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ARCHIVED - The Call to Duty
Canada’s Nursing Sisters

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Caregiving on the Front



The participation of military nurses in the war seems to have been so highly valued that they enjoyed unequalled respect when they returned home. In the years following World War I, their contribution to the Canadian war effort and to the nursing profession was publicly commemorated by the erection of a monument in Parliament in honour of all Canadian nurses. This prestige reflected on the profession as a whole; from the time of the war to the 1930s was the golden age of professionalization of nursing in Canada. The recognition that nurses acquired is due, among other things, to the fact that military nurses, through their training, ingenuity, and resourcefulness, carved themselves a significant and respected place in a typically male bastion.

World War I thus represents an important time in the evolution of the nursing profession in Canada. The CANC, formed at the beginning of the twentieth century, provided an interesting opportunity for more than 2000 graduates from nursing schools, offering them stable employment (at least for the duration of hostilities) that was well paid and filled with professional challenges and adventure. Over the four years of the war, military nurses risked their lives, worked non-stop, overcame difficult living conditions, and went through emotional times watching patients and friends perish, but they also forged friendships and a sense of solidarity that transcended their military service and had fun. Above all, they made use of their training and their personal and professional experience to improve and even save the lives of their patients.

World War I did not change how nursing was practised in as notable way as medical developments in the twentieth century would do during other wars. However, given the new combat tactics and weapons being used, along with the size of the conflict, the importance of the nurses' role as caregivers within the medical services of the CEF was convincingly demonstrated. In a context in which the power of medicine was limited and diseases abounded, nurses offered specific health care skills that were utterly indispensable.

In addition, the presence of nurses under such exceptional circumstances brought a feminine, almost maternal touch, expressed in all sorts of ways. It is in fact reasonable to think that the nurses helped to make the caregiving units warm places, providing soldiers with a home-like atmosphere.

This was the key to the success of the Canadian military nurses who served in Europe during World War I: by doing what they had learned to do, doing it well, effectively, and with dedication, they joined the other figures in the pantheon of World War I heroes. In the words of Marion Wylie, a nurse from Sutton, Ontario, who served in England and France from 1916 until demobilization, "It was very necessary and very important, on the whole, I think, very well done. I am not boasting about that, but I think the nurses worked very hard and did good work."12

12 Marion Wylie, Canadian Nursing Sisters of World War I Oral History Program. Interview conducted by Margaret Allemang, Toronto, Faculty of Nursing, University of Toronto, 1979, 22.