Nursing Sisters Healed the Wounds of War

My admiration is boundless when it comes to the wartime nursing sisters who bravely carried out their grim duties – so it was an honour to interview 98-year-old Jessie Middleton of Abbotsford, British Columbia.

I was especially keen to meet Jessie because my Wartime Wednesdays column has not paid enough attention to nurses – our Canadian women in uniform who were the next best thing to angels.

           History of Military Nursing

Military nursing in Canada began as early as the 1885 Northwest Rebellion. Our nurses followed the soldiers to the Boer War in South Africa, and then again to France in World War One.

When World War Two began, nursing sisters once again answered the call. This time, however, the nursing service was expanded to all three branches of the military: navy, army and air force.

Each branch had its own distinctive uniform and working dress, while all wore the traditional white veil. They were respectfully addressed as “Sister” or “Ma’am” because all were commissioned officers.

By war's end, 4,480 nursing sisters had enlisted, including 3,656 with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, 481 with the Royal Canadian Air Force Medical Branch, and 343 with the Royal Canadian Naval Medical Service.

You can read more about the nursing sisters of Canada by clicking here: Canadian Nursing Sisters.

           Jessie Lee's Family Background

When I was contacted a couple of months ago by Jessie’s granddaughter Amanda Morganton asking me to interview her grandmother, I jumped at the chance. At the age of 98, Jessie has recently moved into an assisted living facility. Since I was passing through Abbotsford, I interviewed Jessie in her new home.

(The following account is based on a personal interview, plus files from an article written by Warren Sommer for the Langley Times, dated November 7, 2013.)

I found Jessie Lee Middleton to be a gracious and elegant lady, with the dignified bearing that carried her through the horrors of war. You can see this quite clearly in her photograph at the top of this page.

Jessie Annie Lee was born on December 12, 1916 in Murrayville, B.C. – the twelfth and last child of farmer James Lee and his wife Edith Brown. When she was born, two of her older brothers were fighting the Germans in the trenches of France. She grew up in Murrayville and attended high school in nearby Langley, B.C.

Here’s the entire family -- what an attractive group! The “baby” of the family, Jessie, is in the back row, second from the left.

                Jessie Trains as a Nurse

In those days girls who wanted a career were told to become either a teacher or a nurse – fortunately, it wasn’t a difficult decision for Jessie, who had always wanted to nurse.

Her desire was fuelled by the death of her baby nephew George in 1924, a tragedy for the Lee family. So she enrolled in the Royal Columbian Hospital’s nursing program in New Westminster, B.C. This was a rigorous three-year program taught by “old school” doctors and nurses.

In her third and final year, the trainee nurses were needed to care for tuberculosis patients at the Tranquille Sanatorium in Kamloops, B.C. The nurses' residence is shown here in this old photograph.

Jessie remained in Kamloops for about three months and stayed over Christmas 1938. You can see the decorative woodwork of the sanatorium wall behind this group of Jessie’s classmates.

Eight months later, she graduated in September 1939 -- one day after Canada declared war on Germany again. The country was in a state of high anxiety as Canadians girded themselves for yet another war. This is Jessie's graduation photograph.

         Jessie Begins her Nursing Career

Although she wanted to join the army straightaway, she was only twenty-two years old at the time, and she had to wait until she was twenty-five. I asked her why other women were able to enlist at a younger age, but not nurses.

Jessie paused for a moment, and then answered : “Not to take any value away from the others, but we nurses had a great deal of responsibility.” I understood what she meant when she described her duties overseas.

She began her nursing career in the maternity ward at Vancouver General Hospital. Some of her patients were Japanese women, interred as enemy aliens in the old horse barns on the Pacific National Exhibition grounds, and brought into hospital to deliver their babies.

          Jessie Becomes Lieutenant Lee

Jessie was finally able to enlist in 1942. What a proud moment that was for her! This certificate says that J.A. Lee is now a Lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Army Nursing Corps.

Commissioned as Lieutenant Nursing Sister Lee, Jessie was first posted to a hospital in Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, where most of her cases were caused by training accidents or illnesses. “People got sick, you know, even in the army,” she said. Here's the The General Hospital in Nanaimo, now a historic site.

A few months later, she was posted to a military hospital in Prince Rupert, B.C. on the northern coast. The community did its best to protect itself against a feared Japanese invasion.

“There were high searchlights placed at the entrance to the harbor, and a net across the harbor to stop the submarines. When the ships came in, they turned off their propellers and drifted across it.”

Jessie spent six months there. “This was my first real experience of army nursing.” Here’s Jessie on the left with friends Mary Dowie and Queenie Rutherford.

             Jessie Posted Overseas

Like all the other Canadian women in uniform, Jessie longed to go overseas. She came home to Murrayville for a week’s leave, and although she hadn’t mentioned a word about where she was headed, her mother suspected that Jessie was leaving the country. “Mother smelled a rat!”

Jessie joined a continent of nurses being sent overseas in March 1943. She was mobilized at Camp Sarcee in Calgary, and here’s a photo taken just before she left Canada.

  Jessie Nurses Wounded Men in England

It was a long, arduous journey. Jessie took the troop train to Halifax. She got off the train and walked a few steps onto the waiting ship that bore them to Greenock, Scotland.

The Queen Elizabeth luxury liner was crammed to the gunwales with thousands of enlisted men. Due to the lack of space, the men spent twelve hours every day on deck, where it was cold and damp. Fog condensed on their woollen blankets, and pneumonia set in.

“Some of them never set foot on English soil – they were carried ashore on stretchers and sent straight back to Canada.” Jessie and the other nurses then travelled by train to Horley, south of London.

Jessie was assigned to the No. 7 Canadian General Hospital at Taplow, on the Astor estate, just west of London on the Thames River. There she saw terrible combat injuries for the first time.

“We had one patient – he was recuperated, he was healed – but his face had been burned. If you can imagine it, his eyes, nose, all those parts were gone. He had no ears. He went and hid the day the Queen came to visit our hospital.”

(The Queen’s visit was a highlight of her ten months at Taplow – Her Majesty visited the wards and had tea in the nurses’ residence.)

Shell shock was not uncommon. The frequent sound of the big Allied bombers leaving at sundown to bomb German targets, and returning early the next morning, was particularly upsetting for some patients. “Once they’d hear a plane overhead, they’d go berserk," Jessie said.

      Jessie Joins the Medical Corps in Italy

But Jessie’s skills were required even closer to the front. The Allies had taken Sicily the previous year, but had lost 562 Canadian soldiers during the fierce fighting. “The Canadian Army was going up the boot of Italy very, very quickly,” she said. Nurses and doctors were needed to treat the wounded.

In mid-summer, she left Liverpool in a convoy with a dozen other ships. “One morning we woke up in the Mediterranean Sea, and the convoy was gone.”

On July 31, 1944 she arrived in Avellino, a historic town on a plain northeast of Naples, and began to nurse the wounded in a field hospital. The hospital locations chosen were as safe as possible, although they had to be accessible from the front lines. The field medics stabilized the wounded soldiers on the battlefield, then sent them back to the hospital by ambulance.

“They would find us a building that would do for us, and then they’d find a better one a few miles up. They were extremely efficient. They needed a site that would accommodate 300 beds, for example, plus they assigned so many doctors and nurses and medics for each hospital.” One hospital, she recalls, was a big old Italian abbey. Here's a photo of Jessie in the dark shirt, and her friend, on the steps of a field hospital.

Her work led her north to Jesi, an ancient town near the Adriatic port of Ancona. The war was being waged just a few dozen miles to the north, and the effects were staggering. “Ancona was horrible – hardly a brick left on a brick. Sometimes it did get to you.”

She occasionally had leave, and was able to visit cities recaptured by the Allies, including Rome, Florence, and Pisa. She remembers having a picnic on top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, eating bully beef sandwiches!

“We would share our food packages from home with the Italian civilians. One thing they particularly loved was fish!” This photo from Jessie’s album shows her with a couple of Italian farmers.

  Jessie Transferred to Holland after D-Day

While the campaign in Italy wound down, Jessie and her fellow nurses were dispatched to northwest Europe, where the fighting was even fiercer. After the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, Canadian troops were battling their way through the Netherlands.

Assigned to a hospital in Nijmegen, Holland, Jessie was closer to the fighting than she had ever been. “The first few nights we heard the sound of battle all the time. They had an attack of gliders. We saw them in the fields where they landed. They were just targets, parachutes caught in the trees. The men were helpless. The Germans would just shoot them.”

As the battle raged, the parade of wounded seemed endless. “They came all night long. They would come up those stairs, clump, clump, clump, and to the beds.”

Sometimes German prisoners were treated along with the Canadians. There was a reciprocal agreement that the patients would be exchanged when they were well enough. “They were just patients, never an enemy," Jessie said.

“I remember one young German boy. I swear he must have been 15. He had an abdominal wound . . .  he was to have nothing by mouth. And you’d turn your back, and he’d somehow gotten a little something from someone else’s table. But he was a lovely little fellow, blonde, blue-eyed. He was mischievous. It was just a lark for him.”

For the most part, her daily duties were tragic and emotionally draining. “Every once in a while we would have one who was badly, badly wounded and was not going to survive. You just had to let them die. It was miraculous that their heart was still beating, but there was no way to lead them out of their misery. They’d just lie there till they died. You’d keep their mouths moist; there was nothing else you could do.”

Jessie paused again, clearly emotional.

“Some of them were so seriously wounded that they couldn’t be moved, and we became quite fond of them. They were only kids. The thing to me that hurt so much, was that they were so young.”

She repeated: “They were so young.”

                    Victory at Last!

Jessie remembers the day the long war ended. “We had either gone to a show or a party or something. We came out of that building and they were snake-dancing through the town. The lights were on! I thought they had to be crazy! What has happened? Of course, I couldn’t believe that peace had come. It seemed like it would never come.”

Jessie spent two months at Oldenburg, Germany, before sailing back to Canada that fall on the Rotterdam. She enrolled in the nursing program at McGill University and began dating Frederick Turner Middleton of Salmo, B.C., a veteran of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment. They had met during the war, and now it was time to get serious. The young couple became engaged.

The happy event took place on Boxing Day 1947, in Murrayville, B.C.

             Jessie's Life After the War

Jessie gave up nursing when she married, and became a devoted wife to Fred and mother to two children: Kathie Middleton McGillivray of Surrey, B.C.; and Bob Middleton of Creston, B.C.

Fred’s position as a school superintendent took them to several locations around the province, and then to Abbotsford in 1974.

Her daughter Kathleen Louise and husband Bruce McGillivray now live in Surrey, B.C. They have one daughter named Miracle. Jessie’s son Bob and his wife Anita Shirley Ross Middleton live in Creston, B.C. They have three children: James, Allan, and Amanda.

Jessie’s husband died in 1982. She lived in the same house for forty years, until she recently moved to a nearby nursing home. For many years she put her training to good use by volunteering with the Abbotsford Hospice Society.

Jessie lived in the same house until just a few months ago, when she moved into a nearby nursing home. For years she put her training to good use by volunteering with the Abbotsford Hospice Society.

On July 18, 2012, Jessie Lee Middleton was presented with the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for her service to her country.

Thank you so much, Jessie, for your kindness and compassion, and the personal sacrifices you made on behalf of our Canadian soldiers. God bless and keep you.

            MY FAVOURITE VETERANS

Jessie Middleton's wonderful story, along with twenty-seven other original articles from Wartime Wednesdays, are now available in printed book form.

To read more about the book, click: My Favourite Veterans: True Stories From World War Two's Hometown Heroes. To order a signed copy for $35.00 Canadian, email me at elinor1@telus.net or call me at 250-342-1621.

You may also purchase a copy from Amazon by clicking here: My Favourite Veterans: True Stories From World War Two's Hometown Heroes.

                            * * * * *

                STAR WEEKLY AT WAR

The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration with a wartime theme appeared on the cover each week.

Here’s an image showing a nursing sister with the face of an angel. To see my entire collection of Star Weekly covers, and I'm adding a new one almost every week, click: Star Weekly At War.

                My Trip to Whitehorse

What a blast it was to attend the RCAF Airwomen Reunion in Whitehorse, Yukon, in June 2016, and meet about 150 women who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force between the years of 1951 and 1968.

These feisty ladies travelled to Whitehorse from near and far (as far as Halifax), to reminisce about their days in the forces and remember their fellow airwomen who have passed on. Here’s a photo of the opening buffet dinner.

Since this is the closest I'll ever get to wearing a military uniform, I couldn't resist having my photograph taken with this cardboard cutout!

                        About My Novel

  • Bird’s Eye View is fact-based fiction about a young Canadian woman who serves as an aerial photo interpreter in World War Two. In 2016 it was named a Canadian bestseller by both The Globe & Mail, and The Toronto Star. It's available as a trade paperback through any bookstore, and also as an ebook. To order online from Amazon, click Bird's Eye View. It's also available from Amazon's U.S. and U.K. websites.

                    About My Website

  • All blog posts are indexed by subject and title on this page. Scroll to the top of this page to see the list, and enter your email address to subscribe to Wartime Wednesdays. If you enjoy it, please share through Facebook, Twitter, email or just an old-fashioned phone call!

                     About My Events

  • You can see a complete list of my upcoming events on my Events page by clicking the link at the top of this page. You can also see a list of discussion questions for Book Clubs by clicking: Events.

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During my research into Canada’s wartime past, I uncovered some fascinating facts and anecdotes. I’ll share them here and welcome feedback and stories of your own.

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