Academic journal article Manitoba History

This Small Army of Women: Canadian Volunteer Nurses and the First World War

Academic journal article Manitoba History

This Small Army of Women: Canadian Volunteer Nurses and the First World War

Article excerpt

Linda J. Quiney, This Small Army of Women: Canadian Volunteer Nurses and the First World War. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017, 320 pages. ISBN 978-07748-3071-3, $95.00 (hardcover)

Linda Quiney's book adds to the growing historiography on nursing and health care work during the First World War. Her comprehensive review promises to "bring the work and experience of a 'small army' of Canadian and Newfoundland women out of the shadows to claim their rightful place in the mainstream histories of the war" (p. 14). Quiney's study focuses on the Volunteer Aid Detachment nurses (VADs) who served overseas as assistant nurses working under the supervision of trained nurses to help care for patients. She also focuses on ambulance drivers who transferred injured patients from field stations to hospitals and maintained the vehicles. Quiney also discusses the VADs who served in the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion of 1917 and during the Spanish Influenza pandemic, two high-profile events that enhanced their profile.

Quiney's volunteer nurses who went overseas to assist trained nurses, largely in British hospitals, were part of a larger group of some 2,000 Canadian VADs who served through the St. John's Ambulance Society and the Canadian Red Cross Society from 1916 until the end of the war. There were also some Canadian women who joined the British VADs. The study, among other things speaks to professional tension between volunteers and trained nurses. In overseas hospitals run by the Canadian Army Medical Corp (CAMC), VADs were not permitted to serve. Rather, nursing care was provided by trained, i.e., professional, nurses, called Nursing Sisters who also held officer rank in the military. They served under Matron Margaret Macdonald who, with an eye to protecting the professional status of the emerging nursing profession, kept out the volunteers, except in non-nursing care in Canadian military hospitals. That was not the case in British hospitals, nor in convalescent hospitals run by the Military Commission in Canada for returned soldiers, where many Canadian VADs served.

Enlivened with quotes from the women themselves, This Small Army sheds light on these volunteers, their background, war experience, work and colleague relationships, the health impact of their service, and where their lives took them after the war. We learn, for example, that some VADs did auxiliary nursing chores that would not have been possible in peacetime, such as helping to change dressings, and applying and monitoring poultices. They were also sometimes assigned the important chore of watching over amputation cases, in which there was a great danger of hemorrhage.

The book also highlights some of the tensions between trained and volunteer nurses, as well as the ever-present Imperial/Colonial tensions between Canadians and Brits. Indeed Quiney's study quite clearly points out that Canadian VADs were very different from the upper class, often titled 'British VADs,' as exemplified in Vera Brittain's postwar writings, which have formed a longstanding public perception. Such distinctions hearken back to an earlier time, when the importance of class was greater than that of education as a marker of standing. The writings and letters of the VADs shed light on tensions between volunteer and trained nurses, the latter guarding carefully their tenuous hold on professionalism. Quiney makes the point that once the volunteer nurses came home, only four of the VADs went into nursing as a profession, proving unfounded the fears of nursing authorities that volunteers would flood the profession and try to use their war experience as a 'backdoor' into nursing. Still, the concept of 'voluntary' nurses, and the associated idea that all women are by nature caregivers, posed a real threat to the educational and professional accreditation that nursing was seeking at this time. …

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