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An officer and a lady: Canadian military nursing: more than 4,000 civilian nurses volunteered to serve their country in war.


This is the first of two excerpts from the book An Officer and a Lady: Canadian Military Nursing and the Second World War. Written by Cynthia Toman, the book was published by UBC Press in association with the Canadian War Museum in 2007 (ISBN 978-0774814478, hardcover $85.00; a paperback edition is due June 2008). During the Second World War, more than 4,000 civilian nurses enlisted as Nursing Sisters, a specially created all-female officers' rank of the Canadian Armed Forces. They served in all three armed force branches and all the major theatres of war, yet nursing as a form of war work has long been under-explored.


THE MILITARY--including its medical services--was a masculine environment throughout the nineteenth century. Physicians, surgeons, stretcher bearers, and orderlies selected from the ranks of enlisted men served with military medical services, staffing regimental aid posts and field ambulances as needed. During the Crimean War (1853-56), women such as Florence Nightingale exerted considerable social and political pressure for medical and sanitary reform within the British army. They were successful in introducing a small number of women volunteers, some of whom had formal training as nurses, to care for soldiers but these women served in an auxiliary capacity and not within the military itself. By the time of the First World War, diverse groups of women in many countries sought ways to become involved in the care of soldiers as one way for women to participate in the war effort. Efforts varied from privately funding and operating their own women's hospitals located near battle zones to joining Voluntary Aid Detachment units or enrolling with auxiliary nursing services such as Red Cross hospitals. This range of trained, semi-trained, and untrained women precipitated a great deal of controversy both within and outside of the allied armed forces. Some of the controversies developed because volunteer nurses were not under military control; other controversies arose because they often lacked necessary skills, training, and discipline for military environments.

With the formation of the first permanent nursing service as part of the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) in 1904, civilian nurses were fully integrated into the Canadian armed forces as soldiers; they enlisted as lieutenants with the specially created officer's rank and title of Nursing Sister (NS). Graduation from a recognized school of nursing had become one of the basic requirements for enlistment with the CAMC by 1914, effectively excluding untrained and semi-trained women from the Canadian forces. Civilian nurses readily filled every available position with the CAMC during the First World War, thereby assuring an adequate supply of military nurses as well as a standardized set of nursing skills based on civilian training and credentials. They constituted the first generation of Canadian Nursing Sisters.


Trained Canadian civilian nurses volunteered again during the Second World War in numbers so large that the military placed a moratorium on their enlistment only ten days after the call to mobilize medical units, contradicting military historian C.P. Stacey's pronouncement of Canada as a very "unmilitary community." They eagerly filled all nursing positions with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps (RCAMC) and, later, with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) when separate nursing service branches formed in 1940 and 1941. Thousands more added their names to a waiting list that grew longer each year; still others, tired of waiting, joined the allied American, British, and South American nursing services. This enthusiasm for enlistment contrasted sharply with the conscription of Canadian men beginning in 1940 and the contentious American campaign to conscript nurses in order to fill national quotas between 1943 and 1945 for the United States armed forces.


The military had little doubt regarding the value of nurses as professionals. Medical Officer T.S. Wilson objectified and quantified nursing sisters, writing in the Journal of the Canadian Medical Services, "Of especial importance in a surgical centre are the attached nursing sisters, whose services like that of a Thomas Splint in compound fractures of the femur, are often worth five to ten bottles of blood or plasma in the eventual outcome of a case." Nursing sisters made a significant difference in the care of soldiers, while releasing noncommissioned men for combat duty. They enthusiastically filled every position in Canada and overseas, working in unconventional settings and taking on expanded roles "for the duration." But the military was highly ambivalent about admitting women to this masculine environment, especially to the active theatres of war. The postwar quotas of thirty army, thirty air force, and twenty navy, nurses ensured their temporary status and restored military medical services as masculine terrain.


Nurses of both wars constituted an expandable and expendable feminine workforce. The Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) had demobilized nursing sisters as soon as possible at the end of the First World War. When the Second World War began, the renamed Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps (RCAMC) once again had to transform civilian nurses into military nurses and incorporate them into the medical organization. While these nurses were well prepared as civilian professionals they were far less prepared as soldiers. Their nursing skills enabled them to take on new and expanded roles that emerged during the war, shaping decisions about where they could serve. They accepted dangers, risks, and military discipline as part of the adventure--as well as the price to pay for associated opportunities and benefits. It was gender, not nurses' abilities, that constrained their work--especially dominant discourses concerning women's roles and military women's safety.


The second generation of Canadian military nurses built on the leadership, tradition, and reputation of the first generation, who provided initial guidance at the beginning of the war in 1939. "Retired" nursing sisters began forming local units in Canada as early as 1920 and had established a national association of nursing sisters by 1932. The association was limited to nurses who had served overseas, however, and initially they met for mutual support (including social, health, and financial needs) and the promotion of military nursing. The Canadian Nurse published some of the veteran nurses' brief personal accounts during the war and the interwar years, and at least two nursing sisters published memoirs prior to the Second World War. Their personal stories and friendships continued to influence civilian nurses and student nurses during the 1930s, as well as new military nurses such as NS Jessie Morrison, who recalled, "We knew we had big shoes to fill.".

First World War nursing sisters provided leadership that bridged the two generations and ensured continuity of Canadian military nursing traditions. Both Matrons Emma Pense and Elizabeth Smellie had served during the First World War and with the interwar permanent nursing service. Smellie subsequently became the RCAMC matron-in chief for Canada, while Pense served as the RCAMC matron in-chief in England, although she was soon replaced by Agnes Neill. In a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio interview announcing her appointment, "Miss Smellie," as she was always known, spoke of the special relationship between the two generations: "Now a word to the new nursing sisters--your predecessors offer you greetings and good wishes. I suppose you will have your own distinctions, as we did ... Don't be resentful if; as we veterans pass you by, we reveal extraordinary interest in your uniform and tell you we wish we were going again, because we do so, scarcely realizing how much water has run under the bridge since 1918." At least five first-generation nursing sisters re-enlisted. They were between forty-one and fifty-four years old on re-enlistment, and served an additional four and a half to six and a half years each. Only one retired before the end of the war; the rest served at least a year beyond the 1945 Armistice.


NOTE: In the next issue of Esprit de Corps, the second part of An Officer and a Lady will conclude with a look at the changes and continuity and how it related to nursing in the Canadian military.
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Title Annotation:SECOND WORLD WAR
Author:Toman, Cynthia
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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