Craigdarroch Military Hospital opening, Sept. 25, 1919. Courtesy Craigdarroch Castle

COURAGE REMEMBERED: Nursing sister among first at Craigdarroch Military Hospital

Victoria’s Elsie Collis came home after serving in France during First World War

Following are passages excerpted from Craigdarroch Military Hospital: A Canadian War Story.

Of all the staff in Canada’s military hospitals, it was the nurses who had the greatest impact on the patients. The men preferred to be cared for by nurses who were, like them, war veterans.

To the men, nursing sisters were sisters-in-arms. They had served near the battlefields, were wounded, and sometimes, killed in enemy action.

They had looked after the dying and wounded men as they flooded into casualty clearing stations. They steadfastly managed the heart-wrenching and physically exhausting aftermath of war-fighting. Put simply, they understood what their patients had been through.

This gave the men considerable comfort.

Canada was the first nation in the world to assign an officer rank to women in military service. The rank of Nursing Sister was equivalent to that of lieutenant, and the rate of pay was the same.

They were called “Bluebirds” by their brothers-in-arms because of their distinctive blue uniform. Nursing sisters were to be unmarried at recruitment, but contrary to what the rank title seemed to imply, it was not required that they belong to a religious order.

After the armistice [following the First World War], nursing sisters continued to serve in Canadian military hospitals in the UK and Canada. Gradually, Canadian soldiers and medical staff returned home.

Nursing sister Elsie Dorothy Collis moved back to her native Victoria to work at Craigdarroch Military Hospital in the former Dunsmuir home. She was a graduate of the nursing programme at Victoria’s Royal Jubilee Hospital in 1911 and joined the Canadian Army in 1915.

Collis, like some other officers in the Canadian Army Medical Services Corps, also kept a diary. On May 13, 1917, she was sent to No. 1 Canadian General Hospital at Etaples, France. Her entries reveal the bravery and professionalism that nursing sisters brought to bear in the face of danger:

“May 19, 1918 – Had a terrible air raid from 10:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Was a beautiful night – as light as day. Before I left for supper I heard distant guns but thought nothing of it. Had just got to the kitchen door when the bombs began to drop. There were several in the mess quarters and set the rows of huts on fire. Two dropped outside the [nurses’] club, another outside our new quarters. The whole place was wrecked – poor little “Bob” [nursing sister Gladys Wake] was buried, she had a fractured femur, a huge wound in the other leg and several smaller ones. A Miss [Katharine] McDonald was killed. She had a tiny wound but it must have severed the femoral artery as she died of haemorrhage almost immediately.

“Wounded were taken to G ward. Several bombs dropped on the officer’s [sic] lines. One on top of Hill 60. Killed one M.O. who was standing up with several others. There were about six of us in the kitchen on the floor. It was dreadful. We could see the fires through the window, hear the men shouting and calling. Hear bombs dropping, the guns would all stop for a minute until the machines came within range. All one could hear was their continual buzzing – then the guns again, then the bombs.

“The windows all fell in, dishes kept breaking, the plaster walls fell in, in places. We were sure the next one would hit us. When there was a lull, we hurried back to the wards. One badly hurt man had been brought to hut X almost dying – three planes returned – one dropped several bombs then left us alone. Several of the hill wards were hit, one destroyed. Where the HSD men slept a number were killed and as many wounded. The O.R. was busy the rest of the night. Private Wilson was killed.”

In the days immediately following her May 19 recounting of the bombings, Collis wrote about the burials of comrades, including Nursing Sister Wake.

“‘Bob’ buried at 3 o’clock. We all went to the funeral. It was dreadfully trying. 46 of the boys were buried together in one long grave.”

A little over a year later, Collis was nursing at Craigdarroch Military Hospital.

Bruce Davies is curator at Craigdarroch Castle.

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