Canada's Angels of Mercy in the First World War

Published on November 7, 2014

To the Canadian soldiers who fought in the First World War, they were known as Angels of Mercy. These angels were the scores of Canadian nurses who served overseas in military hospitals and dressing stations, often dangerously close to the front lines.

In all, 3,000 women—200 of them from Nova Scotia—served with the Canadian Army Medical Corps during the four-year conflict. Most of them were single with an average age of 24 and, sadly, not all of those who went overseas returned home. By the time the war was over, 46 Canadian nurses had made the ultimate sacrifice for their king and country.

The story of the epic 1914-18 struggle in which these brave women served can be found at a major exhibition mounted by the Army Museum Halifax Citadel in Halifax. The exhibition is named “The Road to Vimy and Beyond” and runs until November, 2018. It honours the role that Canada, especially Nova Scotia, played in the Allied victory in 1918.

During the conflict, the Angels of Mercy were to be found at Canada’s 30 military hospitals and clearing stations at the major battlefields in Europe and eastern Mediterranean. Their official titles were nursing sisters – a nod to the fact many of the earliest volunteers were from religious orders—and they held the rank of lieutenant. Each woman wore a nun-like white head covering and a white apron over a distinctive blue dress. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before the troops honoured them with another affectionate nickname— “bluebirds”.

The women were ill-prepared for the special hell awaiting them at the battlefields, compared to their nursing experiences in Canada. They had to adapt quickly to the horrors of modern warfare, not just in terms of the kinds of ghastly wounds suffered by the troops but also the sheer numbers of casualties. Nor were they spared discomfort because of their gender; they shared the same dangerous, unsanitary field conditions as their male colleagues and often went hungry and thirsty.

Wherever they nursed, the Angels of Mercy were never far from danger. Sometimes, death found them when they were aboard hospital ships transporting the sick and wounded home to Canada. One such incident occurred during the night of June 27, 1917, when a Canadian hospital ship was torpedoed in the Atlantic by a German U-boat. Of the 258 crew and medical staff aboard, only 24 lived to tell the story, an amazing escape considering the U-boat’s crew machine-gunned the lifeboats. All 14 nursing sisters aboard perished that terrible night, among them Matron Margaret Marjory Fraser, daughter of Lt.-Col. Duncan  Cameron Fraser, the lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia.

Other times, bombs and shells would rain down on the nurses as they went about their duties behind the front lines. In his book, ‘Nova Scotia’s Part in the Great War’, Capt. M. Stuart Hunt describes the scene during one bombing attack on the St. Francis Hospital Unit in France:

“The nursing sisters and hospital staff displayed great courage all through these trying times, remaining at their posts in the operating room and hospital wards. No pen can describe the nerve-testing and nerve-wracking experience of hearing the swish through the air of those terrible and deadly bombs, then the terrific explosions and rocking and trembling of the earth which meant destruction and death to many.

“The way those splendid young women carried themselves was magnificent. Without a quiver or the slightest hesitation, they kept right along with their work and soothed and encouraged and ministered to their patients. They were the same living contradiction here as elsewhere to all logical relations, and the harmony of things.  They would jump up on the operating table and scream at the suggestion of a mouse or trench rat; but would go out into the storm and darkness and fire to give a drink of water to a wounded soldier.”

The contribution made by the Angels of Mercy to Canada`s war effort was not forgotten, once hostilities ceased. A monument to them, and to the nursing profession itself, was erected in Ottawa in 1926. It can be found in the Hall of Honour in the Centre Block of Parliament.

The Angels of Mercy will be remembered for one other historic distinction as well. Their courageous wartime service helped convince the Canadian government that the time was long overdue to grant women the right to vote.