“I am on night duty ... on what is supposed to be the ‘hopeless ward’ so you can imagine, or try to, just what I am doing. I know you cannot really have the faintest idea ...”
In Sister Soldiers of the Great War, award-winning author Cynthia Toman recovers the long-lost history of Canada’s first women soldiers – nursing sisters who enlisted as officers with the Canadian Army Medical Corps.
These experienced nurses were motivated by patriotism, a sense of adventure, and personal and professional goals. They left their communities, families, and jobs to enlist in the Canadian Army, where they received relative rank and equal pay to men. Their official mandate was to salvage as many sick and wounded men as possible for return to the front lines. Nothing prepared them for poor living conditions, the scale of casualties, or the type of wounds they encountered, but their letters and diaries reveal that they were determined to soldier on under all circumstances while still “living as well as possible.”
The first book to look at the collective and individual experiences of Canada’s nursing sisters, Sister Soldiers of the Great War reveals how these resilient women negotiated their role as sisters and soldiers in a man’s world.
Enlivened by the nurses’ own writings, Sister Soldiers of the Great War will appeal to anyone interested in Canadian history, women’s history, military history, or nursing and medical history.
Toman returns the Canadian Army Medical Corps nursing sisters to their rightful place at the heart of Canada’s First World War military medical system … Drawing heavily on newly available diaries, memoirs, and letters, as well as a demographic analysis of the personnel records of every single nursing sister, the book is an invaluable addition to the histories of Canadian women, medicine and nursing, and the First World War. It will be the authoritative work on its subject for years to come.
The result of Toman’s painstaking pursuit of sources is a rich and compelling narrative that both inspires and repulses. Toman does not attempt to conceal the horrors of war abounding in makeshift medical wards. Nor should she … Through Sister Soldiers, Toman makes a significant contribution by correcting the relative obscurity of the Canadian Army Medical Corps nursing sisters with both rigor and sensitivity.
Of this cadre of women most – but not all, for some were killed in action – returned from war. Some became our leaders in nursing, hospital management, and social services. Some left nursing and became our grandmothers or great grandmothers. We are in their debt, for their work and for their legacy. In their articulation of war, framed by diligent writers and researchers like Toman and Andrea McKenzie [author of War-Torn Exchanges, UBC Press 2016] we discover anew, from Canadian nursing sisters in the First World War, just what war is. From such articulation, we have much to learn.
The story of Canada’s First World War military nurses has never before been told, and Toman tells it with sensitivity and a deep knowledge of both the world of nursing and the history of the war.
We have been waiting one hundred years for this book. It has been well worth the wait.
Sister Soldiers is a moving narrative of the gritty, grueling, sometimes inspiring, and often devastating realities that war entailed for Canada’s military nurses.
1 The Great Machine of Healing
2 The Cast of Characters
3 Soldiering On under All Conditions
4 Soldiering On with Medical and Surgical Work
5 Social Sisters: “Living as Well as Possible”
6 Contemplating the Costs of War
Notes; Bibliography; Index
Place and Practice in Canadian Nursing History
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