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Photograph: Group of Canada’s nursing sisters with flowers outside a tent, No. 2 Canadian General Hospital, Le Tréport, France. ca. 1916-1917

Group of Canada’s nursing sisters outside a tent, No. 2 Canadian General Hospital, Le Tréport, France. ca. 1916-1917

ARCHIVED - The Call to Duty
Canada’s Nursing Sisters

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Caregiving on the Front


The following text is a digital version of:

Allard, Geneviève. "Caregiving on the Front: The Experience of Canadian Military Nurses During World War I." In On All Frontiers: Four Centuries of Canadian Nursing. Christina Bates, Dianne Dodd and Nicole Rousseau (eds.). Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2005, p. 153-167 (chapter 10).

Caregiving on the Front: The Experience of Canadian Military Nurses during World War I

Geneviève Allard


During the years leading up to World War I, the nursing profession in Canada had begun to be organized: among other things, schools were opened and associations were created, helping to establish the professional status of the caregiver's work in society. During this period, aware of the advantages that the presence of nurses would provide during military operations, the Canadian army invited groups of nurses to accompany the troops on various military expeditions, and these invitations were the prelude to the creation of a true military nurses' corps in 1908. However, in September 1914, even after ten years in existence, the Canadian Army Nursing Corps (CANC) comprised fewer than 30 reservists, only five of whom were permanent members. And its members were poorly prepared to handle the events that they were about to face. A few months before the war, Margaret MacDonald was appointed matron-in-chief of the CANC under the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Using her experience in the Boer War and in Canadian military hospitals, MacDonald had to mobilize a convoy of military nurses to serve overseas. An appeal was launched, and less than three weeks after Canada declared war, nurses with diplomas from all regions of the country offered their services for the duration of the war. Two thousand and three women enlisted in the CANC and were sent overseas. During the war, these nurses cared for almost 540 000 soldiers, working near the front lines, even risking their lives, as full members of the CEF; in fact, 53 of them lost their lives on active duty. They stirred the popular imagination and benefited from an aura of prestige.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the front was perceived as an exclusively male domain. In principle, women had neither the skills nor the qualities required to practise their profession there. The realities of the Great War, however, made the presence of women caregivers necessary, even indispensable, in proximity to the line of fire.

Acclaimed as war heroines at the time of demobilization, this group of caregivers had helped to provide the young profession of nursing and its training program with a stamp of legitimacy, and it saw its golden age in the years following World War I. Was this in part thanks to the visibility that the military nurses achieved? Although we know surprisingly little about the military experiences of these women — few historians have taken an interest and the nurses themselves have remained very discreet — the personal diaries, correspondence, and accounts of these women have begun to be gathered, analyzed, and studied. They demonstrate that on both the professional and personal levels, having been to war marked their lives. Nurses' presence in and contribution to the CEF improved the organization of medical care at the front and, as a consequence, had a noticeable effect on the physical and mental health of the soldiers under their care, just as, conversely, the conflict had an effect on the nurses' lives.

It is therefore of great interest to examine the origins and components of the CANC, as well as how nursing was practised at the front, in order to understand how military nursing during World War I fit within and had an impact on the development of the nursing profession in Canada.