Public talk commemorates Canadian wartime nurses

Nurses in the First World War
Andrea McKenzie

This Remembrance Day marks the 100th anniversary of the ending of the First World War. In Canada, we often hear soldiers’ stories of war, but seldom remember the nurses. Yet every wounded or ill soldier in a Canadian hospital overseas was cared for by nurses. Without them, far fewer Canadian soldiers would have returned home.

To commemorate the experiences of Canadian nurses during the last crucial year of the First World War in France, the Professional Writing Program at York University is hosting a public talk, “Bluebirds of War: Canadian Nurses on the Western Front 1918,” by Associate Professor Andrea McKenzie of the Writing Department, Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies. The talk will take place on Nov. 8 from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. in the Senior Common Room, 305 Founders College, Keele Campus.

For four years, Canadian nursing sisters nursed the wounded and ill soldiers of the First World War on all fronts, from Russia to Gallipoli, Salonika to France. In 1918, the last year of the war, their efforts were concentrated on the Western Front. Through shot and shell, bombs and torpedoes, 3,000 miles from their homes, the Canadian nurses cared for the casualties of war. Through the nurses’ own writings and photographs, this talk will illustrate their unique experiences as Canadians, as military officers and as nurses during the war’s final year. It will explore how the Canadian wartime nurses coped with the constant convoys of badly wounded men, with the air raids that killed colleagues and destroyed buildings, and with the ongoing exhaustion and emotional trauma.

Canadian nurses in Valenciennes, France
Canadian nurses in Valenciennes, France

McKenzie’s interest in this topic was sparked back in the late 1980s, when she read the war diary and autobiography of Vera Brittain, an English Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse. That led her to wonder about Canadian nurses’ experiences during the First World War, especially when she discovered how little information was available on the subject. Since coming to York, McKenzie has done her part to change that by publishing War-Torn Exchanges, an edited collection of two Canadian First World War nurses’ letters home, and doing extensive research into the visual narratives that nurses’ photo albums tell about their memories of the war. For decades, historians have tried to raise awareness about Canadian nurses’ roles and experiences in the First World War. This talk is part of McKenzie’s attempt to do the same.

After the main talk and question period, McKenzie will talk briefly about editing nurses’ letters for her book, War-Torn Exchanges. This part of the program is designed specifically for Professional Writing students, but all are welcome to attend.