Nursing Sisters

The incredible contribution of Canadian nursing sisters in the First World War can be best appreciated by examining their experiences during service. Women left their families and homes to answer the call to duty and serve their country. Their dedication to their work, to Canada and, most importantly, to their patients, serves to measure the profound effect they had on the Canadian war effort.

A black-and-white photograph showing a woman in a nursing sister uniform sitting on the edge of a table. She is looking directly at the photographer and has a slight smile.

An unidentified nursing sister (MIKAN 3523169)

Library and Archives Canada holds a variety of materials on the history of military nurses, both published and archival. Below you will find a few examples:

A closer look at their daily lives

There are several recent publications that shed light on the varied experiences of nursing sisters during the Great War. Some focus on the individual accounts of nurses:

Pat Staton’s It Was Their War Too: Canadian Women and World War I offers a more general perspective of their contribution to the war effort.

A black-and-white photograph showing two nursing sisters standing by the bedsides of two wounded men.

Two nursing sisters with wounded soldiers in a ward room at the Queen’s Canadian Military Hospital in Shorncliffe, Kent, England, ca. 1916 (MIKAN 3604423)

In the archival collection, we are lucky to have the complete fonds for six of these nursing sisters, which allows us to delve deeper into what it was like for these women in the field. Learn more about Sophie Hoerner and Alice Isaacson who both served in France, or Dorothy Cotton who served in Russia. If that is not enough, you can learn about Anne E. Ross, Laura Gamble and Ruby Peterkin who all served in Greece.

Looking for a specific nursing sister?

If you are looking for information about a nursing sister who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, you will likely find it in the database Soldiers of the First World War. Generally, nursing sisters can easily be identified by their rank, usually indicated by “NS”. It is also important to note that that many women served with the British Forces through the Victorian Order of Nurses or St. John Ambulance.

Other resources:

Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Personnel Service Files – Update of July 2015

As of today, 171,771 of 640,000 files are available online via our Soldiers of the First World War: 1914–1918 database. Please visit the Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files page for more details on the digitization project.

Library and Archives Canada is digitizing the service files systematically, from box 1 to box 10686, which roughly corresponds to alphabetical order. Please note that over the years, the content of some boxes has had to be moved and, you might find that the file you want, with a surname that is supposed to have been digitized, is now located in another box that has not yet been digitized. So far, we have digitized the following files:

  • A to Dagenais (boxes 1 to 2257)
  • Free to Gorman (boxes 3298 to 3658)

Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, the following boxes were skipped in the digitization process, but will be done in the next few months.

  • Dagenais to Fredlund (boxes 2258 to 3297)

Please check the database regularly for new additions and if you still have questions after checking the database, you may contact us directly at 1-866-578-7777 for more assistance.

Conserving the William Redver Stark sketchbooks: dates and locations

In this last article on page mapping, we are looking at the dates and locations of Stark‘s sojourn in Europe, matching the ones inscribed in his sketchbooks to the events and locations of his military unit.

In many of his sketchbooks, Stark wrote the name of the town or village that he was sketching. Occasionally, he would also include the date. These notations give the modern viewer a real sense of the time Stark spent in France and Belgium, and were a great help in the re-sequencing of the detached leaves.

We were able to verify dates and locations by looking at the war diaries of the 1st Battalion of the Canadian Railway Troop. War diaries are the daily accounts of First World War units.

Colour photograph showing an open sketchbook with a watercolour of a train with a German naval gun on a wagon. The gun is wildly patterned with a camouflage paint. Soldiers are standing around, looking at it and talking.

A sketchbook showing a German gun captured during the Second Battle of the Somme and dated August 1918 by Stark. (MIKAN 3029137)

Black-and-white reproduction of a typewritten page for August 14, 1918 reading, “The large 11,2 inch German naval gun on railway mountings, captured in the recent push was brought down from Chemin Vert. This was captured complete, with ammunition and locomotive. […]

Entry in the war diary of the 1st Battalion of the Canadian Railway Troop showing the entry for the captured German naval gun on August 14, 1918.

A colour photograph of a sketchbook at an angle showing a riverbank with the date and location in the lower right corner, “Perrone April 17.”

A view of Pérrone dated April 1917 found in sketchbook 7 (MIKAN 3028908).

A black-and-white reproduction of a handwritten page for April 15, 1917 reading: “[…] Battalion Headquarters moved to Peronne.”

The war diary of the 1st Battalion of the Canadian Railway Troop showing the first entry referencing the move of the battalion headquarters to Pérrone.

Visit Flickr to view more images of the conservation of books and visual material.

Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Personnel Service Files – Update of June 2015

As of today, 162,570 of 640,000 files are available online via our Soldiers of the First World War: 1914–1918 database. Please visit the Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files page for more details on the digitization project.

Library and Archives Canada is digitizing the service files systematically, from box 1 to box 10686, which roughly corresponds to alphabetical order. Please note that over the years, the content of some boxes has had to be moved and, you might find that the file you want, with a surname that is supposed to have been digitized, is now located in another box that has not yet been digitized. The latest digitized box is #3655, which corresponds to the surname “Gore”. Please check the database regularly for new additions and if you still have questions after checking the database, you may contact us directly at 1-866-578-7777 for more assistance.

Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients: Lieutenant Frederick William Campbell, VC

Frederick William Campbell, a lieutenant in the 1st (Western Ontario) Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on June 15 1915, 100 years ago today. This also happened to be Campbell’s 48th birthday.

Black and white photograph of a man in uniform looking directly at the camera

Portrait of Lieutenant Frederick William Campbell, VC, undated. Note the superimposition of another photograph in the lower right corner (MIKAN 3213625)

Stationed at the front line near Givenchy, France, Lieutenant Campbell led an assault on a heavily fortified German trench line. Under heavy fire, he held his place in the assault as nearly all of his men became casualties. Intent on covering the withdrawal of those men still able to escape, Campbell and another soldier moved up with two Colt machine guns to an exposed position and successfully held back a German counter-attack.

Black and white copy of a handwritten page describing the events of June 15, 1915

Page from the war diaries of the 1st Canadian Infantry Battalion on June 15, 1915 (MIKAN 1883204)

His citation in the London Gazette tells of how Campbell:

“… arrived at the German first line with one gun, and maintained his position there, under very heavy rifle, machine-gun, and bomb fire, notwithstanding the fact that almost the whole of his detachment had then been killed or wounded.

When our supply of bombs had become exhausted, this Officer advanced his gun still further to an exposed position, and, by firing about 1,000 rounds, succeeded in holding back the enemy’s counter-attack” (London Gazette, no. 29272, August 23, 1915).

As he retreated, Lieutenant Campbell’s right thigh bone was hit and shattered. He died in hospital from an infection of his wound four days later.

Frederick William Campbell was born in Mount Forest, Ontario on June 15, 1869. He also served in both the Canadian Militia and the Machine Gun section of the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment, during the South African War. He is buried at Boulogne Eastern Cemetery, Boulogne, France.

Library and Archives Canada holds the CEF service file for Lieutenant Frederick William Campbell.

1915: Would you follow this example?

The recruiting posters below are part of a remarkable collection of more than 4,000 posters from many combatant nations, acquired under the guidance of Dominion Archivist Dr. Arthur Doughty as part of a larger effort to document the First World War.

Image of two posters side by side, one in English and one in French. The imagery shows a soldier standing sideways, in front of the Union Jack, with a rifle balanced on his shoulder. He is wearing the uniform and equipment of the 1915 Canadian soldier: Ross rifle, pack, cap, puttees, and MacAdam shield-shovel (also known as the Hughes shovel).

An English and French version of a poster using the same imagery, but with text conveying very different motivations. (MIKAN 3667198 and MIKAN 3635530)

As the deadly stalemate on the Western Front continued through 1915, warring nations were forced to organize recruitment drives to raise new divisions of men for the fighting. The two battles referenced in the poster were certainly not great victories for the Canadian Expeditionary Force, which had only recently commenced military operations. The desperate defence at St. Julien, an action during the Second Battle of Ypres, along with the inconclusive May 1915 Battle of Festubert, were all that authorities had to draw upon to raise fresh troops for service overseas.

The sentimental verse and patriotic imagery was conventional for this type of poster. It would appeal to Canadians with strong ties to Britain, but would offer little encouragement to French Canadians, First Nations’ communities, or to other groups to sign up. One interesting element is that the text is not a simple translation: in English the theme is heroic sacrifice, whereas in French it is about ending the carnage and restoring “progress.”

These posters offer a realistic depiction of a soldier early on in the war. This lance-corporal is armed with the Ross rifle, whose serious defects have featured in Canadian histories of the First World War. He is wearing short ankle boots and puttees (long lengths of cloth wrapped around his calves), which were cheaper to manufacture than knee-length boots but offered less protection from cold or wet. Steel helmets had not yet been developed, leaving his head and upper body vulnerable to any flying debris or shrapnel.

He is also burdened by the MacAdam shield-shovel (hanging at his hip). This invention was the result of a collaboration between Minister of Militia Sir Sam Hughes, and his secretary, Ena MacAdam. It attempted to combine a personal shield with a shovel. The shovel blade had a sight hole in it that was supposed to allow a soldier lying on the ground to aim and fire his rifle through the hole while shielded behind its protection. However, the shovel was too heavy and dirt would pour through the hole. Also, the shield was too thin to stop German bullets! Thankfully, this failed multi-tool quietly disappeared from the standard equipment issued before the First Division crossed from England to France. This poster is an important artifact of its time. It shows that in 1915, Canadians soldiers fighting overseas still had a very long road ahead of them.

Black-and-white photograph showing three men, two are clearly in uniform. One officer (Minister of Militia Sam Hughes) is holding the MacAdam shield-shovel which is a spade-shaped piece of metal with a hole on one side, while the other officer is kneeling on the ground doing something indiscernible. The third is looking at the spade.

Sam Hughes holding the McAdam shield-shovel (MIKAN 3195178)

Related resources

Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Personnel Service Files – Update of May 2015

As of today, 155,110 of 640,000 files are available online via our Soldiers of the First World War: 1914–1918 database. Please visit the Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files page for more details on the digitization project.

Library and Archives Canada is digitizing the service files systematically, from box 1 to box 10686, which roughly corresponds to alphabetical order. Please note that over the years, the content of some boxes has had to be moved and, you might find that the file you want, with a surname that is supposed to have been digitized, is now located in another box that has not yet been digitized. The latest digitized box is #3518, which corresponds to the surname “Gilbert”. Please check the database regularly for new additions and if you still have questions after checking the database, you may contact us directly at 1-866-578-7777 for more assistance.

100th anniversary of the composition of the iconic poem “In Flanders Fields”

John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” is one of the best-known literary works to emerge from the First World War. The poem’s most lasting legacy is its popularization of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those killed in war.

McCrae is thought to have written the poem during the second week of the Second Battle of Ypres while he was stationed at what later became the Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station, just north of the town of Ypres. McCrae, a Major and military doctor, was second-in-command of the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery. The exact circumstances in which the poem was written, however, remain the stuff of legend. The most cited stories of the poem’s origin centre on McCrae’s grief over the death of his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, an officer of the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery who was killed by a direct hit from a German shell on the morning of May 2. One account says that McCrae was so distraught after his friend’s funeral (for which McCrae, himself, said the committal service in the absence of a chaplain) that he composed the poem in just 20 minutes as a means of calming himself down. Another story has it that McCrae was seen writing his poem the next day, May 3, sitting on the rear step of an ambulance while looking at Helmer’s grave and the poppies that had sprung up near the dressing station. His commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Morrison, tells a third story: that McCrae drafted his poem while passing time between the arrivals of wounded soldiers. Adding to the mystery is the fact that the Imperial War Museum in England has a tracing of an original holograph of the poem, written by McCrae for Captain Tyndale-Lea, which claims that McCrae wrote the poem on April 29, 1915, three days before Lieutenant Helmer’s death.

The handwritten poem on yellowed paper in very faded ink.

A copy of “In Flanders Fields” written in John McCrae’s hand. Morrison was a friend and the commanding officer of the poet as well as a physician, December 8, 1915 (MIKAN 179238)

How the poem was submitted for publication is also a matter of speculation. By one account, McCrae threw the poem away but it was recovered by another soldier and sent to a London newspaper. Possibly McCrae himself submitted it, as he made a number of handwritten copies to give to friends shortly after drafting it. The poem was printed by Punch magazine on December 8, 1915. Within months it became the most popular poem of the war.

While no institution is known to have John McCrae’s original first draft of the poem, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has two manuscript versions of it, both written and signed by McCrae. One is dated December 8, 1915 and is part of a collection donated to LAC by Major-General Sir Edward W.B. Morrison, who was McCrae’s friend and fellow officer. The other is typed on paper and is part of a collection of documents donated by James Edward Hervey McDonald, an original member of the Group of Seven painters. LAC also holds an extensive and richly detailed collection of John McCrae’s letters and diaries, spanning much of his life, from childhood to shortly before his death from pneumonia in January 1918.

Black-and-white photograph showing a man in military uniform sitting down on steps with a dog at his side.

Lt.-Col. John McCrae and his dog Bonneau, circa 1914 (MIKAN 3192003)

Additional Resources

Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients: Captain Francis Alexander Caron Scrimger, VC

Today, our series First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients remembers the fourth Canadian Victoria Cross recipient of the First World War –Captain Francis Alexander Caron Scrimger, VC.

One hundred years ago, on April 25, 1915, Captain Francis Alexander Caron Scrimger was the doctor overseeing treatment at No. 2 Field Ambulance in a farmhouse near Wiltje, Belgium, on the St. Julien-Ypres road. It had been three days since the German army forced a major gap in the Allied lines. The German artillery had the area under intense bombardment and the enemy infantry were within sight of the dressing station. Scrimger, who earned a Victoria Cross for his actions on that day, remained through heavy fire to direct the evacuation of the wounded from the dressing station. As the last person to leave, he carried a badly wounded man, Captain Macdonald, out of the farmhouse and onto the road where the bombardment forced him to stop and protect Macdonald with his own body until a lull in the gunfire.

black-and-white photograph showing a young man, in military uniform, with a moustache and glasses looking directly at the photographer.

Capt. F.A.C. Scrimger, V.C. (C.A.M.C.) (MIKAN 3220991)

Captain Scrimger’s citation in the London Gazette tells the rest of the story:

When [Scrimger] was unable alone to carry [Captain Macdonald] further, he remained with him under fire till help could be obtained. During the very heavy fighting between 22nd and 25th April, Captain Scrimger displayed continuously day and night the greatest devotion to his duty among the wounded at the front (London Gazette, no. 29202, June 23 1915).

Captain Francis Alexander Caron Scrimger was born in Montreal, Quebec, on February 10, 1881 and earned his medical degree from McGill University in 1905. He served in the First World War as a Surgeon Captain with the Canadian Army Medical Corps, 14th Battalion, Royal Montreal Regiment. Scrimger survived the war and later worked as an assistant surgeon, then surgeon-in-chief, at Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital. He died in Montreal on February 13, 1937.

Black-and-white photograph showing four men standing outside the entrance to a building.  In the background, there’s a nurse and a man looking on the scene.

Group of delegates attending the Clinical Congress of Surgeons of America (including Colonel Scrimger, VC, second from the left in the foreground), 1920 (MIKAN 3260187)

Library and Archives Canada holds the Canadian Expeditionary Force service file for Captain Francis Alexander Caron Scrimger.

Other Resources

Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients – Lieutenant Edward Donald Bellew and Company Sergeant-Major Frederick William Hall

The second installment of our First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients series remembers the actions of Lieutenant Edward Donald Bellew and Company Sergeant-Major Frederick William Hall.

Lieutenant Edward Donald Bellew, VC

On April 24, 1915, Lieutenant Edward Donald Bellew, a 32-year-old officer with the 7th (1st British Columbia) Battalion, was fighting near Keerselaere, Belgium in the Ypres Salient to repel the German assaults on the Allied line following the first successful use of poison gas by the German army.

As those around him fell, either killed or wounded, and without hope of reinforcements, Lieutenant Bellew manned one of the battalion’s two machine guns. He and Sargent Hugh Pearless stayed with their machine guns, positioned on high ground overlooking the advancing German troops, despite being nearly surrounded by the enemy.

Bellew’s Victoria Cross citation in the London Gazette describes that even as Sargent Pearless was killed and Lieutenant Bellew wounded, Bellew “maintained his fire till ammunition failed and the enemy rushed the position. Lieutenant Bellew then seized a rifle, smashed his machine gun, and fighting to the last, was taken prisoner” (London Gazette, no. 31340, May 15, 1919). For his actions, Sargent Pearless posthumously received the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

 

Black-and-white reproduction of a typed account of the 7th Canadian Infantry Battalion during the period when Lieutenant Bellew performed the actions for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Extract from the War diaries – 7th Canadian Infantry Battalion (MIKAN 1883213)

Lieutenant Bellew remained a prisoner of war in Germany until December 1917, when, due to the ongoing effects of being gassed at Ypres, he was transferred to Switzerland. Shortly after the end of the War, in December 1918, he was repatriated to England, where he spent another two months in hospital before returning to Canada. He returned to British Columbia, where he worked as a civil engineer. He died in Kamloops on February 1, 1961.

Company Sergeant-Major Frederick William Hall, VC

On the night of April 23, in the midst of fierce fighting in the Ypres Salient, Company Sergeant-Major Hall of the 8th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, realized that several of the men of his company were missing. Twice during the night, alerted by the moans of the wounded, he ventured out into no man’s land to retrieve the injured. Early in the morning of the 24th, as a wounded soldier called for help 15 yards from his trench, Hall and two others, Lance Corporal John Arthur Kenneth Payne and Private John Rogerson, crawled out to reach him. When both Payne and Rogerson were wounded, Company Sergeant-Major Hall persisted in his effort to save the wounded.

Black-and-white photograph of a young soldier, in military uniform, with a moustache sitting in a chair.

Sergeant-Major Frederick W. Hall, VC (MIKAN 3216472)

Company Sergeant-Major Hall’s citation in the London Gazette recounts that after his first attempt failed, “Company Sergeant-Major Hall then made a second most gallant attempt, and was in the act of lifting up the wounded man to bring him in when he fell mortally wounded in the head.” The soldier that Hall was attempting to rescue was also killed.

Sketch of a map of the trenches where the 8th Canadian Infantry Battalion was engaged in the first battle of Ypres.

Map extracted from the war diaries of the 8th Canadian Infantry Battalion. (MIKAN 1883215)

Frederick William Hall, and two other Victoria Cross recipients, Leo Clarke and Robert Shankland, lived on Pine Street in Winnipeg, Manitoba before the war. Pine Street was renamed Valour Road in 1925 to honour the three men.

Library and Archives Canada holds the Canadian Expeditionary Force service file for Lieutenant Edward Donald Bellew and Company Sergeant-Major Frederick William Hall.