Despite the approximately 50,000 Canadian women who took part in the Second World War, we seem all too often to forget about the heroic work of the wartime nurses. By the time the war had ended, about 4,480 nurses had enlisted in Canada across all three branches of the military–– the army, navy, and airforce. Of those 4,480, approximately 2800 went overseas during their service to do grim work on the front lines.
The Second World War was an important time for women’s changing gender roles. War nurses were all commissioned officers and therefore had to be addressed as “sister” or “Ma’am,” as respect dictated. Despite that women were paid significantly less than their male counterparts, wartime necessity meant that many women were doing jobs previously seen unfit for women. Even Queen Elizabeth, before she was ordained as queen, worked as an ambulance driver during the war, and can be seen in old wartime photos changing tires. While nursing was certainly a career that was traditionally feminine––one of the two “appropriate” careers for working women (the other being teaching), nurses during this time had harrowing work to do, and they did it with aplomb.
One such nurse spent her early military nursing career in Nanaimo, before she was shipped overseas to Europe. While many nurses entered service during the war from a desire to help the cause, Jessie Lee Middleton had always wanted to be a nurse. It just so happened that one day before she graduated, Canada declared war on Germany. It was September of 1939.
At this time, Jessie was only 22. While women could enter the military in other roles as young as 18, nurses had to be 25 to enlist. This was particularly difficult work, requiring a greater sense of maturity and calm dealing with often gruesome injuries. So, Jessie bided her time working in the maternity ward at the Vancouver General Hospital. Then in 1942 Jessie joined the ranks, becoming Lieutenant Nursing Sister Lee at the General Hospital in Nanaimo.
The first incarnation of the Nanaimo hospital had opened in 1877 as a row of miner’s cabins. Built between 1925 and 1942, the General Hospital was quite a new building in Jessie’s early days nursing there. She did not stay in Nanaimo long, however, and in 1942 she was sent overseas.
The journey itself was not for the faint of heart. Jessie and the other nurses went all the way to Halifax by train, where they then boarded a vessel headed for Scotland. Ironically ferried on a luxury liner, the Queen Elizabeth, the passengers were so cramped that men had to spend twelve hours a day on deck, exposed to cold wind and rain, conditions which shortly brought on pneumonia. Consequently, many of these men never made it to Europe to fight the war to which they had been bound.
Once in Scotland, Jessie and the other nurses were faced with all manner of horrors, from caring for those with shell-shock, those dying, and others who had been severely disfigured in the war. In 1944, Jessie got even closer to the destruction when she went to Italy. Closer to the front lines of combat, she recalls seeing towns that seemed entirely decimated.
Amidst this destruction, the nurses were able to travel and to connect with the local people around them. Jessie recalls picnicking atop the leaning tower of Pisa and sharing food with the locals.
While it stands as a small memorial to Nanaimo nurses such as Jessie, Nanaimo’s wartime hospital is now a care home and nursing facility, as well as a heritage site.