First Aid: Nurses in the RCN, WWI

Canadian nurses volunteered their services during a period of great change and innovation in the field of military medical services. It was also a time of tremendous danger. Canadian military nurses, or nursing sisters, as they were sometimes called, often worked right near the front in wartime. They were also present on hospital ships, where they daily faced the threat of torpedo attacks.

Many of them lost their lives on the job.

Funeral procession for Canadian nursing sister.  <br><br/>Photo courtesy of the War Amps of Canada.

Records show that the first women officially in the Royal Canadian Navy were six nursing sisters who served during August 1914 on His Majesty's Canadian Hospital Ship HMCHS PRINCE GEORGE, the only Canadian hospital ship to ever sail with the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).

The nursing sisters appointed to the naval service on the PRINCE GEORGE were Elizabeth Pierce, Anne Dover, Gertrude Black, Penelope Mellen, Mabel Lindsey and Bessie Watson. The nurses were paid approximately $90 per month.

Their ship probably had the shortest life of any commissioned vessel in the RCN. PRINCE GEORGE was built in 1910. It was a 307 foot long steel vessel with twin screws, and weighed 3,372 tons. The ship was operated by Grand Trunk Pacific Steamship Company as a motor vessel cruising from Tacoma, Washington to Skagway, Alaska, and was eventually taken over by the Canadian National Railway (CNR) before being drafted into the Royal Canadian Navy on August 8th, 1914.

PRINCE GEORGE was rented for $500 per day (this included her crew) under RCN command. Because of a mistake in Ottawa, the ship actually received a commission instead of becoming a fleet auxiliary vessel.

The MV PRINCE GEORGE was delivered to Esquimalt Drydock for an intensive four-day refit, and converted from ex-cruise ship to 200-bed hospital ship.

On August 20th, 1914, Lt-Commander A.M. Kinnersley-Saul, Captain of HMCHS PRINCE GEORGE, ordered that a Red Cross be painted on the ship's centre funnel, and then she sailed for Vancouver. Lt-Commander A.M. Kinnersley-Saul didn't know at the time that the Red Cross should in fact have been painted on the ship's sides.

The MV Prince George. <br><br/>Photo courtesy of the City of Prince Rupert Archives.While the hull was being painted, that same afternoon a rumour circulated that an enemy cruiser had been sighted in Queen Charlotte Sound. PRINCE GEORGE was instructed to immediately sail for Prince Rupert, BC, in order to load enough provisions for a 21-day sail to Hong Kong. She left Vancouver so hastily that over 20 of her crew were abandoned in Vancouver, and due to the rain, only her port side was painted in hospital colours when she proceeded to Prince Rupert.

On August 25th, the ship left Prince Rupert and headed to Juneau, Alaska for fuel oil. The following there were orders to proceed to the nearest British port, which happened to be back in Prince Rupert. PRINCE GEORGE then returned to Esquimalt for a thorough Admiralty inspection.

On September 1st, the nurses left the ship, and on September 4th, the ship was paid off, reconditioned and returned to her owners. While officially in the navy for less than 30 days, the vessel was in fact hired out to the RCN for a total of 47 days. The only casualties treated on PRINCE GEORGE were a sailor from a Japanese cruiser with a broken leg, a nurse with a sprained ankle, and several seasick nurses.

Nursing sister Elizabeth Pierce, born in Bruce County, Ontario in 1882, left for overseas duty in January 1915, and stayed in the RCAMC (Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps) until August 1920. She graduated from the Victoria Royal Jubilee Hospital nursing program in 1908.

Nursing sister Anne Dover, born in Bedfordshire, England in 1887, went overseas in April 1915, where she remained until March 1919. Nursing sister Gertrude Black, born in Fort William, Ontario in 1887, left for overseas in April 1915, serving until August 1919.

Nursing sister Penelope Mellen, born in Prestwick, Scotland in 1890, left for nursing overseas in May 1915, returning in June 1917. She graduated from the Victoria Royal Jubilee Hospital in 1914. Nursing sister Mabel Lindsey, born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1881, served overseas from October 1914 until May 1918. Nursing sister Bessie Watson, born in Cumberland, England in 1882, signed up in Valcartier, Quebec. She travelled overseas in March 1915, and served in England and France until she was permitted to resign her commission in June 1916.

During WWI, 15 of 34 hospital ships were sunk by submarines due to their white colour being easily targeted through a submarine's periscope. All the nurses eventually ended up the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corp in 1915. During WWI, 46 nursing sisters died, of a total of 3,141 who served overseas.

To view a list of Canadian nurses who lost their lives overseas, visit the Library and Archives Canada Web page.