Canadian Nursing Sister in WWI – Nursing Sister Emsley

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist at the Oshawa Museum

Throughout history, women have always played a role in warfare generally working to nurse the wounded. 

In Canada, nurses had served in the Canadian Army Medical Corps since the 1885 Northwest Rebellion and compiled a distinguished record during the South African War (1899-1902). The Canadian Army Nursing Corps was established in 1908, but had only five permanent members by the start of the First World War. In August 1914, the Matron-in-Chief, Major Margaret Macdonald, an experienced nurse who had served in South Africa, received permission to enlist 100 nurses. Almost all were drawn from hospitals, universities, and medical professions from across Canada and the United States.

The nurses were granted the relative rank, pay and allowances of an army lieutenant.  This distinction was important, as they became the first women in the modern world to hold military commissions as officers. A special rank was created for nurses starting with lieutenant/nursing sister and they could move up the ranks. Canada remained the only country to commission women as officers until the mid-1940s.

The first contingent of Canadian troops to leave for England in September 1914 included 101 nurses, led by Matron in Chief Margaret Macdonald. Unlike nursing units in other allied forces, the Canadian nurses were fully integrated within the military structure and assigned rank within the Canadian Army Medical Corps. Margaret Macdonald would become the first woman in the British Empire to be granted the rank of major. 

Two Canadian nurses pose in service dress uniforms.
George Metcalf Archival Collection
CWM 19920085-353

By the end of the war, a total of 3141 women, over one third of Canada’s qualified nurses, had served with the medical corps. Of the over 2500 who saw overseas service, about 1000 worked in France and Belgium. The remainder were posted in Canadian and British hospitals in England, with a small number working in the Mediterranean and on the Russian front. Most nurses were initially posted to stationary and general hospitals, housed within existing facilities – schools, convents, hotels, etc. – or in purpose-built shelters. However, it quickly became clear that nursing services were needed closer to the front, and a number of nurses would work in casualty clearing stations near the front lines. There they would administer emergency care to wounded soldiers. In addition to treating battle wounds, army nurses treated contagious diseases such as tuberculosis and would assume an important role in confronting the terrible flu epidemic that swept through the general population in the closing months of the war.

Nursing Sister Lydia Evangeline Emsley was born on March 26, 1884 in Lindsay, Ontario to William Emsley and Susie Major.  Together the couple had five children, three sons and two daughters. The family moved a great deal, even living in Brandon, Manitoba before arriving back in Ontario prior to the start of the First World War.

When the hostilities began in 1914, William was quick to enlist and head overseas as Chaplain for the 16th Regiment.   By the end of the war, five members of the Emsley family had enlisted with the CEF, including daughter Lydia.

According to her attestation paper, Lydia enlisted with the Canadian Army Medical Corps on October 8, 1915.  Lydia was a trained nurse who already belonged to the Active Militia.

Nursing Sister Emsley

Upon arriving overseas as part of the second contingent, Lydia was stationed at the No. 2 Stationary Hospital located in Outreau, France. 

The No 2 Canadian Stationary Hospital was the first Canadian Unit to be stationed in France. The hospital was established in November 1914 in the Hotel du Golf at Le Touquet.  At this time, the hospital had 320 beds but that number quickly rose to 520. In March 1915, 10 re-enforcements arrived, making the total Nursing Staff up to 42. In September 1915, the unit moved to Outreau, taking over the site of No.2, British Stationary Hospital. It was after this move that Lydia joined the nursing staff at the hospital.  

A stationary hospital was slightly smaller than a General Hospital and was located closer to the frontlines; it was the midway point between clearing stations, which were very close to the front, and the general and specialized hospitals, which were farther away from the fighting.

With the conclusion of the war, Emsley became one of 317 nurses awarded a Royal Red Cross and one of 167 nurses who was received a Mentioned in Dispatch citation.

Mention in Dispatch

Lydia returned home from the war and resumed life.  Sometime between 1930 and 1934, Lydia married Dr. Frederick Donevan, the widower of Victoria Donevan, another nursing sister with ties to Oshawa.  Victoria and her husband joined the Canadian Army Medical Corps together in October of 1915 and both served overseas until the end of the war in 1918.  Sadly, Victoria contracted tuberculosis while overseas and she died of kidney failure on January 7, 1930.   Because her death is directory attributed to her service overseas, Victoria in considered a war dead by the Canadian Military. Lydia became stepmother to Victoria’s daughter Constance who was just 11 when her mother died.

All of our nursing sister exhibited intense bravery and compassion in the face of horrors no one could be prepared for and played a vital role in the Canadian war effort.


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