The Canadian Army Nursing Service (CANS) plays a pivotal role in my novel Angel of Mercy, yet it is little mentioned in the history of World War One. (This post is a companion piece to my WWI Trilogy, Angel of Mercy, Those Left Behind and Adjustment Year, available wherever eBooks are sold.)
The CANS was founded in 1901. The first women who enrolled served in the South African (Boer) War.
Three years later, the CANS consisted of 25 women.
In 1904, CANS was renamed the Canadian Army Nursing Corps (CANC). Its first matron was Georgina Fane Pope. She was responsible for establishing the corps’ uniform, rules and regulations, and recruitment techniques.
At the start of World War I, there were only five permanent members and 30 reservists. A recruitment campaign was launched.
World War I
In order to qualify for membership in the CANC, nurses had to complete a training course and take a written exam. This requirement was later waived.
When the first contingent of Canadian soldiers sailed for Europe in autumn 1914, 105 nurses left with them.
Members of the medical corps were noncombatants but that didn’t mean they were not in danger. In June 1917, the hospital ship Llandovery Castle was sunk, and all 14 nurses on-board were killed. The following May, No. 1 Canadian General Hospital was bombed, and five nurses were killed.
27 Facts About the Service
- Of the 3,141 nurses who served, 2,504 did so overseas.
- There were more volunteers than there were openings.
- The average age of a nurse was 24.
- Their proper title was “nursing sister.” This is because traditionally nursing had been carried out by those in religious orders. None of the World War I nursing sisters, however, were nuns.
- The nurses were high school graduates as well as graduates of hospital nursing programs. This makes them highly educated compared to most women at the time.
- Most were born in Canada or Britain.
- They were mostly from urban areas, middle class and their fathers were professionals.
- They were paid $2 daily.
- Requirements for acceptance were graduation from a recognized nursing college, being single, in good health, and being between the ages of 21 and 38.
- Women joined out a sense of duty, to expand their job skills, to seek adventure or to escape unemployment.
- They were given the rank of lieutenant, although they had no power to issue orders outside of the medical corps.
- Their uniforms were blue with white veils and aprons. This earned them the nickname “bluebirds.”
- Army nurses also were nicknamed “angels of mercy.”
- The first medical units were permanent hospitals. Later, casualty clearing stations were introduced closer to the front line, allowing triage to be performed.
- They served overseas in Belgium, France, Great Britain, Russia, and around the Mediterranean in 30 hospitals and clearing stations. They also served on hospital ships.
- The medical staff at clearing stations had to contend with more than the enemy. They also experienced primitive working conditions and exhaustion. They fought insects, especially fleas, and rats.
- Hospitals in the field were equipped to handle 250 patients and were staffed with 16 nurses. Hospitals in England handled 500 patients with a nursing staff of 72.
- It was very common for staff to be moved from one post to another throughout the course of the war.
- Duties included changing bandages, disinfecting wounds, serving patients food, disinfecting instruments, changing bedding, emptying bedpans, bathing patients and triage.
- They usually lived in tents or wood huts.
- Nurses often left the service because of mental exhaustion.
- Nurses occupied themselves during their free time by playing sports, dancing, enjoying afternoon tea and traveling while on leave.
- They were given the right to vote with the passage of the Military Voters Act in 1917. Because overseas military personnel voted earlier than citizens back home, nurses were the first Canadian women ever to a cast a vote in a federal election.
- The official death toll for nurses was 47. However, some historians believe the real number was 76.
- Nine nurses received medals for gallantry under fire.
- Most returned home and eventually married, but some remained in the service.
Updated: 21 October 2020