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Caregiving on the Front

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The Canadian Army Nursing Corps

Brief History of the Military Nursing Service

The military nursing service is indebted, above all, to the volunteer efforts of nurses who, in various ways, made a difference during wartime by demonstrating the usefulness, and even the necessity, of their activity. Florence Nightingale is considered, rightly or wrongly, the pioneer of modern nursing, and in particular of military nursing. Her service tending to soldiers during the Crimean War (1854-56) and her constant efforts to improve the effectiveness of nurses' work convinced both the public and the military authorities that it was essential to organize a more complete medical corps within the armed forces instead of offering the services of only one medical officer per regiment.

Nightingale's experiences1 also showed that an effective nursing service had to be independent of the military authorities. As a consequence, the British nursing service began to establish its own structures in 1855. Although attached to the army, the nursing corps was autonomous on the administrative level. The British Nurse Corps borrowed some operating rules from the Armed Forces, notably the wearing of a uniform, respect for hierarchy, and adherence to a strict code of conduct. The CANC, created and placed under the charge of the Department of Militia and Defence, took inspiration from British traditions, but quickly went in its own direction.2

In 1870, military troops were sent to the Canadian Northwest to quell the Metis Rebellion, led by Louis Riel. Minister of Militia and Defence Adolphe Caron assigned Lieutenant-Colonel Darby Bergin the task of organizing the medical services to accompany the members of the RCMP. Bergin intended to hire women to be part of the medical service.

Four volunteer civilian nurses were selected to care for the wounded for a period of several months. Having quickly proved how useful they were, these nurses were followed, at the end of their tour of service, by successive groups of volunteer nurses until the hostilities ended. The nurses were warmly applauded for their courage and endurance, and they received — rare for women at the time — a military decoration, the Northwest Medal,3 as a reward for their efforts.

Given the success of the organization of medical care during the Northwest Rebellion, Lieutenant-Colonel Bergin planned to create a permanent army medical corps composed of doctors and nurses, which would be independent of the other army corps. Once peace was re-established, the project was more or less shelved, but the idea of maintaining a regular group of nurses to care for soldiers began to be considered.

In 1898, the federal government sent 200 volunteer soldiers to the Yukon to support the RCMP, which was dealing with problems caused by the gold rush. No medical officer accompanied the contingent, but four nurses from the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON) made the trip and bore the main responsibility for medical care of the soldiers on the long journey to Dawson City. They also tended to the residents of the various mining villages located on the route northward.

The trip took three months, and when they arrived in Dawson City, the four nurses remained there to tend to the region's population. Their work, performed under difficult conditions — inadequate facilities, lack of equipment, inclement weather — earned them praise and the respect of the Canadian military authorities.

However, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) had not yet integrated nurses into its permanent structures. When the Boer War was declared in 1899, the medical services of the Canadian Army, created when hostilities began between the British and South Africans, did not include a military nursing service. Nevertheless, the Canadian military authorities made the decision to attach a group of nurses to the convoy of soldiers sent to the front, and eight nurses were selected to accompany the several thousand Canadian volunteers.4 The nurses sent to South Africa, unlike those who went to the Yukon under the VON banner, wore uniforms supplied by the Canadian army.

Following this war, in 1899, the general director of the CAF's medical services recommended that an official military nursing corps be formed. With the support of the commander of the Canadian militia, who had been impressed once more by the nurses' work in emergency situations, the recommendation was accepted, and the Canadian Army Nursing Corps began to be built in 1901. Even before the corps's administrative structure was established, Great Britain found itself embroiled in renewed hostilities in South Africa. Eight nurses, four of whom had served in the first episode of the war, went to South Africa, this time as full members of the new Canadian military nursing service.5

In 1904, the CAF completely reformed its medical services. As part of the administrative restructuring, it was decided that the nursing corps would become part of the Reserves, a section of the Armed Forces composed of semi-permanent members who, as the name implies, would supplement regular sections if armed conflict arose. Twenty-five nurses were selected to form the corps.

However, it was not until 1908, when Georgina Fane Pope became the first matron-in-chief of the CANC — and, as a consequence, the first permanent member of the unit — that the corps began its official existence. Among this pioneer's accomplishments was her contribution to the establishment of operating and recruitment rules for the corps's members. During her mandate, Fane Pope was concerned mainly with the management of military hospitals and recruitment of nurses. In addition, she had the nurses' uniform changed from khaki to navy blue and military insignia added.6


1 To learn more about the life and work of Florence Nightingale, see F B Smith, Florence Nightingale: Reputation and Power (London: Croom Helm, 1982), and Vern L Bullough, Bonnie Bullough, and Marietta P Stanton, Florence Nightingale and Her Era: A Collection of New Scholarship (New York: Garland, 1990).
2 Few works have been devoted solely to the history of military nurses in Canada. John Gibbon and Mary Matthewson devote a chapter to the subject in their study Three Centuries of Canadian Nursing (Toronto: The Macmillan Company, 1974 [1947]). The studies of G W L Nicholson, Seventy Years of Service (Ottawa: Borealis Press, 1977) and Canada's Nursing Sisters (Toronto: Samuel Stevens, Hakkert & Co., 1975), on the medical services in the Canadian Armed Forces, are more explicit. For an excellent bibliography and recent review of the historiography of military nurses in Canada, see the introduction and bibliography in Susan Mann, The War Diary of Clare Gass 1915 - 1918 (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2000)
3 Nicholson, Canada's Nursing Sisters, 27.
4 Ibid., 33 - 4.
5 Ibid., 44.
6 Ibid., 44 - 5.

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