effective in the efficient handling of large groups of battle injuries that occurred at  the front. At the same time, however, the proximity to the fighting exposed the Nursing Sisters to the horrors and dangers particular to the front. The advance areas were often under attack from air raids and shell fire, frequently placing the lives of the sisters in  danger. As well, the Casualty Clearing Stations were often plagued with the same aggravations of front line life; many nurses reported that rats and fleas were constant plagues. 

The dangers of working in an advance area were not restricted to the land operations. One of the innovations of the First World War Medical Services was the introduction of the  hospital ship. These ships were also subject to the dangers of enemy attack. On the night  of June 27, 1918, the Canadian hospital ship Llandovery Castle was torpedoed by a  German U-boat and 234 people lost their lives, including all 14 sisters on board. 

In France, as well as Africa and the Mediterranean, the nurses had to deal not only with an exhausting workload, but often under extremely primitive working conditions and  desperate climatic extremes. This was the pre- antibiotics age and, as was the case during  the South African conflict, the ranks of the injured were swelled by infection and  outbreaks of diseases such as meningitis. In spite of these challenges, the Canadian Nursing Sisters were able to provide comfort to the sick and injured. 

A total of 3,141 Nursing Sisters served in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps and  2,504 of those served overseas in England, France and the Eastern Mediterranean at  Gallipoli, Alexandria and Salonika. By the end of the First World War, approximately 45  Nursing Sisters had given their lives, dying from enemy attacks including the bombing of  a hospital and the sinking of a hospital ship, or from disease. The beautiful Nursing  Sisters’ memorial in the Hall of Honour in the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa is a loving  tribute to their service, sacrifice and heroism.  























World War II

After Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, Canada again found itself thrust  into a world conflict and again the Nursing Sisters answered the call of duty. This time,  however, the nursing service was expanded to all three branches of the military: navy,  army and air force. Each branch had its own distinctive uniform and working dress, while all wore the Nursing Sisters’ white veil. They were respectfully addressed as “Sister” or “Ma’am” because they were all commissioned officers. With the average age of 25, by war's end 4,480 Nursing Sisters had enlisted, including: 3,656 with the Royal Canadian  Army Medical Corps, 481 with the Royal Canadian Air Force Medical Branch, and 343  with the Royal Canadian Naval Medical Service. 


The army sisters, after training in Canada, were the first to go overseas, where they joined  units which had preceded them to the United Kingdom. With the soldiers going overseas,  the sisters travelled by ship in large convoys, running the perilous gauntlet of German  submarine action in the North Atlantic. Upon arrival in England, they worked in the  Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps’ hospitals at Taplow, Bramshott and Basingstoke. To illustrate the demands of their work, following the Dieppe raid, the hospital at  Basingstoke received more than 600 casualties and in one 191/2 hour period, 98  operations were performed. The surgical staff took only a few minutes’ break to rest  between operations. 


After three years in England, Nursing Sisters were sent into action on the continent. Donning battle dress, steel helmets and backpacks, No. 1 Canadian General Hospital  arrived in Sicily, the first women to land in the Eighth Army area. Almost all hospital  units deployed to the continent were initially set up under canvas. Later, they were moved  into abandoned or bombed-out buildings. As in the First World War, Nursing Sisters  faced many dangers and obstacles in trying to provide medical care in the battle zone.  During an air raid on Catania, Sicily, on September 2, 1943, an anti-aircraft shell fell on  No. 5 Canadian General Hospital and 12 Nursing Sisters were wounded. 


The second unit was deployed to El Arrouch, Algeria. Soon after, two more units were  dispatched to Italy. En route, the S.S. Santa Elena, which was carrying No. 14 Canadian  General Hospital, was attacked, forcing all to take to the lifeboats. Fortunately, there was  no loss of life. 


As the medical units followed the front north through Italy, they were frequently within  range of enemy guns and subject to shelling. Enemy action kept Nursing Sisters  extremely busy. For example, in the Ortona salient, the No. 4 Casualty Clearing Station  would receive more than 2,000 patients in December 1943, 760 of whom were surgical.  After the fall of Rome, there was a comparatively light period of activity, and the sisters  settled into routine hospital life caring for Canadian patients and German prisoners alike.  As the Italian campaign drew to an end for the Canadians, three medical units moved on  to France; the others were disbanded and the sisters posted to other units. 


Thirteen days after D-Day, June 6, 1944, the first two Canadian Nursing Sisters, with No.  2 Royal Canadian Air Force Mobile Field Hospital landed in Normandy at Bernières-sur Mer. They followed others assigned to Nos. 2, 3 and 6 Casualty Clearing Stations. The  Stations were set up in the Caen area. By mid-July, Nos. 7, 8, and 10 Canadian General  Hospitals were established west of Bayeux.  


As the front moved across northern France and into Belgium, in pursuit of the fleeing  German armies, the medical units moved with them. Antwerp, which had been captured,  was the target of the dreaded German V-2 rockets, and with the Battle of the Scheldt 
raging to free the Channel ports, the units moved to Nijmegen. The casualties were  heavy, 3,934 in four weeks. Fortunately, the end was soon near. The Spring offensive  was on and the German Army was driven across the Rhine, where surrender was  imminent. 


With the end of the war in Europe, the medical units gradually disbanded. Some of the  Nursing Sisters as well as other personnel stayed on with the Army of Occupation to care  for both military and civilian prisoners of war being released from the horrors of the camps. 

The end of the Second World War brought the closure of military and station hospitals  across Canada. A total of 80 nurses, 30 RCAMC, 30 RCAF and 20 RCN sisters joined  the permanent force and served at military establishments across the country; many more  staffed the Department of Veterans Affairs’ hospitals to care for hundreds of returning  Veterans.









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