• Jared Warren

GCI's Nursing Sisters

The First World War saw 2,845 nursing sisters serving in the Canadian Army Medical Corps in Canada, England, France, Belgium, Russia and the Mediterranean. They were nicknamed “bluebirds” for their blue dresses and white veils by grateful soldiers who relied on their care when wounded. Fifty-three nursing sisters lost their lives during the war, generally as victims of enemy attacks or disease contracted from patients.

For some new recruits, being a nursing sister had a romantic appeal—nursing the sick and wounded men and falling in love with a war hero. But romance was not what they found when they were exposed to the horrors and dangers of the war at Casualty Clearing Stations near the front lines. The stations were positioned close enough to tend quickly and efficiently to wounded men, but were also often under attack from air raids and enemy shells. Like the soldiers in the trenches, these stations were also plagued with rats and fleas.

The nurses were among the first to tend to the wounded coming from the front, administering pain medication, vaccines, cleaning wounds and offering comfort. They also assisted in surgery and worked long hours to ensure that soldiers did not contract secondary infections after surgery. They were also at times required to determine the fate of the wounded, marking which were likely to survive and were worth saving, and which would not.

Nurse Madeleine Jaffray (in ambulance) after losing her leg in a bombardment. (From the Madeleine Morrison fonds, PR1986.0054/13, Provincial Archives of Alberta).

At least 10 former students of the Galt Collegiate Institute enlisted as nursing sisters during the First World War, one of whom, Evelyn V. McKay, lost her life in November 1918 from pneumonia. They are included with the servicemen who are commemorated on the memorial tablet in the main corridor of the school, each with their own fascinating story.

Clara Detweiler joined the Canadian Army Medical Corps as a nursing sister in April 1917. While stationed at No. 1 Canadian Hospital at Etaples she met the witty and eloquent Clifford Duncan Reid, an orderly in the operating room. While on night duty on May 19, 1918, German aircraft bombed her dormitory, which left three nurses mortally wounded. The patients of the hospital who were well enough to be moved were promptly evacuated with a handful of nurses while Reid was among those who remained behind for the patients who could not be relocated. Many more patients and attendants were killed in the bombardment that followed. Reid survived, and he and Clara married in Vancouver in October 1920.

Edna Fraser (right) graduated from the Toronto General Hospital School for Nurses in June 1911 and enlisted as a nursing sister shortly after the outbreak of war. She served in that capacity in England, France, Greece and Malta, the last two for two years. She was informed of the armistice when she was on home leave. But there was still much left to do: many men returning from Europe required care for most of the rest of their lives, and she worked to help treat them at Whitby Military Hospital. She then became a public health nurse in Toronto and was the supervisor of communicable diseases up until the time of her death. Like many nursing sisters from the war, Edna dedicated the rest of her life for the growth of public health in Canada.

Madeleine Jaffray (right) joined a special unit of ten Canadian nurses to be sent to Belgium and France immediately to treat the wounded in December 1914, reportedly the youngest of the nurses sent from Canada. On June 4, 1917, she was serving in a Casualty Clearing Station that was bombed by a German aircraft, and while she managed to get most of the patients to safety, she herself was badly wounded in the left foot, which required amputation. She was Canada's only female war amputee of the war. For her courage during the attack, Madeleine was awarded the French Croix de Guerre, the first Canadian woman to have been so honoured. After the war, she worked for the Victorian Order of Nurses and dedicated her life to the War Amputees of Canada, of which she was the only female member.

Nancy Miller Chenier, "Nursing Sisters," Canadian Encyclopedia, accessed November 24, 2019,; Barry Gough, From Classroom to Battlefield: Victoria High School and the First World War (Victoria: Heritage House Publishing, 2014), p. 112; Soldier Information Cards, Kitchener Public Library, Kitchener, Ontario; "The Nursing Sisters of Canada," Veterans Affairs Canada, accessed November 24, 2019,; Marlena Wyman, "Bluebird: Madeleine Jaffray," The Prairie Line, accessed November 24, 2019,