Collateral Ills

During the First World War, 2,504 nursing sisters served in the Overseas Military Forces of Canada. Unlike the British nursing sisters, Canadian nurses were actually part of the army, not an auxiliary unit. They were given the military rank of lieutenant to ensure the respect of the men. 1

There were forty-six Canadian nursing sisters who gave their lives while serving. Six were killed or mortally wounded on land; fifteen met death from enemy action at sea. Eighteen died of disease. 2 Ella Edna Willett, my great-aunt, survived illness not once but three times during her service in France between 1915 and 1919. 3

Ella was born on January 21st, 1892 in Dimock Creek, Quebec, 4 the tenth and youngest child of Alexander Willett and Susan Barter. She trained as a nurse at the Montreal General Hospital in Montreal. 1 On June 3rd 1915 at age twenty-three she enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. 5 She apparently came from an adventurous family. Three of her older brothers including my grandfather, locally known as the Wild Willet Boys, left home to seek their fortune in the Yukon. Ella may have felt she could match their adventures by going overseas with the army.

Ella served in two Canadian Stationary Hospitals in France, #2 in Outreau and #3 in Boulogne. She also served in two Canadian General Hospitals, #7 in Etaples and #11 in Liverpool, as well as a transport ship sailing between England and Canada. 6

The process to save the wounded began at a casualty clearing station, the patients having been brought from the front by field ambulance. The stations were nearly always situated on a railroad siding. Some patients required immediate surgery, others were moved quickly by ambulance train to better equipped stationary hospitals and still others to general hospitals for long-term care. Some of Canada’s most brilliant and experienced surgeons served in the stationary hospitals. To be one of the nursing sisters who served with them was said to be the highest ambition of most Canadian nursing sisters. 7

The responsibilities of the nursing sisters were long and arduous under grueling conditions: blood and gore everywhere, rats often underfoot, the cries of the wounded, planes soring overhead and the shrieking of dropping bombs.  The sisters had to shorten their skirts to keep them out of the ever present mud. 8

By far the greatest emotional drain on the sisters must have been the huge numbers of casualties arriving day after day and the triage system: deciding who needed immediate attention, who could wait, and who had no hope to survive and had to be left to die. Through all of this the sisters were said to work calmly and remain cheerful and comforting. 9

On September 2nd, 1916 Ella was struck down with appendicitis and underwent surgery herself in Boulogne’s General Hospital. She was given three weeks sick leave to England (at half pay!) before returning to her unit. 10

Two years later, on October 31st, 1918, Ella was again admitted to hospital, this time in Rouen. She was diagnosed with measles complicated by bronco- pneumonia. These were the days before anti-biotics. On November 6th she was listed as dangerously ill and remained on the list for eighteen days. Upon recovery, she was sent to a hospital in the south of France to recuperate (likely once again at half pay). She returned to duty on January 9th, 1919. 11

The final blow for Ella was the Spanish Flu, one of the deadliest diseases in human history.

Spanish Flu attacked young adults and moved with grim speed. Victims’ lungs filled with bloody, frothy liquid and their faces turned blue as they drowned in their own fluids, often overnight. It killed 2.5% of those infected as opposed to roughly 0.1% of previous flu outbreaks. 12

The military provided an ideal incubator for Spanish Flu. The soldiers were in the age group that was particularly vulnerable and they lived in conditions conducive to its spread. Stressed, dirty, hungry, wet and cold, massed in camps, huddled in trenches and tents or jammed into troop trains and ships, soldiers were easy prey. 13 Ultimately they spread the disease to the doctors and nurses who cared for them

Ella was admitted to #4 Canadian General Hospital in Basingstoke, England with Spanish Flu on March 6th, 1919. She was hospitalized a full month but amazingly she survived. 14

Ella returned to Canada in August 1919 under the general demobilization of troops. 15 She married William Boyt, an American, and had one son. William died in in Florida in 1978 at age ninety- one. Ella died in 1985 in Vancouver at age ninety-three. 16




  1. Nicholoson, G.W.L. Canada’s Nursing Sisters. Canadian War Museum, 1975.
  2. Ibid
  3. Willett, Ella. Service File Accession 1992-93-166, Box 10376. Archives Canada
  4. Willett, Peggy. Personal Family Tree
  5. Willett, Ella. Service File Accession 1992-93-166, Box 10376. Archives Canada
  6. Ibid
  7. Nicholson, G.W.L. Canada’s Nursing Sisters. Canadian War Museum, 1975.
  8. Ibid
  9. Ibid
  10. Willett, Ella. Service File Accession 1992-93-166, Box 10376. Archives Canada
  11. Ibid
  12. Lorinc, John. “Peacetime Killer.” Canadas History, Oct. 2018
  13. Sharon Adams. “War and the Spnish Flu.” Legion: Canada’s Military History, Sept. 2018.
  14. Willett, Ella. Service File Accession 1992-93-166, Box 10376. Archives Canada
  15. Ibid
  16. Willett, Peggy. Personal Family Tree

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