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First World War—Role of Canadian Nursing Sisters

First World War—Role of Canadian Nursing Sisters

First World War—Role of Canadian Nursing Sisters

First World War—Role of Canadian Nursing Sisters


Published on 9 June 2015
Hansard and Statements by Senator Pana Merchant (retired)

Hon. Pana Merchant:

Honourable senators, last year and in 2015, Canadians have been reminded of the so-called Great War of 100 years ago.

Focused on heroes and the young men of our then young nation, we have ignored the contributions and sacrifices of Canada’s women.

Women in service 100 years ago were not in the combat roles of current times. They could not even serve as clerks or in support roles, but the very brave, the dedicated, could, as posters read, serve King and country as nurses.

Three thousand Canadian nursing sisters — as they were called — served in England, France, Belgium and the Mediterranean war zone. Nurses from across Canada became prisoners of war or died, not unlike the fate of their brothers, serving our country. And at least one, Nursing Sister Creswell, of my home city Regina, was decorated for bravery by the Queen Mother.

I commend Canada’s Historica Foundation for the video on YouTube that tells the story of the wartime heroism of our nursing sisters.

Their experiences were not unlike those of their countrymen.

Some were travelling on torpedoed boats, some were caught in air raids, and all were subject to lack of water, limited equipment, poor food, vermin, and the constant difficulty of keeping clean.

Of special interest to me were the challenges that Canada’s nursing sisters faced in my native Greece, on the Gallipoli Peninsula. By the fall, there were 1,700 beds there in two tented hospitals. Upon arrival in Gallipoli, nurses discovered an overwhelming number of sick and wounded soldiers. It was a terribly hot summer. Safe water had to be transported from Alexandria, Egypt, and lack of sanitary conditions, with an abundance of dust and flies, accounted for as many deaths as battle wounds. Flies were probably the greatest menace.

The shortage of adequate nourishment was profoundly appalling.

At times there was nothing to eat except malted milk tablets, and most of the nursing sisters suffered through periods of dysentery, diarrhea and nausea.

Our nursing sisters also suffered from their heartbreaking experiences of not being able to do enough for the wounded soldiers.

On April 14, I met with Canada’s and Australia’s ambassadors in Greece, their Excellencies Robert Peck and John Griffin, in connection with their participation in the 100-year anniversary of the 1915 Gallipoli campaign and the nursing stations on Lemnos.

The great contribution of Canada’s nursing sisters over time is appropriately sculptured in the grand memorial to them in the Hall of Honour, adjacent to the entrance to our Library of Parliament.

I ask honourable senators to join with me in thought as we salute the fallen.