RCH Angels of Mercy in World War I

Canada’s nursing sisters played a vital role in the care of wounded soldiers during World War I. Given the rank of lieutenant, they were an integral part of the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC), the majority working overseas in military hospitals and in casualty clearing stations. Often placed on the front-line, they tended to injuries for which no one could have trained them, and they were seen as ‘angels of mercy’ by the soldiers whose lives they saved.

A total of 3,141 Canadian nurses volunteered their services during the Great War of 1914-1918. During the war these nurses cared for almost 540,000 soldiers. At first, the medical units were set up in hospitals away from the action. Eventually however, Casualty Clearing Stations were set up close to the front lines. It was to these stations that the ambulances delivered the injured, who received early assessment and, as a result, got faster and more effective treatment. The nurses were nicknamed “Bluebirds” by soldiers, grateful for a glimpse of their blue dresses, white aprons and sheer white veils.

No 1 Canadian General Hospital Nursing Sisters’ Theme Song

In my sweet little Alice Blue gown,
When I first came to Birmingham town.
I had had a bad trip, in a nasty old ship
And the cold in my billet, just gave me the pip.
We came out to nurse our own troops,
But were greeted with measles and whoops.
Now I’ll be a granny, and sit on my fanny,
And keep warm with turpentine stupes.

In my sweet little Alice Blue gown,
When I return to my home town
They will bring out the band, give the girls a big hand,
Being a nurse in the force, I’ll be quite renowned.
And I’ll never forget all the fun,
That I had, since I joined Number One
I was happy and gay, to have served with MacRae
In my sweet little Alice Blue gown.

Six graduates and four who had previously been on staff at Royal Columbian Hospital became Nursing Sisters in WWI: Lillian McCallum, Arlie Werden, Olive Reichenbach, Eleanor Bishop, Jean McRae, Bella Reid, Elizabeth LeRoy, Isabel Lord, Jessie T. Scott, and Charlotte (Scharley) Wright Brown.

Lillian McCallum served at the No.5 Canadian General Hospital in Salonika, Greece. Both No. 4 and No. 5 tent hospitals were established at the request of the British Army medical director during a desperate shortage of medical units for the Eastern Front.

Nursing Sisters’ quarters at No. 5 Canadian General Hospital, Salonica, spring, 1916.
Sisters Heaney, left, and Morrison. (www.maureenduffus.com)

Olive (Ollie) Reichenbach served on the Western Front, chiefly in France, though she missed being decorated when honours were awarded. She was on the Ypres salient and had several narrow escapes during the bombing of hospital areas in Etaples as well as at Ramsgate.

Westcliffe Eye and Ear Hospital at Folkestone, England

Jessie T Scott, former Superintendent of the Royal Columbian Hospital, was in charge of the Westcliffe Eye and Ear Hospital at Folkestone, on staff of No. 2 General at Moore Barracks, Shorncliffe and was second in command at the Duchess of Connaught Hospital at Taplow. For her work, she was awarded the Royal Red Cross.

What was their work like? It differed greatly depending on where they were, but it was unlike anything they had known or been trained for. “During an offensive, a dressing station close to the line of fire might be completely overwhelmed. Under cover of night, trucks filled with muddy wounded soldiers would be unloaded and handed over to the nurses, who, between stretchers crammed together or beside soldiers lying on the ground, had to try to staunch hemorrhages, set bones, and ensure the survival of their patients until they were transported farther behind the lines to receive appropriate care. The daily work of the nurses in units farther from the front was just as laborious. Climatic conditions and life in the trenches favoured the outbreak of epidemics, so many beds were occupied by soldiers suffering from infectious diseases, which in fact accounted for almost 70 percent of cases admitted to hospital.” (http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/nursing-sisters/#kk)

Nursing Sisters were acclaimed as war heroines at the time of demobilization. In the years following World War I, their contribution to the Canadian war effort and to the nursing profession was publicly commemorated by the erection of a monument in Parliament in honour of all Canadian nurses. The Nursing Sisters’ Memorial is located in the Hall of Honour in the centre block on Parliament Hill. The sculptor, G.W. Hill, R.C.A., of Montréal, did his work in Italy, and found a beautiful piece of marble from the Carara quarries. The completed panel was mounted in the Hall of Honour during the summer of 1926.

Nursing Sisters Memorial Panel in Hall of Honour, Parliament Hill

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5 Comments on “RCH Angels of Mercy in World War I”

  1. HI , my name is Ken D Williams , I live in Ramsgate Kent U K. I am a member of a local comity ” Thanet Rembers ”. The comity has been set up to remember 1914 in 2014. Dureing world war one. Canadians were sent to local hospitals . Some sadly never made it home. We would be all to willing to send you phoes of there resting place. So you know we have not forgton them and take care of them. My email address is uncle_uk@hotmail.com . Best wishes Ken ( D Williams )

    • rch150 Says:

      Hi Ken,
      Thanks for your comment. I’ve read of the Thanet Remembers group in Kent on the Western Front Assn. site. It’s wonderful to know that those who fought in WW1 have not been forgotten and that their graves are cared for. Thank you.

      I will forward your information to groups who are preparing for the ’14 anniversary. In the meantime, is there any way for you to tell if any of the Canadians buried in your area were from British Columbia? I’ll get back to you by email to explore further.

      Best wishes,
      Dale Miller

  2. HI Daile , so happy to hear from you. Hear is the information I have:

    Aitchison , D L Privet service number 6928 Canadian Infantry died 10/07/15grave number GC .93 Age unknown.
    Captain B R Baker Canadian Army Medical Corps DOD 07/05/15 age 39 GRAVE NUMBER L.B 16

    R E Bayers Driver Canadian Field Artillery Service Number 248621 . DOD 05/04/19 GRAVE NUMBER D 562

    Seaman Joseph H Benoit Service Number 2188/X Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve AGE 19 DOD 04/05/15 GRAVE NUMBER EA RC 150

    Major David Benjamin Bentley Service Number unknown. DOD 04/05/15 Grave Number LA 657

    Seaman William James Brace SERVICE NUMBER 1479 DOD 03/08/16 Newfoundland Royal Navy Reserve , Grave Number LA 593

    Seaman James Patrick Curran SERVICE NUMBER 1604/X DOD 14/10/15 Newfoundland Royal Navy Reserve age 23

    Privet Charles Henry Knight SERVICE NUMBER 642066 DOD 10/07/17 AGE 42 Canadian Army Medical Corps GRAVE NUMBER LB. 10

    GUNNER J Paul SERVICE NUMBER 300529 DOD 22/08/17 age unknown Canadian Field Artillery Grave Number L.B 8.

    Privet Alfred Ernest Pearse Canadian Army Medical Corps Service Number 400450 DOD AGE 41 NUMBER LB.8.

    Privet A J Polson Service number 721948 , Machine Gun Corps DOD 01/09/17 AGE unknown

    Privet Herbert Walter Scott Canadian Infantry Service Number 152668 DOD 04/06/17 AGE 23 GRAVE LB 11

    That is the details I have , Daile , I hope that is helpful to you. I am going to take a photo of each grave tomorrow I will send them off to as soon as I can. Check out the above names on ” Canadian World War One War Dead Ramsgate. Up will come the list. The Name of the local Commity is ” Thanet Remembers” . The secretly is Laura Probert EM address lauraprobert@btinternet.com

    Best wishes , Ken ( D Williams )

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