poppy flower

“In Flanders Fields,” written by a doctor during the Second Battle of Ypres, is perhaps the best known poem to come out of World War I.

Canadian military physician Major John McCrae was serving as brigade doctor when his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed. The chaplain was engaged elsewhere, so McCrae was asked to conduct the funeral.

The poem is believed to have been composed at the Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station on May 3, 1915. Dealing with his grief, McCrae sat near an ambulance and wrote a poem about the view before him. He showed the poem to a young soldier delivering mail, but not satisfied with the poem threw it away. Another officer retrieved it and encouraged McCrae to submit it to magazines. It was published in December 1915 in the British magazine Punch.   Although the poem was not McCrae’s first, it is his most famous.

Angel of Mercy uniform

The uniform of a real WWI nursing sister.  Hettie would have worn this uniform nearly daily. Canadian nurses also were nicknamed Bluebirds because of the color of their uniforms.  Dress uniforms were navy with a cap instead of a veil and with a cape trimmed in red.

Their proper title was “nursing sister.” This is because traditionally nursing had been carried out by those in religious orders. None of the World War I nursing sisters, however, were nuns.

The Canadian Army Nursing Corps became part of the Canadian Army Medical Corps during the war.  Of the 3,141 nurses who served, 2,504 did so overseas, and there were more volunteers than there were openings. Most were born in Canada or Britain.  All were high school graduates as well as graduates of hospital nursing programs, making them highly educated compared to most women at the time. They were paid $2 daily.

Requirements for acceptance were graduation from a recognized nursing college, being single, in good health, and being between the ages of 21 and 38.  The average age of a nurse was 24.  They were mostly from urban areas, middle class and their fathers were professionals.

Photo Source:  War Museum of Canada

Canadian Corps (Canadian Expeditionary Force) service dress uniform

Canadian Corps (Canadian Expeditionary Force) service dress uniform was worn by Captain Noel Farrow in 1917.  Geoffrey, Alfred, Freddie, Victor and every other soldier and medical corps member we meet in the WWI Trilogy would have worn a uniform similar to this one.  

“Canadians, in this fateful hour I command you and I trust you to fight as you have ever fought, with all your strength, with all your determination, with all your tranquil courage,” Sir Arthur Currie told the troops in April 1918. “On many a hard-fought field of battle you have overcome this enemy.  With God’s help you shall achieve victory once more.”

Currie was given command of the Canadian Corps in 1917.  Under his command, the Corps experienced a number of successes, including Vimy Ridge. He was adamant the Corps would fight together, not broken up and used to support the British Army.

The penultimate Allied soldier to die in the war was Canadian Private George Price. He was killed by a sniper at Mons two minutes before Armistice.

Photo Credit:  Exhibit in the Glenbow Museum, Calgary. This government military uniform is in the public domain.

Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign circa WWI.

The Dominion of Canada was official formed on July 1, 1867, from three colonies:  New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and the Province of Canada (modern day Ontario and Quebec).

By the start of WWI, all the provinces and territories we recognize today as modern day Canada existed with the exception of Newfoundland, which was an independent Dominion until after World War II, and Nanuvut which was formed out of the Northwest Territories in the late 20th century.

Photo Source:  War Museum of Canada

Enlist Ad

The Canadian Press was clear on the nation’s duty should Great Britain declare war.

“Canada’s place is at the side of the Mother Land,” the Calgary Albertan said.  The Calgary Herald, the Hamilton Times, the Montreal Mail and others echoed this sentiment.

The Hamilton Herald and Toronto Mail reminded readers that when Britain is at war so is Canada.  Therefore, any soldier that might ultimately be sent to the front is fighting on behalf of the defense of Canada.

Canadian newspapers in the 1910s were divided by party lines – Conservative and Liberal – and not all supported compulsory service.  They felt that should war come, Canada’s first move should be to defend itself.  “… it is clearly the duty of the Dominion government to mobilize in the vicinity of Halifax and Quebec a large enough force to beat off landing parties from small hostile squadrons,” the Toronto Globe said.

The Globe went on to say that Canada’s first duty was to prevent enemy invasion and should only come to the aid of Britain in Europe if Britain were on the verge of failure.

Photo Source:  War Museum of Canada

Ether dispenser used during WWI

Since the 1840s, the two available anesthetics were ether and chloroform. Ether numbs the patient but does not cause unconsciousness. Chloroform works more quickly, but there is a higher risk of death if the wrong amount is used. It is applied using a mask, sponge or cloth.

Dental procedures were conducting using nitrous oxide.

Photo Source:  War Museum of Canada

medical tag using during WWI triage

Medical tags were issued to patients when they were admitted at a casualty clearing station. This soldier had a compound fracture of the pelvis and a severe bladder wound.

Casualty Clearing Station: Abbreviated (CCS) and designated a number (for example, CCS #10).  These units were located behind the front lines but were close enough personnel often heard bombardments. Casualties arrived from dressing stations, and men treated at a CSS did not stay long term. They were treated and either sent back to the front or moved further behind the line to a stationary hospital. These units moved frequently but were usually located near a railway line.

Casualty Clearing Stations were located in tents or temporary structures. The first stations were located in requisitioned buildings but necessity forced the move to tent cities.

A CCS was staffed with surgeons, nurses, orderlies, a dentist, ambulance drivers and a chaplain.

Patients arrived at the CCS either by ambulance, wagon, railroad or on foot. They were received at reception where they were assessed and a medical tag was applied to the patients’ clothing.

Photo Source:  War Museum of Canada

field dressing

Once they reached a Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), patients who were severely wounded or dying were moved to resuscitation, nicknamed resuss, where they were kept comfortable. Others were moved to pre-op.

After surgery, but before being moved to a stationary hospital, patients were moved to the award tent where they were kept under supervision. Patients who were moved to evacuation prior to discharge.

During a major battle, a CCS could treat 1,000 patients daily.

Photo Source:  War Museum of Canada

Canadian soldier’s WWI identity disks

World War I, at the time, was the most brutal war in human history as well as the most technological. The new killing machines led to appalling injury rates.

“These are weapons that reduced human beings to mist in some cases,” Andrew Burtch, acting director of research at the Canada War Museum, told CTV. “They shear off noses and faces. They shred the extremities, they cause massive bleeding wounds in the stomach. They tear people into pieces.”

Despite the high casualty rates, most of the wounded who lived long enough to receive medical care survived thanks to scientific advances.

Photo Source:  War Museum of Canada

WWI field surgery kit

During the war, 19 million men, on both sides, were wounded. Of those, approximately 500,000 had limbs amputated at medical units.

Some other facts about medical care during the war:

  • Blood transfusions were used on a large scale for the first time.
  • WWI was the first conflict where vaccines prevented common illnesses.
  • Despite this, new diseases such as trench fever and Spanish flu made soldiers ill.
  • Once a patient reached a Casualty Clearing Station, his chances of survival were quite good.
  • Quick treatment with antiseptics helped keep infection levels low.

Photo Source:  War Museum of Canada

A WWI nursing sister’s medals

When was the last time you gave any thought to the splint? A splint developed by an orthopedist during the war increased the survival rate for a broken thigh fracture from 20 percent in 1914 to 80 percent in 1916.

An efficient system moved the wounded from the front.  Stretcher bearers carried men from the field and took them to first-aid stations.  Wounded were moved then to a field ambulance followed by a dressing station, a casualty clearing station and finally a base hospital. At any point along the way, a soldier might be treated and sent back to his unit.  More serious cases proceeded to the next step.

In addition, triage was developed to assess who needed the most assistance.  Triage ensured serious cases were treated quickly and before other patients.

Blood transfusion was invented before the war, but the first blood bank was created in 1917.

Photo Source:  War Museum of Canada

WWI sympathy card for a Canadian soldier

WWI brought a quick end to the elaborate Victorian and Edwardian mourning rituals.

Circumstances often prevented the old rituals from continuing.  They were no longer practical, and some people felt they were inappropriate during wartime.

Rules for women’s clothing were once again simplified. The mourning period for a husband shortened to 18 months, but the period for brothers, sons and nephews was extended.

As the rules relaxed, people were able to decide according to their individual preference how intensely they wanted to mourn. Still, into the 1920s, it was customary to wear black.

Photo Source:  War Museum of Canada

The gravesite record of a WWI Canadian soldier

World War I casualty rates often vary from source to source. Those wounded or taken prison are grouped together under “casualty.” Those who died of wounds or disease are group together under “killed.” Not all participants are listed.

British Empire: 8.9 million mobilized; 908,371 killed; 2.1 million casualties

Germany: 11 million mobilized; 1.7 million killed; 5.3 million casualties

France: 8.4 million mobilized; 1.3 million killed; 4.7 million casualties

Austria-Hungary: 7.8 million mobilized; 1.2 million killed; 5.8 million casualties

Russia: 12 million mobilized; 1.7 million killed; 7.4 million casualties

Ottoman Empire: 2.8 million mobilized; 325,000 killed; 5.3 million casualties

Belgium: 267,000 mobilized; 13,716 killed; 79,345 casualties

Bulgaria: 1.2 million mobilized; 87,500 killed; 179,419 casualties

Serbia: 707,343 mobilized; 45,000 killed; 286,106 casualties

Japan: 800,000 mobilized; 300 killed; 910 casualties

Romania: 750,000 mobilized; 335,706 killed; 200,000 casualties

United States: 4.3 million mobilized; 116,516 killed; 208,502 casualties

Photo Source:  War Museum of Canada

WWI Canadian soldiers demobilization

Monday, Nov. 11, 1918, is a date that forever changed the world. It’s Armistice Day —  the date World War I ended. Four years of slaughter were over.  In addition, countless lives also were saved. The Allies had been planning an invasion of Germany for 1919, and military officials believed  the war also would extend well into 1920.

After some negotiation, the armistice was signed at 5 a.m. Paris time. It went into effect 11 a.m. that day.  The Germans were forced to agree to 35 terms.

In Allied nations, bells rang, guns fired to mark the time, and celebrations were held in the streets.  Other people, mourning loved ones or unable to believe peace had come, spent the day in silent reflection.

In Germany and the other defeated nations, the day marked an injustice with many feeling their military leaders had betrayed them.

Victory, of course, was bittersweet. Men continued to die right up until armistice. That morning, the Allies had 11,000 casualties. The final two men to die in the war were a Canadian and an American. George Price and Henry Gunther both died less than two minutes before 11 a.m.

Photo Source:  War Museum of Canada

Canadian nurses wave goodbye to parting soldiers

After Armistice, there was no official policy to send the troops home. The Canadian army and government disagreed over the best course of action. The government wanted a “first over, first back” system while Gen. Arthur Currie believed it was better for discipline, and for the communities back home, if repatriation happened according to military unit. Currie’s view won out.

Canadian Corps was moved to England and Wales. There, the men waited months for demobilization and the return voyage back home.

The return-home strategy did not go smoothly. Ships were needed to transport 267,813 men and 54,000 dependents home; 50,000 people were supposed to be sent home monthly.  It would take an estimated 18 months to get everyone back to Canada.

The process of sending entire units home meant some soldiers who had never even served on the frontline went home before those who had been in Europe for four and a half years. This caused resentment.  Men kept busy with military drills, Khaki University and playing sports, but eventually they  grew restless.

Photo Source:  War Museum of Canada

Khaki University badge

Canada, near the end of WWI, devised an idea to keep its soldiers occupied during their down time, steering them away from vice, and preparing them for postwar life.  This idea was Khaki University. 

The program, originally called Khaki College, was the brainchild of Dr. Henry Marshall Tory.  The National Council of the YMCA was active in Europe, setting up facilities for soldiers to enjoy recreation and sports or to conduct Bible studies.

Tory reported for the YMCA on the needs of men returning to civilian life. He recommended that men would benefit greatly from access to education.

Initially, courses were taught by chaplains, but soon classes were instructed by professors, officers and men who held teaching degrees. In September 1918, the program was recognized as a formal educational institution by the Canadian government and became a university.

By the time all the soldiers returned home, 50,000 had attended classes, 1,000 at university level.

Photo Source:  War Museum of Canada

registration notice for foreigners

Many people are aware of the U.S. Japanese internment camps during WWII. Internment camps, however, are not unique to that conflict.  There were camps during the Boer War. During World War I, the Canadian government established enemy alien camps.

Who was considered an enemy alien? The bulk were Ukrainians (referred to at the time as Bukovynians, Galicians and Ruthenians), but enemy aliens also included Germans, Serbs, Croats, Bulgarians, Poles, Romanians, Hungarians, Russians, Jews and Turks. These groups were thought to be sympathetic to the German and Austro-Hungarian war efforts.

The War Measures Act forced members of these ethnicities to register, carry identification papers and regularly report to police or local authorities. Those who refused, tried to leave the country or were suspected of being dangerous were interned.

More than 80,000 people were registered.  Of those, 8,579  men were interned along with 237 women and children. More than 5,000 of the interned were Ukrainian.

The Canadian government launched the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund in 2008, officially recognizing those affected by internment.  And in 2014, plaques commemorating the camps were unveiled.

Canadian nurses tending to graves

The war’s end left people with a new reality. How was life to continue with so many dead, and with nations destroyed and governments in turmoil?

British nurse Vera Brittain put it best when she said:

“The war was over; a new age was beginning, but the dead were dead and would never return.”

A home in WWI era Barrie

The hometown of my main character, Henrietta Steward, is Barrie, Ontario. Many real-life buildings were the inspiration for her family and friends’ homes and workplaces.

Homes like this one were the model for the Steward home which was built in the 1890s.

During WWI, Barrie had a population of around 5,000.