Alberta nurses off to the "Great War"

Looking back at the time period of the Great War, 1914-1918, you realize modern nursing was really in its infancy, and this was certainly so for Alberta’s nursing history. Before war was declared the Army Nursing Corps consisted of five nurses, but quickly grew to thousands in the first few weeks of the fighting. Approximately sixty-five of the Army Nursing Corps were from Alberta. Given the length of the journey from Alberta to the east coast, even to join up with the contingent going overseas, this is an amazing number. Most of them were graduates recruited directly from the schools of nursing.

At the beginning of World War I, nursing wasn't even a recognized profession that required registration. But by 1916, the Registered Nurses Act was passed that established a professional organization for nurses, the Alberta Association of Graduate Nurses.

The young women saw service in Canada at military bases but also served overseas in England and at battle stations in France. Casualty clearing stations were set up near the battle areas in order to determine the needs of each of the wounded or to treat them immediately. There were also mobile units that actually followed the soldiers to the front or moved them away to safer locations, if there were such places during the fighting. Of the Canadian nurses who went overseas, forty-six were killed - some when their hospitals were bombed, some on hospital ships that were torpedoed and some died of in the flu pandemic at the end of the war.

A few years after they returned, the Alberta nurses formed the Overseas Nursing Sisters' Association, first in Edmonton and then in Calgary. It was a way of keeping in touch with those who had shared the same unforgettable experiences. A memorial for those who served overseas hangs in the medical building at the University of Alberta, while another was unveiled in 1926 at the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.

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