Transcript of podcast episode 63
Josée Arnold (JA): Welcome to "Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage." I'm your host, Josée Arnold. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults, guide you through our many services, and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada's documentary heritage.
During the First World War, more than 3,000 women volunteered with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. This force was created by Canada for service overseas, with nurses working as fully enlisted officers in the specifically created all female rank of Nursing Sister. Nicknamed "bluebirds" because of their blue uniforms and white veils, Canada's Nursing Sisters saved lives by caring for wounded and sick soldiers, working near the battlefields under extremely difficult conditions. They won the affection of thousands of Canadian soldiers, the gratitude of soldiers' families, and public respect for the role they played during the war. Their dedication to their work, their country and, most importantly, to their patients, serves to measure their contribution to the Canadian war effort.
Laura Brown (LB): My name's Laura Brown. I am a Government Records Archivist here at Library and Archives Canada. I've been working here for four years, and prior to coming to LAC, I worked at the Canadian War Museum as a Researcher and Assistant Historian. I have a background in history. I've really enjoyed developing my education in Canadian history in particular.
JA: On today's episode, we speak with LAC employee and Government Records Archivist Laura Brown. She will help us highlight the contribution that Nursing Sisters made during the First World War by discussing their life experiences and by exploring the wealth of material here at Library and Archives Canada.
In September 1914, after 10 years in existence, the Canadian Army Nursing Service (CANC) comprised fewer than 30 nurses, only 5 of whom were permanent members. A few months before the war, Margaret MacDonald was appointed Matron-in-Chief of the CANC under the Canadian Expeditionary Force, the CEF. Using her experience as a nurse during the Boer War and in Canadian military hospitals, MacDonald had to mobilize a convoy of military nurses to serve overseas. An appeal was launched, and less than three weeks after Canada declared war, nurses with diplomas from all regions of the country offered their services. Over 3,000 women enlisted in the Canadian Army Medical Corps, the CAMC, and most were sent overseas. During the war, these nurses cared for almost 540,000 soldiers, working near the front lines, even risking their lives, as full members of the CEF. In fact, 53 of them lost their lives on active duty.
Some of the nurses in the CAMC studied in Canadian nursing schools, while others were trained in the United Kingdom and the United States. Although addressed with the traditional title of "Nursing Sister," most of them were not members of religious nursing orders.
We asked Laura to tell us about the background of these women, and what sort of qualifications the nurses needed to be able to enlist.
LB: There is a set of criteria that they had to have in order to get into the CAMC or Canadian Army Medical Corps. They had to have two years' minimum of experience in a designated nursing school. They had to be single. They had to be British subjects. They had to be in good health. In particular, they had to have that training, that was really important. Nursing at the end of the 19th century was only just becoming professionalized in Canada, and it had a reputation that wasn't considered really appropriate for a good middle-class woman up to that point. To have those qualifications was part of the entry into Canada's military at the time.
In other countries other than Canada, the qualifications could have been less. For example, in Great Britain, to be part of their nursing service you didn't have to go the same route, you weren't an officer, whereas on the Canadian Army Medical Corps all the nurses who entered into the Army became designated officers, they were called lieutenants. They had a different rank, and this was a reflection of their extensive training. It was really quite a standout facet of being a woman in the Canadian military to have this rank.
JA: Was this the same for nurses from other countries serving in the war?
LB: No, they weren't ranked as officers. In the case of Britain, their nursing service was sort of adjacent to their military, the British Expeditionary Force, they weren't integrated. Whereas in Canada, these Canadian Nursing Sisters were full-fledged members of the military. If you were just reaching out into the military in Canada, you would be ranked as a lieutenant. If you were in charge of a hospital, you would be a matron and be ranked as a captain. If you were the nurse that was the head of the whole service, you would have been the Matron-in-Chief, and you would have been a major. These were really new developments in Canada's military. Of course, to have women in the military in general was a first, but to have them be ranked was really significant.
JA: As fully enlisted officers in the specially created all female rank of Nursing Sister, Canadian nurses enjoyed a number of benefits in their positions, with relative rank, leave benefits and receiving equal pay to the men, the first women among the Allied forces to do so.
The head Nursing Sister, known as the Matron-in-Chief, was in charge of all the nurses in the service. Margaret Macdonald of the CAMC was given this title, and was the first woman to hold the rank of major in the whole of the British Empire.
Of all the nurses on active duty during the First World War, only the Canadian nurses were under the direct control of the Army and held a military rank, and until the mid-1940s, Canada was the only country to commission women as officers.
We asked Laura how the decision was made to integrate the Nursing Sisters into the Army, and to give them the rank of lieutenant.
LB: The Canadian Army Medical Corps was established in 1904, and there was always an intention to make nurses part of that and to give them their own service. Now this decision to give them rank as lieutenants came about as a result of a couple of things, and it was because of this acknowledgement that these nurses were highly skilled, highly trained, they needed to have this acknowledged higher rank. And it was also a means to give them a designated place within the military structure. So, with this rank, nurses working in hospital overseas, for example, they had authority over their patients. They had authority over orderlies or hospital helpers who were privates. This gave a means to assist nurses to have this formalized structure within their purview.
JA: Only a few nurses were part of the Canadian Army Medical Corps at the start of the First World War in 1914, but numbers soon increased as civilian nurses were eager to transfer their skills into the military context. A total of 3,141 Nursing Sisters served in the CAMC, and 2,504 of those served overseas in England, France, Belgium, Russia and the eastern Mediterranean at Gallipoli, Alexandria and Salonika. As well, some Nursing Sisters stayed at home in Canada, working in convalescent hospitals, helping soldiers who came back after they were wounded.
Laura tells us about their life overseas. What sort of working and living conditions did they face?
LB: I think they would have found that no matter how much training they had experienced in Canada, nothing would really prepare them for the conditions that they found overseas. In particular, in the Mediterranean theatre, conditions could be really tough; they could find themselves living in tents, they could find themselves facing really difficult conditions.
One of the nurses that I've researched a little bit is Ruby Peterkin, and we have a private fonds for her here at LAC. Ruby served in Salonika in Greece for 23 months, which is really an extraordinary long period of time, and she wrote a series of letters to her sister and her family while she was posted overseas. Shortly after she arrived in Salonika, she wrote to her sister Irene describing the cold, for example, and living in rudimentary conditions. I have a letter here that she wrote, and there is an image on the letter which is, I would say, a doodle, of a picture showing Ruby herself in some sort of unorthodox Nursing Sister garb. She looks a little bit more like what we would think of as a modern day football player, because she's got layers of clothing on, she's got heavy boots on. In this letter, I would just like to read you a little excerpt from it. She says:
We came right from Malta where the sun glared on the white shore all day, and we nearly scorched in the middle of the day. Everyone wearing sun helmets and goggles to arctic weather here is Salonika. I went on night duty the second night after we arrived and that was when it began to get cold. It is not nearly as cold now and I have discarded layer after layer of clothing until all the extras I'm wearing are two sweater coats under my raincoat. And I'm wearing putties, the regular soldier's ones you know that you wind round and round. I objected to showing the whole of my socks to the wide world and these are the grandest things and the warmest. I expect I should wear them all the rest of my natural life
So these putties that she mentions are long strips of fabric that all Allied soldiers tended to wear in the First World War. That was to give leg support, ankle support but also warmth. What Ruby is doing here is she's kind of recognizing what an unusual situation she is in, and she's not wearing her standard uniform. Her little doodle, her drawing here, shows that she's wearing fur lined gloves and two sweaters, and she's wearing these putties on her legs, which for a Nursing Sister would have been quite extraordinary. But this gets at some of the living and working conditions that were unusual for military Nursing Sisters in the First World War.
Aside from the Mediterranean theatre, many nurses who served in northern Europe would have also seen kind of different working conditions: sometimes they were housed in huts, again tents. They could have been working fairly close to the front lines in casualty clearing stations, which were surgical units that were somewhat mobile. They became more entrenched as the war wore on, but in these locations, Sisters were within firing range of artillery. It could be very dangerous. The conditions were very different from the ones they experienced at home. If nurses were serving in England, they might be in the English countryside, it might have been something much more familiar. Generally, they would have women's nurses barracks, they could be tents, they could be actual buildings. Sometimes the Canadian Army Medical Corps would take over churches or schools to use as hospitals, so the nurses would be found in hospitals.
JA: The casualty clearing stations that Laura mentioned were advance units, situated close to the front line, where ambulances could deliver the wounded to be assessed, treated or evacuated to one of the many hospitals. The early stage assessment and treatment available at these units proved very effective in the efficient handling of large groups of battle injuries that occurred at the front. At the same time, however, the proximity to the fighting exposed the Nursing Sisters to the horrors and dangers particular to the front. The advance areas were often under attack from air raids and shellfire, frequently placing the lives of the sisters in danger.
A little more on Nursing Sister Ruby Peterkin…
Ruby Peterkin was born in Toronto in 1887, and graduated as a trained nurse from the Toronto General Hospital in 1911.
On April 7, 1915, she enlisted to serve with the No. 4 Canadian General Hospital, organized by the University of Toronto, and was mobilized in Montréal.
Ruby served with the No. 5 Canadian General Hospital in Britain and with the No. 4 Hospital in Salonika, Greece.
The Ruby Peterkin fonds at LAC contains over 300 photographs of her life overseas, plus a collection of over 60 letters from Ruby to her sister Irene and other family members.
These letters consist of descriptions of the wartime camp in Salonika and her social activities, with some descriptions of the hospital, its conditions and the patients as well as her first experiences overseas, including censorship of her letters, her living quarters and her daily routine.
In a letter to her sister Irene from January 1916, Ruby writes about meeting a group of British nursing sisters, and indicates a tension from them.
JA: How were the Nursing Sisters perceived by the soldiers, as well as by other nurses?
LB: By the Canadian military, nurses were shown great respect. It was unusual to have women amongst their midst, and there's quotes and letters of Nursing Sisters about how, going on the ships over to Europe from Canada, suddenly these officers saw all these women around them, and it was a bit unusual and hard to get used to. But in general, the superiors to the Nursing Sisters and the patients that they attended to had a tremendous amount of respect for the Nursing Sisters and the work they did.
Their status as officers, again it was very much confined to the hospitals, so when nurses were outside of that setting they were members of the Army. But once they were inside of the hospital, they had more authority because of that relationship between patient and caregiver.
In the case of how others outside of the Army, perhaps members of other militaries, viewed Canadian nurses, documentation shows that there was certainly an element of jealousy in cases because Canadian nurses were at this elevated officer rank. That wasn't to say that other members of other forces weren't well trained, they had extensive experience as well, but having this officer status and having that visual representation of two pips or two buttons on their shoulder to designate that status, it was a visualization that you couldn't ignore.
The letters that we have in our collection from Nursing Sisters, from time to time they do raise this aspect that there was some jealousy of the Canadian Sisters.
JA: Did the Nursing Sisters have any downtime? Chances to travel or for entertainment?
LB: Absolutely! Absolutely! Another private fonds for a Nursing Sister that we have here at LAC is for Alice Isaacson. She left some really wonderful personal diaries from her time in France, between 1917 and 1918. She was a nurse who had a lot of experience. Before she came into the Canadian Army Medical Corps, she was trained in the United States, she served with the British Expeditionary Force, and then she joined the Canadians. Alice wrote a lot about how, during the time when she wasn't working, she would take advantage of walking around the French countryside, of travelling to various places in Europe when she was on leave. And she also has left an extensive photograph collection where she has documented statues that she saw while on leave in London, pictures of flowers, pictures of cityscapes. Nurses really enjoyed travelling if they could. One of the fortunate aspects of being an officer as a woman was that you were afforded generous leave. They certainly worked really long days, 15-hour days, but they were afforded about two weeks of leave per year if war conditions allowed.
Aside from travel, there were a number of different entertainments that Nursing Sisters could engage in. They enjoyed holding teas for other Nursing Sisters and officers, going to dances, going to parties, and generally absorbing as much as they could of the culture and circumstances of being away from their homes and away from their usual surroundings. They really tried to take advantage of that.
JA: A little more on Nursing Sister Alice Isaacson:
Alice Isaacson was born in Ireland on October 2, 1874. She received her nursing training at St. Luke's, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and completed her graduate work at the Chicago Lying-In Hospital.
Alice served with the Royal Army Medical Corps before reporting to the CAMC on August 29, 1916. Beginning in September 1916, she served in England and France with the No. 2 Canadian General Hospital.
Her fonds here at LAC contains over 600 photographs documenting her experience at war, her travels and her personal life as well as two of her diaries, for the years 1917 and 1918. The diaries give insight into Alice's work and the social activities she experienced during those two years.
Throughout these two diaries, Alice closely follows the developments of the war and often mentions different military advancements and how they affect the hospital.
Her interest in American involvement in the war is also well documented. Alice writes beautiful and detailed descriptions of her travels and what she sees.
Such a conglomerate war scene! In a few months let us hope these scenes may all be in the past, and we may find the French peasant… tilling these fields and raising his little family in peace and quietness! On our return trip to Paris we passed slowly through poor destroyed Amiens. Such a pitiful scene of destruction and waste! Not a house left whole that we could see houses cut into two and great gapes in roofs and walls. In some places we could see the furniture still standing in its place, or partially broken and the pictures hanging askew on the walls.
JA: In the last few months of her diary, Alice often writes about the political atmosphere and the direction of the war:
Bulgaria has surrendered to the Allies, and both Germany and Austria have asked for peace terms. Austria is urgently insisting upon an immediate armistice. In the meantime great allied victories are being won. Belgium and France are being evacuated and the cities that have for four years been occupied by German troops, are at last liberated, and the refugees are rapidly returning to their homes.
JA: Did Nursing Sisters work on the front lines? Any direct contact with the enemy?
LB: I had mentioned a little earlier the casualty clearing station. This was an advanced surgical unit, which was part of a really long formulated system of moving casualties back from the front lines. Briefly, to explain what this was, the First World War is really marked by this idea of trench warfare; you have a trench, which is your front line. And the Army, the medical corps, put at the front line regimental first aid posts, advanced dressing stations, which were kind of the very first interactions that the wounded would have with getting care. Back from that, you had these casualty clearing stations where this is the closest that Nursing Sisters got to the front lines. The casualty clearing stations were two to three kilometres from artillery fire. So, they worked in these places helping to amass casualties, give them treatment, and if further treatment was required, these soldiers were shifted further and further back from the lines. The next step back from the casualty clearing station was a stationary hospital, which would have housed approximately 100 to 400 patients. At those facilities, more care was given, they could stay a little bit longer, more complex surgeries were performed. And then from there, soldiers were shifted even further back to Canadian General Hospitals, and these were the big hospitals that could house up to 2,000 patients, and Canada had many of them. Sisters like Alice Isaacson worked at the No. 2 Canadian General Hospital in Le Tréport in France, and later the No. 6 Canadian General Hospital.
If you were working in such a hospital, you were well back from the lines at that point. It's really the casualty clearing stations where few Nursing Sisters got to go to, but if they did they were very pleased to go there because they were coveted positions. Being that close to enemy fire would have been frightening, it would have been daunting, and yet only the best nurses were selected to go to those positions.
JA: By 1918, the Canadian Army Medical Corps operated 16 general hospitals, 10 stationary hospitals and 4 casualty clearing stations.
LB: Certainly in the First World War, our military Nursing Sisters went overseas with the expectation that they would care for Canada's wounded, but in working in very gendered feminine roles as nurses the public thought, "Oh! They won't be in serious danger!" But of course later in the war as it became more common to be posted to these casualty clearing stations and other events that came up, more of our Nursing Sisters were in more and more danger.
JA: We asked Laura if any Nursing Sisters were killed in the line of duty?
LB: In fact they were. There are 21 Canadian Army Military Corps Nursing Sisters who were killed in the line of duty. If you factor in those who died of illnesses during the course of the First World War, in total Canada lost approximately 60 nurses. So there were several incidents that happened in 1917, actually it was more 1918 that resulted in the deaths of our Nursing Sisters. The first incident took place at the No. 1 Canadian General Hospital in Étaples, and a German bombing raid swooped in and destroyed a huge part of this hospital and a number of other hospitals in the vicinity, and one Nursing Sister, Canadian Katherine MacDonald, became the first Nursing Sister killed as a result of enemy action, and two of her compatriots Nursing Sisters were also killed in that incident.
JA: The other two Nursing Sisters killed in that event were Gladys Wake and Margaret Lowe, both dying shortly after of their wounds.
LB: That was a tremendous shock to the military, to Canadians, to have that incident take place. It was a real wake-up call to show how dangerous this work could be. A little bit later in 1918, in fact at the end of May, a second raid took place in Doullens, at another Canadian hospital, and an additional three Nursing Sisters were killed in that incident. One of them was Agnes MacPherson, and Alice Isaacson references in one of her diary entries that incident, and she says: "Poor Mac! She was a lovely girl! Everyone loved her!", and you can really understand how Nursing Sisters maybe got a little self-reflective when these incidents happened, it became a really uncertain time. To realize that you could be well back from the front lines but in real danger. And this is in thanks to many of the technological developments that came in the First World War: aerial warfare, submarine warfare. It meant that these dangers could become much more close to home.
JA: Here is the quote from Alice Isaacson's diary, housed here at LAC, referencing the bombing of the No. 3 Canadian Stationary Hospital at Doullens, France, and the death of Agnes MacPherson. The diary entry is from June 6, 1918, when Isaacson was serving with the No. 6 Canadian General Hospital:
Today's mail brings a letter from Sister Wallace telling of Miss McPherson's death at Doullens. The operating room was bombed at midnight and 3 sisters, 2 Medical Officers and patients and many Non-commissioned officers, men were killed! Poor Mac, she was a darling girl! Sweet mannered and gentle! Everyone loved her here at No 6.
JA: Along with Agnes MacPherson, two others were killed in the bombing of the No. 3 Hospital at Doullens. They were Nursing Sisters Dorothy Baldwin and Eden Pringle.
LAC holds photos of the aftermath of these two tragic events. We have added some of them to our Flickr gallery. Click the link to the Flickr gallery on the related links section on LAC's podcast page for this episode.
A month later, on June 27, 1918, off the southern coast of Ireland, a German submarine torpedoed the Canadian hospital ship
Llandovery Castle on its return to England with only medical personnel aboard. We asked Laura to give us more details on this tragedy.
LB: Canada had five hospital ships that were in service during the First World War. One of them was the
Llandovery Castle, and it had been going between Europe and Canada transporting casualties across the Atlantic with many medical personal working on board, including Nursing Sisters. This ship had recently just departed from Canada, it was going back to the United Kingdom, and it was off the coast of Ireland when, on the night of June 27, 1918, a German submarine came close to the ship. It approached and what would have been expected was that this submarine may have stopped the ship, may have searched the ship, because they were within their right to do that. But instead this submarine attacked and torpedoed the
Llandovery Castle sank in 10 minutes. There were 258 people on board and nearly all of them perished. There were 14 Nursing Sisters who were on that ship. They all managed to get into lifeboats. It was the middle of the night, and yet everyone remained very calm. But unfortunately, due to the suction of the ship sinking, their lifeboats were pulled down. And unfortunately some accounts of the event that remain indicate that members of the submarine crew were ramming lifeboats and actually attacking survivors. So it was a horrible, horrible tragedy. It's one that shocked people at the time. Canadians were just devastated by this. There is a lot of propaganda that came out of the event, helping to or aiming to kind of rally Canadians around this event, and see it as an impetus for more support for the war.
The sinking of the
Llandovery Castle was really one of those events in the First World War that was quite frightening to people and brought events far away very close to home.
JA: LAC has material in its collection pertaining to this event. Laura tells us about these items.
LB: We do have a propaganda poster that addresses the sinking of the
Llandovery Castle. We also have some official photographs, at least one that I know of, that relates to Sergeant Knight, who is one of the survivors of the
Llandovery Castle. It's a really remarkable photo of him sitting up in a hospital bed in the aftermath of the event. He's trying to recover. His eyes are just glazed over because he's been through such a traumatic event and he's still processing it. This individual, Sergeant Knight, tried to assist nurses. He was in the lifeboats as well, and he actually got thrown out of the lifeboats but came up three times gasping for air. Eventually, he was pulled into another boat, and he survived. This remarkable photograph addresses the event, but it also says something to dealing with the trauma of war events. This is a photograph that's certainly worth looking at.
JA: The bodies of the 14 Nursing Sisters were never recovered. These brave women are commemorated on the Halifax Memorial. This memorial consists of a granite Cross of Sacrifice 12 metres high and is mounted on a large granite podium bearing panels of bronze upon which are inscribed the names of those whose graves are at sea.
We asked Laura if these tragic events had any impact on Nursing Sisters enlisting for service.
LB: I should make an important distinction on the subject of enlistment. Throughout the First World War, especially as you get into 1917 and 1918, Canada became really desperate for recruits. We're talking about male soldiers, as did our allies. But in the case of Nursing Sisters, it's different because we actually always had more than enough Nursing Sisters required. There is a lot of evidence in our government records to show that Nursing Sisters kept writing in throughout the course of the war wanting to enlist, and often they had to reject them because there simply was not enough spots for them. Nursing Sisters were motivated to serve for a lot of reasons: they wanted an opportunity to gain professional experience, they wanted adventure, they wanted to be close to loved ones who were serving overseas as well. In the event of the tragedies of multiple Nursing Sister deaths that occurred in 1918, I'm not sure if that wavered enlistment too much, but we do know that Nursing Sisters reflected on those events because they document events in letters and in diaries.
At the time, the kind of mentality, the expectations, of Nursing Sisters was: "Horrible things will happen. You'll see unheard of injuries in soldiers, you'll see casualties, but you keep going. You have this sort of stiff upper lip, and you're expected to be professional". From the outside that continued, but it's through these personal reflections that maybe you see a little bit of wavering, and you see some sadness certainly coming through the letters of Alice Isaacson, for example.
JA: What sort of material does LAC have in its collection pertaining to the Canadian Nursing Sisters?
LB: I'll start with our private fonds. If you're interested in understanding what we have for private letter collections, photo albums, diaries, a great place to go to would be our Military Heritage page. It links to a First World War link, and then you can find a page that addresses collections such as Alice Isaacson's, Ruby Peterkin's, Laura Gamble's and others. These are such rich testaments to experiences for nurses. You'll find all kinds of links there related to those collections.
Getting into the government record side, we also have a ton of really valuable resources. And the first place you should stop when you look to researching Canadian Nursing Sisters would be our CEF personnel files, which is a wonderful database where we have fully digitized files of all members who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in the First World War. It includes Soldiers, Chaplains and Nursing Sisters. These personnel files, they are government documents, they're standardized, but you find all kinds of personal information on them as was noted in a previous episode of your podcast. You find information about where Nursing Sisters were born, the education they had, their next of kin, their training. You get extensive information on maladies they've been facing, treatment they received, pay. The CEF file, also known as the Military Service File in the First World War, is extremely valuable.
JA: The files of Canadian Expeditionary Force members which include those of soldiers, nurses and chaplains, consist of documents dealing with enlistment, training, medical and dental history, hospitalization, discipline, pay, medal entitlements, and discharge or notification of death. Each service file contains an average of 25 to 75 pages. LAC recently completed the digitization of all 640,000 CEF service files and visitors to the LAC website can quickly and easily gain access to a wealth of genealogical and historical information, and form their own impressions of the First World War service of these women, and all members of the CEF.
To learn more about the CEF files, you can also listen to our podcast episode that Laura mentioned, from September 2014, entitled
Sign Me Up: CEF Files, 1914–1918.
LB: If you dive a little bit deeper in the government records side, we have a lot of information about the administration behind nurses serving in Canada's military, record about pay, nominal list, so long list of all the nurses who served. We have war diaries, which demonstrate the different units of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and what they were doing operationally on the ground. So if you are researching a Nursing Sister, and you know for example that she served at No. 2 Canadian General Hospital, you can look up the associated war diary and find out all kinds of interesting information. War diaries would note things like the weather, movements of troops in and out, any kind of unusual circumstances that happened, when the Matron-in-Chief visited to do inspections. It doesn't always tell you a lot of personal information, but it gives you some really valuable contextual background to your research.
In addition to those kinds of records, we also have extensive photographic holdings from our military government records, many of which have been digitized. There's just a wealth of information that we have. I should also note that in terms of the writing about Canadian military nurses, there's been a real blossoming of scholarship in the last few years. Canada has produced information about our military nurses from Mélanie Morin-Pelletier at the Canadian War Museum. Cynthia Toman has done extensive research about our First World War military nurses and the Second World War military nurses. We've also seen a lot of regional histories of nurses come out recently such as Katherine Dewar's book on nurses who served in the First World War and who were from Prince Edward Island. It's really worth immersing yourself in some of that literature as well, if you're interested in this topic.
JA: LAC recently came into possession of some items of Nursing Sister Luella Blanche Lee, from Bradford, Ontario. This fonds consists of a number of items, including over 1,000 photographs and a diary. During her two and a half years overseas, she was stationed in Malta, Italy, England and France.
Laura tells us more about Luella Lee and in her collection here at LAC.
LB: Luella Lee, she was a nurse who was trained in Toronto. She did serve with the Canadian Army Medical Corps, beginning in 1917, but some of the most interesting parts of her service came before, in fact, because she served with the British. Luella was sent to Malta, where she served for a whole year with the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service, which was the British Service. We have a collection for her at LAC, which has a lot of visual documentation, many photographs, a really extraordinary tiny autograph album, which she had colleagues and patient sign while she was stationed at St. Andrew's Military Hospital in Malta. This record is full of quotes, intricate watercolour, drawings, and it really speaks to kind of a bond that she had with patients during this posting. It shows how, in this confined space of working in a hospital in the Mediterranean, relationships were formed, friendships were formed. A lot of her records speak to the relationships she built with people while being posted in Malta.
She also has a small diary, which documents mostly her voyage from the U.K. to Malta in late 1916. Through this record, you can see what an extraordinary experience that she's going through, through this voyage. She is on a hospital ship, and she recounts seeing snow covered peaks as she passes by Spain and seeing a porpoise in the ocean. Despite being horribly, horribly seasick between her voyage over to the U.K. and then on to Malta, she's finding these moments of beauty and realizing that she's in a rather magnificent space. Of course, when she arrives in Malta, she hits the ground running, and she's suddenly responsible for caring for patients on multiple wards, but her diary recounts that she felt rather special being at this posting because she of course was in a British hospital and she's singled out as Canadian. She remembers that a lot of her patients were quite interested to know the fact that she had this different nationality.
I think in the case of Luella Blanche Lee, the records that she's left behind offer a bit of a different perspective, because she wasn't serving with the Canadian military until later, most of her records cover the time before, but she offers a very intimate glimpse into what life was like as a nurse.
JA: So was it an option for Canadian nurses to enlist in the armies of other countries during the First World War?
LB: It was an option. In the case of Luella, she became part of the British military in response to a call for nurses that the British sent out. I think in this case it was specifically in Toronto that she received notice, so that's how she started her career. Because Canada was strict on the numbers of nurses that it would have in its military, if a Canadian nurse wasn't successful going that route, sometimes they would find another route, and that's how in the case of Luella, she started off with the British.
JA: In April 2018, Library and Archives Canada launched Co-Lab, a collaboration tool allowing the public to contribute to "challenges" by transcribing, tagging, translating and describing digitized records found in LAC's collection. One of the Co-Lab challenges you can contribute to is the digitized letters, diaries and photographs of some of Canada's Nursing Sisters who served in the First World War, including some we have mentioned in this episode, like Alice Isaacson and Ruby Peterkin. Laura tells us more.
LB: This is a great project that LAC has initiated. If you go to the Nursing Co-Lab challenge you can see different private fonds related to Nursing Sisters. Alice Isaacson's is there, for example where you see all of her diaries page by page, you see different photographs from her collection, and members of the public have the opportunity to go in and transcribe her letters. Because these hundred-year-old diaries, even if the nurse had the best handwriting ever, they're not always easy to digest and to read, so the transcription is really valuable.
Contributors also have the opportunity to tag these records, which facilitates more searching, which makes sure that these valuable records are more accessible to the public.
JA: The Call to Duty: Canada's Nursing Sisters Co-Lab challenge is a great way to access LAC's records, and a valuable way you can contribute wherever you happen to be in the world.
Besides the Co-Lab challenge, LAC also has multiple resources for you to use to do more research into Canadian Nursing Sisters. The Call to Duty: Canada's Nursing Sisters page on our website is where you can read a digital version of Geneviève Allard's "Caregiving on the Front: The Experience of Canadian Military Nurses During the First World War". This is a great introduction, with multiple biographies and photos. You can find more information in the related links section for this episode on LAC's podcast page.
We asked Laura what life was like for the Nursing Sisters when they returned to Canada.
LB: Many of our Nursing Sisters, they served for literally years overseas. I mentioned in the case of Ruby Peterkin, she was in the Mediterranean for 23 months, and then she was still in Europe for another year. She had gotten quite ill at the end of the war. Cases like this demonstrate that they were away a long time. Then when the armistice came, it took a while for the Army to configure itself to get organized to finally send troops back.
There were certain complications, for example with the outbreak of the Spanish flu at the end of the war. It meant that nurses had additional duties to care for people who were sick from that. But once nurses finally were returned back to Canada, they had to face sort of the next chapter of their lives. Many nurses got married, they had children. Some nurses entered into the field of public health and did very good work in that area. Some nurses entered into veterans hospitals. Following the First World War, Canada developed a system of veterans hospital, and nurses were of course really integral to that, because there was so many injuries, so many wounds that our forces had to recover from in the long term that nurses were there to assist for that.
In the case of Alice Isaacson, she was one of those that came back to Canada, and she worked in a veterans hospital for a while. Then in the early 1920s, she went to the United States, a place that she was familiar with because she had received her training in America and lived there prior to the First Word War. She went to Cornell University in New York, and she became a nurse on campus basically caring for students. She had a career there until 1944, and she retired.
In summary, a lot of nurses, they tried to maintain a foothold in the medical field and work as nurses, but many also chose to totally remove themselves from that military nursing career to start families and to take their lives in another direction. Very, very few stayed in the military proper. At the end of the First World War, the nursing component of Canada's military was quite dismantled. It was reduced from nearly 3,000 to very few, so that wasn't a big option for Canadian nurses who came home.
But I think for most nurses who did serve in the military, they look back on that time as a time of quite a degree of liberation, of extraordinary experience, of a time where they witnessed things they never could have expected. They witnessed the ramifications of a highly technological war, they witnessed amputations, wounds that were devastating, gas warfare. In fact, following the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, when chlorine gas was used on the field and many Canadians were affected by that, the Nursing Sisters that were treating these soldiers, because of their proximity inhaled some gas, and they had suffered some respiratory problems themselves.
Many nurses, they suffered from what we would call today post-traumatic stress syndrome, alongside many soldiers. I think that's something that a lot of people don't think about. When we think about nurses who served in the First World War, we have this idealized image of the nurse in the veil, and her beautiful dress and her apron, and she's administering treatments to soldiers. She's working diligently all hours of the day, seeing huge convoys of soldiers coming in and leaving, but we don't think so much about what women experienced following all of that and what that effect was on them psychologically. And evidence shows that they, alongside those who were actually serving in the trenches, suffered a lot.
JA: If you'd like to learn more about Canadian Nursing Sisters here at Library and Archives Canada, please visit us online at bac-lac.gc.ca. On the episode page for this podcast, you will find a number of related links, including related blog articles about the Nursing Sisters and the Llandovery Castle, and our Flickr album, which highlights a selection of photos from our collection.
Thank you for being with us. I'm Josée Arnold, your host. You've been listening to "Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you." A special thank-you to our guest today, Laura Brown. Special thanks also to Isabel Larocque, Geneviève Allard, Alex Comber and Karine Brisson for their contributions to this episode. All music in this episode by Blue Dot Sessions.
This episode was produced and engineered by David Knox.
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