Down among the blood soaked stretchers

I didn’t realise that Canada, in 1914, was, basically, another bit of Britain. They didn’t have much autonomy. They didn’t even have their own passports. That didn’t happen until 1947. Consequently, when war was declared in August, the Canadian armed forces were, essentially, part of the British armed forces. To that end, it wasn’t just combatants that headed over to Europe. There were also quite a few nurses.

These extraordinary women (and I include all nurses from all countries in this) worked in conditions very similar to the people fighting, patching them up, saving lives where they could and giving comfort where they couldn’t. The difference was that the nurses didn’t have the advantage of being able to fight back.

Tonight I attended a WFA webinar called Canadian nurses on the Western Front: From Passchendale to peace given by Dr Andrea McKenzie, Associate Professor at York University, Toronto, Canada.

Dr McKenzie told us how Canadian nurses were there from December 1914 until the end. She explained how they worked and lived alongside the horrors of the Great War. She used personal letters, diaries, and general reports to create a wonderful portrait of these amazing women.

Incredibly, the nurses were given officer status during the war and, as a result, were some of the first Canadian women to get the vote. Dr McKenzie showed a slide of them voting in the Canadian federal election of 1917, at the Front.

Strangely enough, the election was fought over conscription. It makes me wonder how the nurses would have voted, given the horrors they were witnessing. Which brings up another important point.

While a lot of the fighting men were given rudimentary counselling after the war, none of the nurses were. They had to create their own association or just put up with their PTSD, shell shock and just general misery caused by the war.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom among the blood soaked stretchers. A company called the Dumbells tried to alleviate the stress and tension by putting on performances. While they didn’t start off very popular, they very quickly grew to being Great War celebrities, enjoyed by one and all, including the nurses during their rare breaks.

(Am I alone in thinking the vicar in the photo above looks remarkably like British politician, Michael Fabricant?)

Another thing the nurses did when they were given time off, was head for the French Riviera for a bit of beach, sun and sea. Mind you, as Dr McKenzie explained, if they had a reasonable amount of time off they’d head for London. Not because they preferred it, but because there was no war on in Britain. And who can blame them?

This is highlighted by the Armistice Day celebrations in Paris which were almost exclusively enjoyed by civilians, mainly because the armed forces were still busy mopping things up. Actually, as we all should know, the war didn’t end on 11 November 1918. That officially happened with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919.

Furthermore, the Americans didn’t recognise the end until 1921 though this could have been because they were making up for lost time, having arrived at the party quite a long time after everyone else.

Not that that has anything to do with the Canadian nurses. Their war didn’t end on 11 November either. They were still busy fixing men up. Armistice, bombing raids, mud, sweat, blood and death, they worked through all of it. What an amazing group of women the nurses were.

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