Canadian Military Nurses in World War I
1914 was the year that marked the beginning of the first world war. The conflict, which started as a quarrel between two nations, slowly dragged more and more nations into it through the honoring of existing alliances, opposing political ideologies and national pride. Soon the whole of Europe was split into two and engulfed in a bloody conflict that would reshape the world’s social, political and economic landscapes (Hurcombe, pg 284). With casualties numbering in the millions and an inability for the allied powers to divert manpower away from the front lines, one group of brave Canadian women stepped up to fulfill the medical needs of the allied war effort and help hundreds of thousands of soldiers recover from the injuries they suffered in battle. Our corpus, located in Library and Archives Canada, contains letters, photographs and diary entries from 6 of the over 2000 Canadian nurses who volunteered and were sent overseas to provide medical support for almost 540,000 soldiers (Library and Archives Canada). These nurses, who unlike their contemporaries from other nations, actually held military rank and took direct orders from the army, most scholars argue that this was due in part to the prestige attributed to the Canadian nursing education system and those who graduated from it (Library and Archives Canada). This high level of education and military rank is part of what distinguished the highly skilled force of Canadian nurses deployed from other caregiving entities such as the civilian voluntary aid detachments (Quincey, pg. 107-8). For some time, this work was not widely recognized, but scholars in the field like Christine Hallet work to highlight that “The care and treatment required by soldiers many of whose wounds were extensive and traumatic was far from straightforward, and the work of nurses was a complex combination of fundamental nursing care and highly technical treatments underpinned by scientific reasoning.” (pg. 101).
These writings detail harrowing stories from the front lines of not only the mental and physical abuse the soldiers sustained, but also those endured by the nurses themselves. The letters photographs and diary entries contained in this collection give us a glimpse into the minds of the heroic women who were most often seen but not heard and give readers the opportunity to appreciate the work ethic and mental fortitude of these nurses who, through their work in the battlefields of World War I, turned nursing into one of the most respected professions for a woman (Library and Archives Canada). The focus of our Omeka project is to provide an overview of the working conditions these women endured, as well as provide a clear image of their work as they saw it using the collection provided by Library and Archives Canada.