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Canada’s Nursing Sisters

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Caregiving on the Front

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The Work of Military Nurses

Living Conditions

Nothing in the conflicts that had gone before World War I foretold the breadth of that conflict. New weapons, new combat tactics, and the number of countries and soldiers involved were all factors that radically changed the ways that war was waged. As a consequence, the pace at which patients entered and left the various hospitals and dressing stations, the nature and seriousness of the wounds, and the care required meant that certain aspects of their job diverged greatly from what nurses had experienced as students or in civilian practice. It was not the administration of care itself that was transformed, but the conditions under which caregiving took place on the front.

The state of war, the reality of which the nurses really became aware on their ocean voyage to Europe on ships escorted by armed vessels, was even more striking when they arrived in England. While some rationing and conscription had been instituted in Canada, such measures, and others, such as the curfew, were naturally more severe in the United Kingdom and on the other war fronts.

The first war measures to which nurses were subjected concerned food and lodging. In each combat zone, whether England, the Continent, or the Mediterranean, specific difficulties arose. Provisions were reduced: sugar, butter, coffee, chocolate, and meat were rare foods. On the Mediterranean, the lack of potable water represented an even more severe health risk. Moreover, the poisoning of water reserves, a war tactic frequently employed by the enemy, made work and daily life even more difficult to manage; because the limited supply of potable water was reserved for drinking, the personal hygiene of the nurses, their patients, and their workplace quickly came to be considered secondary.

In terms of housing, some nurses had a better time than did others. In England and France, the nurses serving in towns or villages often had the chance to live in buildings, sometimes even villas or castles. Closer to the lines of combat, the nurses had to content themselves with canvas tents or wooden shelters. Whether or not their lodgings had walls, all nurses had to deal with a very real problem: vermin. Fleas, insects of all sorts, and rats infested all types of care units. The rats, in particular, seemed to be afraid of nothing. At night, they threw themselves on any trace of food and even attacked patients. Finally, frequent trips between dressing stations — an inconvenience, aggravated by the lack of communications, which resulted in wasted time, equipment, and personal objects — attacks, and bombings were all part of daily life on the front. Although they were accepted as inevitable in a war situation, bombardments were still a terrifying, and life-threatening, reality.

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