The Nursing Sisters
Canada's Nursing Sisters have a long and storied history in Canada’s military.
The history of the Nursing Sisters dates back to the first time they took to the field in 1885 with Canadian troops during the Northwest Rebellion.
From then onward, the Nursing Sisters have joined every military force sent out by Canada from the Boer War, to the First and Second World Wars to Afghanistan. Beloved by the soldiers they nursed, these intrepid women faced the same dangers and often horrific conditions endured by the men.
Since the beginning of time, camp followers and respectable wives and mothers have accompanied their men on war campaigns providing nursing care. Sisters from religious orders also offered nursing care to soldiers in both military and civilian hospitals. In later years, the designation "nursing sisters" came to be associated with female nurses trained and commissioned to serve under military command.
Florence Nightingale is credited with founding military nursing during the Crimean War of 1854-56. The horrendous statistic, of 10,000 deaths in the British Army’s total strength of 28,000 men after only seven months in Crimea, was due not to battle casualties but to the deplorable conditions that prevailed in the hospital.
Sent to Crimea by the War Office, Florence Nightingale attacked the appalling situation in the hospital addressing the unsanitary conditions, poor nutrition, underequipped surgeries, the shortage of drugs and other medical necessities and inefficiently run medical administrations. Under these abysmal circumstances, 42 patients out of every hundred cases being treated in the hospital had died. She faced much resistance to her improvements by the inflexible male dominated military and medical staff.
At the same time as she struggled to reform such a deficient system she had to train and regulate the 38 nurses who originally set out with her, constantly challenged by the public perception that nice girls don’t become nurses. Vindication of her efforts was borne out by the numbers. Between Florence Nightingale’s determined drive to reform these inexcusable conditions faced by the patients and the nursing care, the rate of mortality in the hospital dropped from 42 per cent to just 2.2 per cent of cases treated.
A new standard and respect had been set for nurses being in the military. Florence Nightingale came home from Crimea and founded a permanent training school for nurses in England which became a model for nursing schools all over and continued to serve in the War Office as a consultant on soldiers’ welfare.
Canada’s First Nursing Sisters
In 1885 Canadian nurses were requested to be a part of the medical and surgical team that was sent out to care for those soldiers wounded in the Northwest Rebellion. The battles in this fourteen week campaign, notably, marked the first time machine guns were fired by Canadian soldiers and the last time bows and arrows were used.
Twelve Nursing Sisters took care of the wounded in both Moose Jaw and Saskatoon and like every member of the militia force were awarded the campaign medal, ‘North West Canada, 1885’. For the first time in Canada, female nurses were recognized as a part of a military force in the field. Two of these first Nursing Sisters were graduates of an American hospital modeled on the Nightingale School of Nursing.
The Nursing Sisters had selflessly volunteered and it was well documented that not only had they carried out their nursing duties to a high standard but, admirably, even as the gentler sex, unflinchingly shared in the privations and dangers faced by the soldiers. Nursing was now perceived, by not only male army medical personnel but by the troops themselves, as a necessary part of the military.
Medical Units in the Field
During a military operation, the stretcher-bearers would carry the wounded to their own unit’s Regimental Aid Post. Trained Medical Officers of the field ambulances, who were usually close behind the fighting troops, would give first aid to the wounded before transporting them to various stages of care further behind the lines.
Next stop was the Casualty Clearing Station, the first possibility of surgery and the earliest stage of encountering nursing sisters. Initially the main function was to accommodate the patient for a couple of hours before sending him on, with his wounds dressed and cared for, to a general hospital.
The Stations soon developed into advanced surgical hospitals and operating centers to deal with wounds of the brain, chest and abdomen that needed immediate treatment if the patient was to survive. After initial recovery at the Stations, patients could be shipped further back to Stationary and General Hospitals, served by matrons and nursing sisters, for more serious attention and longer term convalescence.
Psychological Impact of Nursing Sisters
Reports from the surgeons, medical staff and top military brass praised the exemplary nursing care by the Canadian Nursing Sisters of the soldiers under their watch. Their endurance under fatiguing round-the-clock-shifts and their steadfastness and calm demeanour during the bombing and shelling overhead, in the most deplorable working and living conditions, is well noted. However, it is that intangible psychological impact, of these female angels of mercy in their midst, that stands out not only in the formal reports but in soldier’s letters and diaries.
When the soldiers saw the bluebirds walking among their hospital cots they saw someone who represented family—their sweethearts or their sister or their mother. When that female voice reached out to them through their miasma of pain, it represented safety, protection, home and the hope of recovery.
Referring to their patients as “Our Boys”, Nursing Sisters made sure that no soldier suffered or died alone. This morale boosting capacity of the Nursing Sisters couldn’t be bought, bottled or replicated and had exactly the same effect in the Second World War. A medical officer wrote that ‘one Nursing Sister was worth 5 to 10 bottles of blood’.
Boer War 1899-1902
In spite of the positive experience of having nurses in the field during the Northwest Rebellion, Canada still did not have an organized service by the time war broke out in South Africa in 1899. That would change before the war’s end as a result of the valuable contribution made by Canadian Nursing Sisters in this conflict.
In October 1899, Nursing Sisters accompanied the Canadian troops in their first overseas war to South Africa under the leadership of PEI born Georgina Pope who was later awarded the Royal Red Cross Medal in 1903, for conspicuous service in the field. Daughter of William Pope, a Father of Confederation, Georgina was also a graduate of the Nightingale Nursing School model in America. She went over to South Africa twice and led two different groups of nursing sisters as a senior sister, successfully combating, despite food and medical shortages, the debilitating enteric fever overwhelming soldiers.
Finally, in 1901, before the second group went over, a new nursing service was inaugurated within Canada’s military forces as a result of their work in the Boer War. Appointed to the recently reorganized permanent Army Medical Corps in 1906 at the Garrison Halifax Military Hospital, Georgina Pope went on to become the first matron of the Canadian Army Medical Corps in 1908.
Matron Pope’s accomplishments would continue as at the age of 52 she travelled overseas to serve in the First World War. Falling ill, she was invalided home in 1918. This amazing Nursing Sister pioneer died at 76 years old and was buried with full military honours in her beloved PEI in 1938.
First World War
Over 3,100 Canadian nurses volunteered for service in the Great War to end all wars. Like the soldiers they cared for, they joined up for adventure and travel and to do their duty, fearing it would all be over before they got there.
Like the soldiers, they soon learned what war really means serving in over 30 different military hospitals and casualty clearing stations in France, Belgium, Greece, Malta and the Eastern Mediterranean. They did their job of caring for the sick and wounded under the harshest of living and working conditions, and in constant danger.
Forty-six Nursing Sisters died in the performance of their duty. Eighteen died of disease overseas and seven died later at home in Canada. Six were killed or mortally wounded on land, three of whom were killed in the deliberate bombing of the military hospital in Etaples, France. Fifteen died in the torpedoing by a German submarine of the Canadian hospital ship, Llandovery Castle.
Nursing Sisters were affectionately nicknamed bluebirds by Canada’s soldiers in the First World War. It was Nursing Sister Georgina Pope who recommended that the khaki uniform of Boer War days be changed to blue in 1907. This gave the Canadian nurses an enviable identity in which they took great pride---the striking blue uniforms setting them apart from all others during parades and gatherings.
Working dress was comprised of a light sky-blue cotton with twin rows of brass military buttons down the front along with white cuffs and collar. A fitted white apron fastened over by a Sam Brown belt completed the on-duty dress topped off by a sheer white veil, as introduced by Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War. Dress uniform was a navy blue serge jacket and skirt worn with either a navy hat or white veil.
In bad weather, the nurses could wear either a heavy, long navy blue military coat or a navy blue cape lined with scarlet over their dress or working uniforms. The bluebirds were a welcome sight to the Canadian troops.
Lieutenant Nursing Sisters
Like their distinctive blue uniforms, Canadian Nursing Sisters were also unique among nurses from armies of other nations during the First World War as they held military rank and were under military control. In a break with tradition, in 1900, and in recognition of their competence, Canadian Nursing Sisters were accredited as Lieutenants with the pay and allowances of that rank.
Thus Nursing Sisters held the same authority as any man with the rank of Lieutenant. A soldier could be court martialed on the charge of disobeying a nurse for an order or other breach of discipline. This made a big difference as male orderlies were under the direction of Nursing Sisters and seeing the Lieutenant insignias on their uniforms obeyed instantly.
Nurses from Australia, New Zealand, and America found their efficiency impaired as orderlies, corpsmen and sergeants constantly questioned their authority as these nurses wore no insignia that they had been taught to obey. The wisdom of the Canadian system in granting nursing sisters the rank of lieutenant was eventually implemented by other countries.
Second World War
In the Second World War, the nursing service expanded to all three branches of the military—navy—army—air force. Each branch had its own distinctive uniform but all wore the traditional nursing sisters’ white veil. Almost 4,500 Nursing Sisters had enrolled by the war’s end; 3,700 with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps; 500 with the Royal Canadian Air Force Medical Branch and 350 with the Royal Canadian Naval Medical Service.
The army sisters were the first to go overseas, travelling in the trans-Atlantic convoys that were hunted by German submarines. After 3 years in England taking care of Canadian troops at the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps’ hospitals at Taplow, Bramshott and Basingstoke, the Nursing Sisters followed the Canadian troops on the continent. They were the first women to land in Sicily and nursed the troops under canvas and later in abandoned and bombed out buildings.
As always, they shared the same conditions and dangers of the troops in a battle zone. Twelve Nursing Sisters were wounded when their hospital was shelled in Catania, Sicily 2 Sept 1943. One of the ships carrying 2 units of nursing sisters was attacked en route to Italy forcing everyone into lifeboats but luckily all survived.
Nursing Sisters nursed in Algeria and followed the troops on the campaign through Italy. Towards the end, as the Allied front moved through France and Belgium in pursuit of the German armies, the medical units moved with them.
Back in 1941, two Canadian Nursing Sisters accompanied Canadian troops to Hong Kong and when the garrison fell the sisters were taken prisoner and eventually forced into a civilian internment camp. After 2 years of captivity, they were repatriated to Canada.
The Canadian Navy had 2 hospital ships during the Battle of the Atlantic which were staffed by army sisters. By the end of the war the 2 ships, Lady Nelson and Letitia, had evacuated 28,000 casualties and 2,700 prisoners of war. The navy sisters served on naval bases on both Canadian coasts, in Newfoundland and in Scotland.
Remarkably, the only Canadian Nursing Sister who died in the Second World War due to enemy action was a navy sister, after the torpedoing of the SS Caribou in the Cabot Strait off Newfoundland.
Air Force Sisters
The Royal Canadian Air Force built more than 100 flying station hospitals across Canada as it became increasingly apparent that the 132,000 air men, trained under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, would need medical services. Sixty-six air force sisters served overseas as well.
The End of the War
When the war was over in Europe and the medical units gradually disbanded, many nursing sisters stayed on to continue to care for the military and civilians. Sisters also served on the hospital trains that returned the wounded to hospitals all across Canada. Some returned to their original hospitals. While the end of the war meant closure of military and station hospitals across the country, there was still a great need for nurses in the veteran hospitals. Eighty nursing sisters from each of the 3 branches joined the permanent force at the end of the Second World War.
Once again the Nursing Sisters had answered the call to follow Canada’s troops into battle. As they had in the war to end all wars, Nursing Sisters met the challenges and deprivations of the battle zone in order to take care of ‘our boys’. Only the wounded know what the presence of a Sister can mean to a man in pain, wrote a padre. By the end of the Second World War few doubted, whether in military or civilian life, the inestimable value of the Nursing Sister.
Nursing Sisters have gone on to distinguish themselves since the end of the Second World War. Sixty Nursing Sisters served during the Korean War in the 1950s in both Japan and Korea. Once again they were in a combat zone caring for battle-inflicted injuries and the ravages of infectious diseases. Following the signing of the truce Sisters cared for the newly released prisoners of war helping them regain their health. Qualified Sisters flew air evacuation flights home with their Canadian patients.
For the first time in 1951, the RCAF sent five nurses, who had volunteered, to its Para-Rescue School where they were trained to parachute jump into inaccessible territory to treat the injured. While they were still in Korea, Canada increased her forces in Europe in order to meet her NATO commitments. Soon there were permanent army bases and air squadrons in Germany and France. Canadian army sisters with the RCAMC and air force sisters with the RCAF contributed here by tending not only sick and injured military and air force personnel but their dependents as well.
Nursing Sisters Today
Today Nursing Sisters are called Nursing Officers and haven’t looked back since Pioneer Florence Nightingale led the way showing what military nursing could accomplish. At home or abroad, Canada’s Nursing Officers tend to the men and women in the Canadian Forces and their families.
In recent years Canada’s Nursing Officers have served alongside the forces in the Gulf War, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, Somalia, and Afghanistan. Wherever you find Canadian troops you will find Canadian Nursing Officers continuing their proud legacy.