1858 engraving of Victoria

Colonial History Vancouver Island

Maureen Duffus - Author and Historian


Women's History

British Columbia Nursing Sisters in WWI

"Month in and month out a constant stream of gassed and wounded patients were cared for with a complete turnover every three weeks. Day duty, night duty followed one another until at last came the eleventh day of November, 1918. At the eleventh hour, surrounded by our wounded patients, we realized that the order to 'cease fire' had gone into effect. The War was ended." (Nursing Sister M. E. Morrison, R.R.C., in The Canadian Nurse, 1938)

Nurses with the Canadian Army Medical Corps told of their experiences in front line hospitals in letters, photos and memoirs. They tell of nursing the wounded in appalling conditions in tent hospitals during and after the Gallipoli disaster in 1915; caring for sick and wounded in "the forgotten war" on the Mediterranean Front, and in France in Canadian military hospitals near the Western Front throughout the war.

Of the 2,500 nursing sisters who served overseas from 1915 to 1919, 46 were killed on active duty, including 14 drowned when their clearly-marked hospital ship was torpedoed and sunk in June, 1918. Three hundred C.A.M.C. nurses were awarded the prestigious British Royal Red Cross medal, "in recognition of their valuable services with the armies in the field," and 164 were mentioned in Despatches.

These photos illustrate some of the experiences of courageous British Columbia nurses between 1915 and 1919.

departure of Princess Mary

Seventy British Columbia nurses signed up for overseas duty with the Canadian Army Medical Corps in the summer of 1915. On August 21 they left Victoria on the Princess Mary as part of No. 5 Canadian General Hospital, destined for service in England, on the Mediterranean front at Gallipoli, Salonika and Egypt, and in France during some of the worst bombing raids in 1918.


Taplow surgical ward
"Surgical Ward, Patients from France, Canadian Red Cross Hospital, Taplow."

Taplow Lodge
Taplow Lodge served as quarters for many Canadian Nursing sisters in two world wars when they were posted to the nearby Duchess of Connaught Canadian Red Cross Hospital. The lodge and land for the hospital were lent by Major Waldorf Astor, with the first hospital wards in a closed tennis court at Cliveden, the grand Astor estate near Maidenhead.


Ward G.2 patients in Salonica
"Ward G.2, tent hospital, No. 5 Canadian General Hospital" at Salonica. Both No. 5 and No. 4 Canadian general hospitals were in Salonica at the request of the British Army medical director during a desperate shortage of medical units for the Eastern Front.

Sisters quarters in Salonica
"Sisters' quarters at No. 5 Canadian General Hospital, Salonica," spring, 1916. Sisters Heaney, left, and Morrison.

mule carts
Mule carts served as water carriers, supply wagons and ambulances for Canadian hospitals at Gallipoli and Salonica. This one brought casualties to No. 5 C.G.H.

crashed wreck of German Zeppelin
Off duty Nursing Sisters from No. 5 C.G.H. scrambled over swampy fields along the Vardar River to see the wreck of German Zeppelin L.Z. 85. It was brought down by a British warship in Salonica Harbour May 6, 1916.

mess hut Salonica Christmas 1916
Interior of Mess Hut, Salonica, Christmas, 1916.


Gladys Wake

Victoria Nursing Sister Gladys Wake was a casualty of bombing raids on the Boulogne area hospitals in the last months of the war. She died of terrible burns after a wing of the nurses' quarters of No. 1. Canadian General Hospital was demolished in a two-hour raid on May 19, 1918. Sixty-six patients and staff of No. 1 C.G.H, including two other nurses, were killed that night or died of wounds within days. There is a memorial plaque for Gladys in St. Paul's Church, Esquimalt.
(Esquimalt Archives photo)

Christmas morning in France 1918
Christmas morning, 1918, in McWharrie Ward, No. 2 Canadian Stationary Hospital, near Boulogne, France.

Nurses' quarters in France
Sisters' Quarters at Outreau, near Boulogne, France, February, 1918. "At night in the chateau where we were billeted we could hear planes overhead for another air raid. We listened until we heard the bombs fall ... until our planes chased them back [and] we returned to our beds for a few hours of rest."

Nursing Sister Mary Ethel Morrison

The above photographs are from the album of Victoria Nursing Sister Mary Ethel Morrison, twice mentioned in despatches and recipient of the Royal Red Cross medal. She served in England, Salonica and France. After the war she took courses in Public Health nursing and was a well-loved school nurse at Lampson Street School in Esquimalt until 1945.
(Image shown from a locket-sized tinted photo)

Rediscovery of old photo albums of a nursing sister in The Great War led to this photo-essay in 2008. It was written to mark the 90th anniversary of the armistice that ended the so-called War to End All Wars on November 11, 1918. That personal tribute to my aunt, Nursing Sister Mary Ethel Morrison, has been expanded since reading the previously unpublished diary of Nursing Sister Elsie Dorothy Collis, and finding remarkably similar photographs in both of their albums. They show the two nurses in the same places at the same times during most of the war. The expanded version is the book Battlefront Nurses in WW I.