Canadian Nurses in the First World War: Answering the Call of Duty

This box from our collection shows some of the common items nurses would have needed for their job- such as absorbent cotton to prevent an open wound from becoming infected.

Throughout the First World War, 2,500 Canadian nurses served abroad, 2,000 of them fully trained nurses, and 500 VAD nurses who signed up when the war started. 1 2 Another 3,000 Canadian nurses worked at convalescent hospitals in Canada, helping soldiers who had made it home with wounds to recover. Working long brutal hours, these women dedicated their medical skills to caring for the injured men. They also took them for walks, planned dances, made sure every holiday was celebrated properly, and in the event of a soldier’s death, they often were the ones who wrote letters of comfort home to the families.  

When the First World War broke out, it was seen as only proper that nurses would volunteer their services. After all, women were viewed as “the natural caretakers of the men abroad”. 3 The Canadian nurses were nicknamed “Bluebirds” by soldiers due to their bright blue uniforms complete with brass buttons. 4 They were immediately accepted as an essential part of the war effort. Well-trained, and usually in their later 20s or 30s, these women were expected to have the expertise and morals to be trusted among the soldiers. 5 Though they were supposed to be kept well away from enemy lines, they quickly ended up spreading out wherever  wounded soldiers were to be found. By 1915, there were 10-12 nurses at each casualty clearing station, which was only 3-4 miles behind the front, and 2 would be on each ambulance train. 6 There are unfortunately very few sources written by nurses about their schedules. One of the few is the diary of Clare Gass and the closest she ever comes to really discussing her days is when she makes comments like, “I have been receiving large convoys of patients every night of late & the Ward has been very heavy & the work difficult.“ 7

Many nurses served in makeshift auxiliary hospitals in Britain such as the Haslingden Union Workhouse which is showcased on this postcard.

The letters that nurses sent home were heavily censored, and they were expected to be positive at all times. Clare Gass herself says in her diary that “One of the essential qualities of a nurse is to be always pleasant”. 8 Nurses instinctively understood they were not supposed to complain about conditions. Fortunately, it is possible to garner some ideas through the letters sent by volunteer nurses. Volunteer nurses seem to have been significantly more willing to complain, probably because they had not been through the same rigorous training as the fully-trained nurses, and as members of the Voluntary Aid Detachments or VADs, there wasn’t much punishment they could face. Fanny Cluett, a VAD in England, described in her letters home how she would work from 6:30 to 8 pm each day, scrubbing tables, doing wound dressings, and washing patients. 9 Many VADs only worked six months abroad. 10 VADs tended to be from wealthy Anglo Canadian families, and for many, their time as a volunteer was their first experience of hard physical labour. Additionally, they were only trained for about 5 weeks before they were sent, and few were prepared for the amount of work nursing would be on the Western Front. 11 While they were primarily assistants, they still had to deal with the horrible wounds that the properly trained nurses did, and many simply couldn’t handle the environment. They worked hard, but many VADs suffered from insomnia and illness due to the intense conditions and were excited to return to a calmer lifestyle. 12

The work that nurses do tend to describe in detail is throwing dances and holiday parties for soldiers. This was a key part of their job as nurses were supposed to raise the spirits of injured soldiers. Nurses had their own socializing tent where they would hold parties for recovering soldiers. They would also have teas at nearby houses where a soldier would play the piano, and they seem to have taken great pleasure in planning holiday events. 13 Clare Gass describes the amount of time put into the Christmas party and the Halloween masquerade ball the nurses ran. 14 Nurses were supposed to work hard to cheer up the men while retaining a moral distance. 

Nurses often sent letters to the families of dead soldiers to reassure them their son did not suffer, such as this letter sent to the family of Joseph Antoine Elphage Marcotte.

Some full-time nurses did get romantically involved with patients, this was relatively rare as the penalties could be severe. Nurses who married would have to leave their positions as married women could not have a job. Clare Gass actually talks about one nurse whom she knew who resigned to get married. 15 Nurses were supposed to be closely monitored at all times, and needed permission to go anywhere outside their station. 16 There does however seem to have been more relationships among soldiers and VADs. This was still forbidden, but VADS tended to be closer in age to the soldiers and as volunteers they had less to lose. At least a few of them entered illicit romantic relationships. One soldier  remembers  walking  home  with  his  buddies  after  a  movie  in  a French village and noticing the “scenes of philandery along the road at nightfall” between  VADs  and  officers. 17 There was even a running joke that soldiers would marry their VAD nurses, especially if they were pretty. 18

However, this was the experience of a precious few of the nurses. Most of these women struggled to care for terribly wounded men, while being expected to always present a smile and a sweet character before the injured soldiers. They put in long days on the chance they would be able to save another life, and also spent hours planning parties for the troops to keep spirits up. Throughout the First World War, 39 of these nurses died as a result of their choice to serve, and undoubtedly many more were injured or suffered trauma from their time abroad. These brave women were invaluable to the Canadian war effort and deserve recognition for the amount of lives they saved.

  1. S. Mann, “Where Have All The Bluebirds Gone? On The Trail of Canada’s Military Nurses, 1914-1918,” Atlantis: Critical Studies in Gender, Culture & Social Justice, (2001), 35.
  2. Linda J. Quiney, This Small Army of Women : Canadian Volunteer Nurses and the First World War. (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017), 3.
  3. Quiney, This Small Army of Women, 7.
  4. Mann, “Where Have All The Bluebirds Gone?”, 35.
  5. Clare Gass, and Susan Mann. The War Diary of Clare Gass : 1915-1918. (Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014), xxii.
  6. Gass, The War Diary of Clare Gass, xxix.
  7. Gass, The War Diary of Clare Gass, 161.
  8. Gass, The War Diary of Clare Gass, 177.
  9. Quiney, This Small Army of Women, 133.
  10.  Quiney, This Small Army of Women, 130.
  11. Quiney, This Small Army of Women, 118.
  12. Quiney, This Small Army of Women, 136.
  13. Gass, The War Diary of Clare Gass, xxiv.
  14. Gass, The War Diary of Clare Gass, 77, 151.
  15. Gass, The War Diary of Clare Gass, 106.
  16. Gass, The War Diary of Clare Gass, xxxii.
  17. Dan Azoulay, Canadian Romance at the Dawn of the Modern Era, 1900-1930. (University of Calgary Press, 2011), 194.
  18. Azoulay, Canadian Romance, 194.

Share this article

Let us know what you think

A photo of a destroyed dugout near or at Mount Sorrel in the Ypres Salient.

“It was simply Hell!”: The Battle of Mount Sorrel, June 1916

On June 2nd, 1916, the Battle of Mount Sorrel began. Overshadowed by the larger battles of 1916, Mount Sorrel was nevertheless an important action for the still young Canadian Corps.The opening day was the 3rd Division’s “baptism by fire” and the fighting, particularly the Canadian counterattack on June 13th, taught valuable, but costly, lessons.

Read More »