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Canada’s Nursing Sisters

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Caregiving on the Front

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Professional Relations and Social Life

The isolation and sadness that were the realities of the front - along with the omnipresent danger, the constant work, and the forced proximity in which doctors, nurses, and patients had to live - encouraged a sense of friendship, solidarity, and loyalty. The members of the Nursing Corps were young, single, far from home, and often scared; social conventions tended to melt away in a time of war. All of this made it easy to form deep friendships. Military nurses remember a working atmosphere in which the rules of the game were based on co-operation and respect. Respect for authority and exemplary behaviour were top priorities on the front, and nurses had been indoctrinated into this comportment through their professional training. However, it seems that in the context of war, the perception of absolute authority was attenuated in favour of the collaboration needed to pursue a central objective: care of the ill and wounded.

But intimacy was the flip side of overcrowding. Groups of friends might form on the basis of the reputation of their school, the size of the hospital where they had studied, where they had come from, or for other reasons. These distinctions might also provoke jealousy since they marked, symbolically, the professional status of the nurses, a status not yet secure in society at the time. Promotions and greater responsibilities could also be a source of envy, an indication that nurses were not without professional ambitions given the possibilities of advancement offered by military service.

More tense, it seems, were the relations between Canadian and foreign nurses, particularly the British ones. These tensions were due to the more advantageous conditions that Canadian nurses enjoyed. Their higher salaries, more distinctive uniforms, and apparent popularity with the officers seem to have inspired jealousy among their foreign colleagues. However, the greatest source of frustration with regard to the Canadian nurses had to do with their military rank. Indeed, their officer status gave them greater freedom of movement and a higher level of prestige, two elements that their foreign counterparts did not enjoy. The rules of the Canadian and British armies required that officers, female or male, communicate only with their peers unless they were in civilian clothing, so the British military nurses, without a military rank, could not spend time with their own officers or with those of the CAF if they were in uniform. On the other hand, the Canadian military nurses could spend time only with other officers because of their rank as lieutenants. It is thus understandable that the British nurses perceived the arrival of the Canadians with some apprehension. What is more, the Canadians' rapidly acquired reputation for compassion, gentleness, and hospitality made them formidable rivals.

The military nurses also formed relationships with soldiers. At the time, hospital stays, even in the context of war, were quite long. Nurses therefore had the time to get to know the soldiers in their care and to enjoy their presence. They got to know patients and their families, and they often became attached to them. These relationships, formed over time, did, however, have certain disadvantages. Because they came to care for their patients, the nurses might worry about their futures and mourn their deaths — not to mention the pernicious effect of having to see them suffer.

Paradoxically, according to the testimonies, correspondence, and interviews that military nurses have left to us, the counterpart to the chaotic and dark world of war was the great importance accorded to social life on the front. Between enemy attacks and work shifts, nurses wanted to have fun, and they often went out with medical officers or other available officers. Diversions included dances, eating together, and sports. The favourite British game, tennis, proved quite popular among the nurses, as did other sporting activities. The most popular English ritual was afternoon tea. Having tea meant visiting friends in nearby hospitals, meeting officers or soldiers in an environment outside of the hospital, and a change in routine. Often, English families living near the care units invited nurses to tea in a gesture of welcome and hospitality.

The best-attended social events were evenings of dancing and music. During calm periods, any excuse served to get together, organize concerts, and have dances. Often, the patients took the initiative for these parties, or they took part, performing to entertain their friends. Professional orchestras, some of them very famous at the time, sometimes came to play. The possibility of meeting a suitor during these outings was on the minds of some nurses; such encounters might lead to marriage proposals, which, in the opinion of many young women, represented the best possible outcome to their career.

Travel was also an important aspect of military nurses' social life. They used their leaves to visit Europe, taking trips that were not easily available to civilian nurses. They enjoyed great freedom because of the distance and the circumstances of the war, which led to a degree of flexibility in the observation of conventions that normally applied to respectable young women. Outings, encounters, and entertainment of all sorts might give the impression that life at the front was life as usual for these young, single nurses, especially because the context of the war meant that most of them led a much freer existence than their civilian colleagues. Nevertheless, the war and its consequences were a reality that bore its share of daily difficulties.

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