Nursing Sisters serve at the No. 3 Canadian Stationary Hospital in France during the First World War.
Canada’s wartime history is filled with stories of bravery, and the nursing sisters who served with the military during the North West Rebellion, the South African War, the First and Second World Wars, and the Korean War were certainly among the most courageous. While carrying out official duties, dozens died from enemy action and disease during their service.
In the First World War (1914–1918), nursing sisters served in Canada, England, France, Belgium, Russia, and around the Mediterranean. Nicknamed "bluebirds" by soldiers grateful for a glimpse of their blue dresses and white veils, they received many honours and gained a good reputation for their courage and compassion. Fifty-three sisters lost their lives while on active duty, victims of either enemy attack or disease contracted from patients.
The nursing sisters received lectures on military law, map reading and security, instruction in gas warfare and casualty evacuation, and training in large-scale military manoeuvres during the world wars. They worked in conditions ranging from canvas tents with wooden floors to established hospitals and buildings converted for hospital use.
This Heritage Minute tells the story of Eden Pringle and Eleanor Thompson, two of the nearly 3,000 nursing sisters who served during the First World War. Pringle and Thompson were on duty at Number Three Canadian Stationary Hospital (No. 3 CSH) at Doullens (near Amiens in France), when it was attacked at 12:15 a.m. on May 30, 1918. A single German aircraft first dropped a flare to light its target, following up with several bombs. One hit the main building, just over the sergeant’s quarters on the third floor. The central structure collapsed and burst into flames, incinerating the officers’ ward on the second floor and the operating theatre on the ground floor, where Pringle was on duty. Pringle, 24, was a graduate of the Vancouver General Hospital, and enlisted on May 12, 1917. She was initially posted to the Canadian Red Cross Hospital in Buxton, England in June 1917, and then at Doullens in July of that year. The operating theatre was completely wiped out in the bombing, and it was reported that the people working in the theatre “were not recognisable.” Pringle was reportedly the youngest nursing sister to die during the First World War.
Eleanor Jean Thompson, 30, from Valleyfield, Québec, was one of two nurses in the resuscitation ward immediately adjoining the operating theatre. She had enlisted in Montreal on February 1, 1916 and had reported to the No. 3 CSH a mere three weeks before the bombing. During the attack, she was knocked over by a heavy beam and struck across her legs, but she eventually managed to remove herself from the debris. With the help of another nurse, Meta Hodge, Thompson put out fires lit by overturned coal oil heaters and organized the evacuation of patients from the room, some having to slide down the mounds of debris as the stairway had gone. Thompson and Hodge remained in the ward until all the patients had been removed.
In all, 32 staff and patients were killed, and 17 were wounded.
Though Thompson had no any visible injuries, she began to suffer from persistent severe headaches and insomnia almost immediately. She remained in active service for several months before she was finally admitted to a hospital in March of 1919, where she was diagnosed with ‘nervous disability,’ or what would be called post-traumatic stress disorder today. Following a recommendation by the army’s Medical Board that she be “discharge(d) to civil life” given her fragile condition, Eleanor returned to Canada in 1919. She died in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, Québec in 1964, at the age of 75.
Canadian Military officials, impressed by the nursing sisters’ courageous action under enemy fire, submitted recommendations for awarding the nursing sisters the Military Cross, a reward traditionally reserved for junior officers. It was felt that the nursing sisters’ achievements were on par with those of their male colleagues and Canada insisted that they be recognized accordingly. However, the British authorities disagreed. They concluded that, given a nursing sister’s relative rank on the field, she should only be eligible for the Military Medal, the equivalent of the Royal Red Cross, awarded to a nurse for services to her profession. In a stubborn refusal to move beyond established gender norms despite an increased female presence so near to the front line, the British authorities’ decision prevailed.
In 1919, Eleanor Thompson was one of eight Canadian nursing sisters awarded the Military Medal for “gallantry and devotion to duty during an enemy air raid.” Although this was not the distinction the Canadian officials had hoped for, this was still an exceptional recognition that underscored the changing role of women on the battlefield.
- Eden Lyal Pringle – Siobhan Williams
- Eleanor Jean Thompson – Myla Southward
- Narrator – Molly Parker