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Canada’s Nursing Sisters

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Active Duty (Biographies)

Ruby Peterkin

Nursing sister Ruby Gordon Peterkin standing at the entrance of a tent.
Source
Nursing sister Ruby Gordon Peterkin standing at the entrance of a tent.

Greece

In this section:

Ruby Peterkin was born in Toronto in 1887, and graduated as a trained nurse from the Toronto General hospital in 1911. On April 7, 1915, she enlisted to serve with the No. 4 Canadian General Hospital, organized by the University of Toronto, and was mobilized in Montréal. Ruby served with the No. 5 Canadian General Hospital in Britain and with the No. 4 Hospital in Salonica, Greece.

The Ruby Peterkin fonds at Library and Archives Canada contains a collection of letters from Ruby to her sister Irene and other family members. These letters consist of descriptions of the wartime camp in Salonica and her social activities, with some descriptions of the hospital, its conditions and the patients.

The following text uses excerpts from Ruby's letters to provide insight into her war experience through her own words.

“Well, the Quarter Master takes three or four sisters in, in an ambulance, nearly every afternoon on an official sight-seeing trip.”
(Letter to Irene, Jan. 23, 1915 [probably 1916], p. 3)

Ruby often writes about how she spent her time both at work and on her off hours. It is common to read in the letters and diaries written by Canadian nurses about teas and social sightseeing trips the nurses enjoyed. Ruby writes about one such experience, "…we have been making the best of our slack time. The four of us in our tent got our half day last Tuesday and gave a tea (in our tent) and invited about thirty of the sisters. It was a huge success being the first of its kind to be given here and we paid off all our social obligations for the little parties we have been asked to in the other girls tents in the evenings" (Letter to Irene, January 23, 1915 [probably 1916] , p. 2).

“We have been here a week now and it seems like a month.”
(Letter to Irene, June 20, 1915)

Although her military file does not indicate that she served with the No. 5 Canadian General Hospital, Ruby writes to Irene about her first experiences overseas — including censorship of her letters, her living quarters and her daily routine — in a letter addressed from the No. 5 Canadian General Hospital in Britain. Ruby discusses meeting a group of English nursing sisters, and indicates a tension between the two. Ruby writes, "In fact, I fear the Eng[lish] sisters do not love us. You see we have two stars and they hadn't [sic], and altho [sic] they spend a great deal of time in assuring us that they "rank as officers" it is not as convincing as those two stars" (Letter to Irene, June 20, 1915).

Ruby traveled to the Mediterranean aboard a medical ship in late October 1915, where she wrote two further letters to Irene (dated October 27 and November 5, 1915).

“There is a great shortage of water so we are quite used to washing once a day in a tea cup.”
(Letter to "Dear People", December 3, 1915, p. 7)

Canada did not send military troops to the Mediterranean, but did provide five medical units that served under harsh, challenging conditions. Colonel G.W.L. Nicholson describes the hardships faced by the Canadian medical units:

It was characteristic of the element of unpreparedness associated with so much of the Gallipoli campaign that no sanitary provisions had been made for the Canadian units before they arrived. Each hospital depended for its water on a single cart, which daily brought in from a considerable distance a very limited supply. For the first two months on the island, until engineers sank wells locally, the meagre ration of water for washing was one quart a day…. Food was scarce, and of poor quality, often impossible for sick patients to eat.
(Nicholson 1977, p. 92)

Ruby talks about the poor living conditions in the hospital in Salonica in a letter home to her family. "Food is very hard to get and prices appalling. I fear our mess fees will be very high. Laundry is ridiculous — fifty cents for a uniform and twenty cents each for aprons" (Letter to "Dear People", December 3, 1915, p. 2-3).

“I was posted for night duty and went out that night. Well, the first night, the cold was bearable, by wearing our sweaters and raincoats.”
(Letter to "Dear People", December 3, 1915, p. 3)

Ruby often writes of the cold and how she coped with the weather. In one letter she states, "You would have died to see the clothes we put on. I have good heavy flannels and a pair of cashmere socks and all my ordinary underclothes. Then I put on a suit of flannel pajamas and another pair of socks, then my uniform and rubber boots. On top of that, a little white sweater coat, then my big sweater and my big great coat" (Letter to "Dear People", December 3, 1915, p. 4).

“I am on medical wards, six of them with thirty patients in each….”
(Letter to "Dear People", December 3, 1915, p. 8)

"The convoys come in every night so there is no lack of excitement. In fact, there is never a dull moment…" (Letter to "Dear People", December 3, 1915, p. 8). Despite the various hardships she encounters with daily living arrangements, she continues, "we are having the time of our lives and I wouldn't have missed it for anything" (Letter to "Dear People", December 3, 1915, p. 8).

Ruby wrote two more letters to her sister Irene, dated February 2, 1916 and April 14, 1916. In the former, in addition to an update on her off-duty activities, Ruby describes a Zeppelin raid: "We could see the flash of the bursting bombs and then the fire started and the reflection light up the sky. There was considerable damage done" (Letter to Irene, February 2, 1916, p. [2]).

In her last letter home, which is undated, Ruby discusses her voyage back to France and then on to England.


Reference

Nicholson, G.W.L. Seventy Years of Service: A History of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. Ottawa: Borealis Press, 1977.