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.
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.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.