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Signing Up to Serve

Excerpt from Asleep in the Deep

“In telling Anna’s story, the service and sacrifice of a young New Brunswick nurse, I hope to make the events of a war fought over a hundred years ago more understandable. And, in the retelling, let us remember and appreciate the contribution that Anna and those like her made to Canada’s war effort. Lest we forget.” — Dianne Kelly, Asleep in the Deep

“When Britain is at war, Canada is at war. There is no distinction.” Canada’s prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, made this bold statement to the House of Commons in 1910. Thus, when Britain delivered its ultimatum to Germany, historian Gerald Nicholson writes, Canadians did not question the need to come to Britain’s aid. Although most expected that the war would be over by Christmas, it lasted for four long years. Nonetheless, Canada’s commitment held. By the time the war ended in November 1918, more than 619,000 Canadians had signed up to serve. At first, on August 7, 1914, Britain’s Army Council had asked for one division, consisting of 25,000 men and three field ambulances. Field ambulances typically travelled with the troops, and there was an expectation that nurses would not be placed that close to the front, given their sex and the attitudes in that period. In fact, the initial request specified: “Chaplains and nursing sisters not included.”

Within two weeks, the British had revised their requirements. Now, the contingent should include “lines of communication,” among which would be medical units that provided care for the wounded behind the battle lines. The British specifically asked for a clearing hospital — later known as a casualty clearing station (CCS) — two stationary hospitals, and two general hospitals. Although initially nurses did not serve in a CCS, they were required to provide care in general and stationary hospitals. The revised request meant that nursing sisters would need to accompany the First Contingent — later renamed the First Division — of the CEF overseas.

Soldiers were already being mobilized in August 1914, and there was little time to recruit the nurses needed to care for the wounded. Canada’s Director General Medical Services (DGMS) estimated that as many as 136 nurses would be required to support them. At the outset of the war, however, the CAMC had only thirteen officers and five nursing sisters. Before the war ended, the CAMC had recruited more than 2,800 nursing sisters, 2,504 of whom, including Anna Stamers, served on the Western Front, in Russia, or in the Mediterranean.

Canada’s Matron-in-Chief, Margaret Macdonald, the first woman in the British Empire to be granted the relative rank of major, was given the task of screening and selecting who should go from the hundreds of applications she received. She was one of the two full-time nurses of the CAMC at the time. On August 17, she was transferred to Camp Valcartier, Quebec, but it was September 16 before she was advised of the decision to mobilize the nursing service. Before Matron Macdonald could review the applications, the National Association of Graduate Nurses provided a first level of screening. Cynthia Toman says the association “felt professionally pledged to select only nurses who had graduated from a recognized training school when placing their names before the Military Selection Committee headed by CAMC Matron Macdonald.” Despite such short notice, Macdonald and her staff proved equal to the task of selecting members. Initially, she identified 119 qualified nursing sisters. From this list, one hundred trained nurses were selected to staff the two general hospitals, fifty nursing sisters for each hospital. When she received the order to mobilize in September, Macdonald had the telegrams ready to notify the candidates.

The candidates had little time to respond when informed: “You have been selected as nursing sister for service abroad. You will report Quebec 23rd.” Upon receiving this terse directive, the nurses who were selected then underwent a medical examination, and were inoculated, trained for army service, and outfitted in their new CAMC nursing sister uniforms.

[ . . . ]

The nurses were keen to do their part. They had the same fear as the men who signed up: the war might be over before they got their opportunity to serve. The day following the declaration of war, the Director-General of the CAMC, Colonel Guy Carlton Jones, addressed the Ottawa Graduate Nurses Association. He tried to temper their enthusiasm, cautioning the women about the differences between civilian and military nursing. “Many nurses who will do for civil work are physically and mentally unfit for active service work.” According to Colonel Jones, three qualities were required for the arduous work of army nursing: “Coolness, courage, and skill to serve where many wounded and dying are constantly being brought into the field hospital.” As Quinn notes, the other requirements were more quantifiable: candidates had to be between twenty-one and thirty-eight years of age, graduates of recognized nursing schools (Canadian training schools were preferred), and members in good standing. For most nursing schools, the entry age was twenty-one, which meant that graduate nurses volunteering to serve with the CAMC were at least twenty-four when they applied. Later, the requirement was added that nursing sisters must have trained at a recognized Canadian hospital that had, as Morton says, “not less than 100 beds.” Presumably, war experience taught recruiters that nurses who had worked under a formal administrative structure in a larger facility were better able to adapt when patient intake and turnover were high.

Canadian nurses were not easily dissuaded by Colonel Jones’s words, and hundreds of applications poured in. Some women elected to make their own way to England to join the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS), or the Red Cross, or to serve with the French, fearing they would not be accepted into the CAMC before the war ended. Like many of the men who signed up, nurses were motivated to serve for many reasons, including a sense of adventure. Others saw it as their duty to support the Mother Country, since many had immigrated to Canada from Britain. It was also an opportunity to develop themselves professionally. The fact that they would have officer status might have been another factor. For others, the prospect of financial security was appealing in a period of high unemployment. According to Morton, in 1914 even many family doctors were struggling financially, since many of their patients lacked the resources to pay for their services. Presumably, the inability of patients to pay was also a problem for private duty nurses such as Anna.

Nurses who had already chosen a “helping” profession were also likely influenced by wartime propaganda that appealed for their assistance. They might have imagined themselves in “heroic and sacrificial roles,” although in time the strain of nursing and the nature of the injuries they encountered led to disillusionment for many nurses, just as it did for the soldiers. Many of them also had brothers, cousins, and other relatives who had signed up. Serving sometimes became a family endeavour, and enlisting enabled these women to share in that experience and to visit their siblings while the war was on.

Excerpted from Asleep in the Deep: Nursing Sister Anna Stamers and the First World War copyright © 2021 by Dianne Kelly.

Asleep in the Deep is available in bookstores and online at

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