Canadian Nurses in World War 1

Remember Nurses

Night duty on a surgical wing with 46 patients, all very sick and sore. Any one of them liable to hemorrhage any minute, treatments, etc. is no soft snap. The strain and anxiety is worse than any amount of work. We who thought we were hard worked at home knew not what work really was. 

Nursing Sister Beatrice Kilbourne, March 1917

This November 11, 2018, will mark 100 years of the end of First World War.

This war was unlike previous military actions in its breadth and impact. Spreading throughout Europe, Central Asia and Africa it ultimately reshaped the map, toppling empires and setting the course of future engagements. It also marked the impact of emerging technologies that negatively impacted the death toll of soldiers and civilians alike.

World War 1 also marked the emergence of the Nurse on and off the battlefield.

From the start, Canadian nurses participated. At the beginning of the War, there were five active nurses in Canadian Army Nursing Corps and 57 in reserve. In 1914 the Matron-in-Chief of the Corps, Major Margaret Macdonald, was assigned the mission to recruit 100 nurses to serve in the conflict. Over the next four years, those ranks would swell to 2,504 women active in service and 3,141 women had volunteered. To put those numbers in perspective, at that time the population of Canada was approximately 7.2 million. 

HMHS Llandovery Castle

While not on the battlefield, nurses were stationed near the Front Lines.  Nurses working in Casualty Clearing Stations were very vulnerable as these stations were located close to battles to perform essential triage to safely move the wounded.  Besides the threat of bombs, nurses faced the threat of infectious diseases, particularly on the African fronts.  Their gruelling workloads and lack of food made them susceptible to diseases they would never have faced back home in Canada.  Approximately 45 Canadian nurses lost their lives as a direct result of the conflict.   The most significant single loss was on June 27, 1918, when 14 nurses died as a result of the sinking of the Llandovery Castle a Canadian hospital ship torpedoed by German U-boats. 


Letters written by Agnes Warner a Red Cross nurse, to her family in St. Johns, N.B., chronicles the beginning of the conflict in France until January 1917 when the letters end with her redeployment. The notes are worth reading to see how the war progressed, from idyllic pastoral scenes to increasing references of bombing as well as the struggles of nursing on the front lines.

November 19, 1916.

We have been shaken almost to pieces with vibrations from the guns, these last three days. What must it be close at hand? On Wednesday we had a visit from the Taubes again. I could not sleep for the noise of the machines, so I went out to see what was happening. We could see the bombs dropping all around us, but fortunately none came very near.

November 26, 1916.

How we laughed over your stories. Send us some more when you have them, anything to make us laugh. It is strange how one can laugh in spite of everything. I don't think we could live through it if it were not for the funny and foolish things that happen.

I got a letter from our boy to-day. It is such a relief to see the dirty little envelopes with the address in pencil. There is never much news, but just to know that he is alive is enough.     

 Agnes Warner, My Beloved Poilus

Agnes L. Warner

Gas Attack

A 100 years later there are over 300,000 Registered Nurses in Canada  (Stats Canada) and nurses continue to actively serve in the Canadian Armed forces. On Remembrance Day take a moment to remember the past, praise the present and have faith in the future of nurses serving and saving all our lives.

British Columbia WW1 Nurses' Stories

Nursing Sister Katherine Maude McDonald's Story

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