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Many Places, Many Problems: Canadian First World War Military Nursing Sisters in the Mediterranean
- Author / Creator
- Wagner, Suzanna C.
During the First World War, 2,845 fully trained nurses served with the Canadian Army Medical Corps. Although Canadian combat troops were focused on the Western Front in France and Belgium, more than 500 of Canada’s military nurses, called ‘Nursing Sisters,’ worked in hospital units which were sent to the Mediterranean, a part of the Eastern Front. This study will examine the impact of place on nursing sisters’ experiences in the East. The five Canadian medical units to which these nursing sisters were assigned ran hospitals in Cairo, Egypt, on the Greek island of Lemnos, and the Greek city of Salonika between 1915 and 1917. The circumstances in each of these three locations presented a tremendous variety of problems for the nurses: there was no monolithic Mediterranean theatre experience for Canada’s nursing sisters.
On the island of Lemnos, nursing sisters encountered temporary hospital infrastructure which was inadequate for the extreme weather. Administrative chaos, nursing sister illness, and a desperate lack of supplies further hampered their efforts to care for soldier-patients. The city of Salonika was close to active fighting, and the surrounding marshy land resulted in a great many malarial mosquitos. Problems arising from nursing sister sickness and the need for nursing reinforcements were more acute as a result of the considerable length of time Canadian hospitals were posted in Salonika. Egypt was a place of contrasts for the nursing sisters. Many spent large amounts of time at leisure while they waited to be sent to their hospitals in Greece; others worked in the Canadian hospital in Cairo. Nursing sisters were struck by the contrast between modern and ancient architecture and difference in cultural practices they witnessed in Egypt.
The experiences of Canadian nursing sisters in these three Mediterranean settings reveal how they and their hospital units participated in an extended military healthcare network composed of many types of hospitals from different countries, as well as hospital ships and large administrative structures. Beyond the military organization, the nursing sisters’ time in the Mediterranean can be further elucidated by examining their relationships with the local inhabitants and environment. Often overshadowed by the strong presence of the Western Front in Canada’s memory of the First World War, the Mediterranean experiences of hundreds of nursing sisters and their five Canadian hospital units form an important, and under-examined, part of Canadian military nursing history in conjunction with an overlooked part of Canadian history and international cooperative work.
- Graduation date
- Spring 2020
- Type of Item
- Master of Arts
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