Remembrance Day Role of Women in World Wars


Senator Statement Senator Jane Cordy November 5th, 2014

Hon. Jane Cordy: Honourable senators, next Tuesday we observe Remembrance Day, the day set aside each year to remember those Canadian men and women who sacrificed so much in service to their country. From the men and women who fought on the front lines in the army, navy and air force to the men and women of the medical corps, to their families and neighbours back home, wartime efforts involve an entire nation.

Today, honourable senators, I would like to recognize the vital role Canada's young women played in Canada's war efforts in the First and Second World Wars.

Prior to the outbreak of the First World War, the Canadian Army Nursing Service consisted of only 80 reserve nurses. By the end of the war, over 3,000 Canadian women volunteered to serve overseas in the army at any one of 30 military hospitals and casualty clearing stations in England, France, Belgium, Greece, Malta and the Eastern Mediterranean. Many could also be found serving near the front lines where their services were most urgently required. More than 4,000 Canadian nursing sisters served overseas during World War II. By this time each branch of the military had its own corps of nursing sisters.

Nicknamed "Bluebirds" by the soldiers in the First World War because of their blue dresses, white aprons and their sheer white veils, the nursing sisters were first-hand eyewitnesses to the horrors of war on a daily basis. Caring for the injured and sick soldiers, they were seen as true angels of compassion and angels of mercy.

Often stationed near the front line, the nursing sisters worked under dangerous conditions. Many lost their lives to sickness and enemy attacks. On May 19, 1918, the No. 1 Canadian General Hospital and the No. 7 Canadian General Hospital in Étaples, France, were hit during a German air raid. Étaples was the location of the main depot and transit camp for The British Expeditionary Force. In the attack, 66 Canadians were killed and 73 were wounded. Of the 66 killed, 3 were Canadian Army nurses.

Many nurses remained with immobile patients throughout the bombing. Nursing sisters Helene Hanson and Beatrice McNair were subsequently awarded military medals for their outstanding devotion to duty, making them the first Canadian women to be decorated for gallantry.

On June 27, 1918, the Canadian hospital ship Llandovery Castle was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Southern Ireland by a German U-boat while returning from Halifax to Liverpool. The vessel was used to transport injured soldiers from England to Canada. At the time it was torpedoed, the Llandovery Castle did not carry any patients, but it did carry 258 crew and medical personnel.

Attacking hospital ships was against international law and against standing orders of the German navy. Nonetheless, the vessel was torpedoed, and those who made it to lifeboats were then gunned down by the U-boat. Only 24 survived the attack. All 14 of the Canadian nursing sisters on board the ship were killed, including two Nova Scotians, Margaret Fraser of Pictou County and Minnie Follette of Cumberland County. Also on board and killed was Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas MacDonald of Port Hawkesbury, the doctor who commanded the medical personnel.

These brave young women answered their country's call just as thousands of young men had. Over 500 nurses would be decorated for their wartime service in World War I. It is my sincere honour to pay homage to these brave young Canadian women and the vital role they played during these two horrific periods of our country's history that also helped shape Canada into the nation it is today.