University of Calgary

Big Rock lecture

November 10, 2009

“The boys needed our help”


Nurse historian Diana Mansell says the “nursing sisters” were highly respected. She is holding an album from Ed McNally, owner of the Big Rock Brewery, with photos of his mother who was a nurse in WWI. / Photo: Ken Bendiktsen
The story of Canada’s “nursing sisters” may not be well known, but it is one of courage amid the carnage, featuring an invaluable group of dedicated women who served Canada during the two World Wars.

“They were highly respected for their courage and compassion,” says Diana Mansell, a nurse historian and instructor in the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Nursing. “The women had to be single to volunteer, and there were no male nurses back in those days. They were called sisters because the first nurses to serve in war—starting in about 1885—were from a religious order and they all wore a white veil.”

Mansell will present the Remembrance Day Big Rock lecture at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 11 at the Big Rock Brewery.

More than 3,000 nursing sisters served in the First World War and almost 4,500 in the Second World War, she says. “Medical units were set up in hospitals away from the action, but eventually, casualty clearing stations were created close to the front lines. These stations, in the beginning at least, were canvas tents and it was here that the ambulances would deliver the injured.” Nursing sisters also served on hospital ships, air-sea rescue missions and trains within Canada carrying the wounded back home.

According to Mansell, there are only a few nursing sisters still in Calgary and most remain traumatized by their wartime experiences. “When I visited one, who is now 94, she told me things were too horrendous to recall. She worked in northern England during the Second World War and was most often alone with no physicians. When I asked her why she went, she simply said ‘the boys needed our help.’ That exemplifies the sentiment of the day.”

Pat Brennan, an associate professor of history and a fellow of the U of C’s Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, says nurses were the only women allowed in the military during the First World War.

While most of those served in England or Canada, some served in France near the front lines. “Those nurses faced great danger from contracting serious infections from their badly wounded soldier patients. There were no antibiotics back then, so infections more frequently killed. A few dozen Canadian nurses died this way—or ironically, considering the situation today, from the influenza pandemic of 1918-19.”

Women were permitted into the Canadian armed forces for the first time in the early stages of the Second World War and 50,000 served—including 4,500 nurses. Brennan says 10,000 of these service women went overseas, and some of the nurses went directly into combat zones.

The Big Rock Brewery’s Lecture Series showcases the diverse talent and subject matter of several University of Calgary researchers. Four lectures are held in the winter semester and four in the spring with all proceeds directed towards eight University of Calgary undergraduate scholarships.

Bookmark and Share