A Nurses Memoir

The Following is extracted from Chapter 1 of Our Bit : Memories of War Service By a Canadian Nursing Sister, by N.S. Mabel B. Clint


Within three weeks [of the declaration of war by England] however graduates of almost every hospital training school in Canada had volunteered "for the duration", and one hundred and four nurses among whom were some French-Canadians, were selected to have the honour of serving their country in a minor capacity, and of accompanying that first thirty-three thousand of our Canadian men, who were to lead the way in winning undying glory and praise in some of the severest tests of battle. My nurse-comrades will recall the impatience of that month of waiting, the thought that the war would be over before we sailed, the panic lest a name should be struck off the roll at the last minute. Then the fateful telegram: "You have been selected as Nursing-Sister for service abroad. You will report Quebec, 23rd . . . ." and Mobilization, in which we passed into the military machine indefinitely.

September 23rd. found us assembled at Quebec, that historic city, almost always figuring in events that add lustre to our brief story. By that time Valcartier Camp was completing training and equipment, ships were assembling in the harbour, and the town packed with relatives of the troops, and government officials. The Nursing-Sisters, under Matron Margaret Macdonald (S. A. medal) of the permanent staff, Army Medical Corps, were quartered in the Immigration Hospital on the outskirts of the city, and we found ourselves at once introduced to "active service". The main floor of the building consisted of a huge draughty space, filled with three-tiered wire bunks, on which we lay sandwiched at night, with our military rugs and "martial cloaks" around us. Not "taking our rest" however, as creaks, coughs and cold precluded that, while a chill rain dripped steadily outside. All night long too, for we were on the main road to Valcartier, artillery wagons or marching troops clanked past, the weird but wonderful beginning of that ceaseless stream that for four years was to pour steadily into France and Flanders and other famous fields.

Here let me say the Canadian Sisters were well billeted throughout the war, occasionally in hotels, most frequently having army beds instead of camp cots to sleep on, usually good food, and what comforts were obtainable. Some of the latter were due to their own initiative of course, and they later acquired the reputation of making their surroundings home-like, though the English army nurses were inclined to think we didn't know there was a war on. However we never had any reason to regret the Immigration Building accommodation, and classed it as our first experience of army discipline.
The ten following days were full of medical examinations, being outfitted with uniforms, signing forms "in triplicate", reading "Orders" posted in army parlance—an introduction to that military detail which was to accompany us though every phase of duty in "foreign parts". For the first time since Nursing was organized as a profession in Canada nurses from west to east met, and were enrolled in the Canadian Army Medical Corps, subordinating for the time their respective Hospitals to a national Unit. Only four had previously seen active service, and now they were to represent Canada in conjunction with other Dominion Nursing Groups, similarly called into being by the desire to do their "bit" in the emergency. Like the men the lure of adventure was uppermost in the minds of some, experience and mass-action appealed to others, but we like to think that most of those who responded immediately to the call were awaiting a chance to serve, counted not the material cost, and that to the end more nurses were available in the Empire than the authorities accepted. The stimulus to entering the profession that the war created was of course great, and has had its very unfortunate repercussions in recent years in Canada by congestion in its ranks, due also to lack of foresight and policy on the part of hospital authorities, and to there being no plan of distribution of nursing services. Like the fate of our demobilized men also, the Nursing-Sisters in many cases found it difficult, through no fault of their own, to resume professional status where they left off four years before.
Rumours, excursions and alarums kept us agog during the last days of September, mingled with typhoid inoculation, vaccination and such disagreeable incidentals. All was hurry, bustle, instructions, often countermanded, and several groups were suddenly summoned from all directions to pack trunks, strap kitbags, (oh! those kit-bags!) only to undo them again and retire for another night to our "berths" on the skeleton plan.

At last, however, the day came when the notice board bore the welcome words: "Sisters will prepare to embark at once".
We had been temporarily assigned in equal numbers to Nos. 1 and 2 General or Base Hospitals, as Regulations (K.R. & O.) in theory did not provide the Stationary or Clearing Hospitals with Sisters, previous to the Great War. Without word to relatives or friends, we were driven to the dock in char-a-bancs at dusk, and embarked on the Franconia, flagship of the Contingent. As we filed up the gangway, hauling our heavy and awkward kit-bags, (the first of many times) the men of the 90th Winnipeg Rifles, (Little Black Devils) crowded the rails cheering. It was the first tangible evidence of that comradeship which united men and women as never before in war especially the Sisters of the Dominion Forces and their respective "Boys". We were touched by their loyal devotion then, and are proud to think it has never been extinguished. To-day, and till there are no more left of the Old Brigade, that comradeship still ranks high, with an understanding and a sympathy only those knew who served.

The next day was a scene of the greatest military activity on the dock. Battalions lined up for embarkation, scores of horses ready for one transport, and artillery being loaded on another. One by one the ships, already painted grey, slipped out, and others took their places, while day and night new columns of men paraded on the wharves under the historic fortress, till the 33,000 were all mustered. It seemed a large force in 1914 to sail from these shores, and even those at the head of affairs could scarcely then have imagined the scale of the Canadian contribution actually to be made. Whatever mistakes or shortcomings occurred in equipping a complete Expeditionary Force from a small population in a vast area unprepared for war, the departure of the First Contingent was admirably executed, and the silence of the Press on the movements of the transports as they daily embarked their quota, and sped down the St. Lawrence to an unknown rendezvous was equally praiseworthy. The Franconia moved out so quietly about 2 A.M. on Oct. 1st. that few realized she had steam up till we woke far down the river. I think it was about 9 A.M., if not earlier, that the first "RUMOURS" of the war, as far as we were concerned, started, and lasted till the hour of demobilization, more than four and a half years later. Perhaps the most steadily abused words of those years were "They say". It was seldom discoverable who "They" were, and after the first year or two "their" remarks were discounted. But on that first morning they were full of supposed authority and the secret excitement of imagination run riot. "Sealed orders" created a new sensation for all of us.

Quite suddenly early on the morning of the 2nd. we steamed round a point, and saw before us the beautiful panorama of Gaspe Bay, crowded with thirty-one liners that had been diverted on every sea, and assembled these past weeks, such a fleet on such a mission as this continent had never seen, nor thought to see. Naturally, none of the pictures of the fleet swinging at anchor, have been able to do justice to the grandeur of the widespread and animated scene. I remember it was a beautiful Canadian autumn day, the surrounding hills and woods forming a background of brilliant colour, a warm purple haze hanging over the ships. The Franconia, being Headquarters' ship, with 2300 troops on board, moved into the centre, and from it signals and orders constantly went forth to the others. Bugle calls rang across the placid waters, the red Ensign fluttered from every troopship, and small boats plied from ship to shore. A flash of realization came to us of that in which we were privileged to share. . . a never-to-be-forgotten event in the lives of each . . . . an epoch-making precedent in world-history. Colonel Sam Hughes came on board to say Good-bye, and in him the Nursing-service had a good friend, and later, individual "casualties" a kindly departmental Minister.

On Sunday afternoon, October 3rd., we saw steam up in all the vessels, our escorting cruisers had arrived, as well as the battleship "Glory", which some of us were to meet a year later 5000 miles away. One by one anchors were weighed, "The Maple Leaf Forever" rang out in a farewell salute as each ship headed east, and took up its station at exact intervals in line ahead. At sea they formed into the three parallel columns, about a mile apart, which never altered place or speed for fourteen days, till the great "Armada" safely reached port. Passing out between the headlands many on the crowded decks must have looked at the receding shore with mingled feelings. The last ships left a golden sunset sinking behind.

Link to other chapters of "Our Bit"