First World War Nursing Sister Laura Gamble: ‘Tender hands, buoyant spirit’

Article / November 5, 2019 / Project number: 19-0213

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By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs

Ottawa, Ontario — When Canada remembers the First World War, Western Europe looms large: Vimy, Passchendaele, Flanders. However, Canadians made equally significant, if lesser-known, contributions in the Mediterranean region.

Canada had no combat troops there but, in places like Greece, Malta and parts of Africa, Canadians served with great distinction in medical roles.

Among them was Laura Gamble, one of more than 3,000 Nursing Sisters who served with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps during the war. The vast majority of those – more than 2,500 – would do so overseas.

Born in Wakefield, Quebec in 1887, Ms. Gamble graduated from the Toronto General Hospital School of Nursing in 1910 and enlisted in 1915. On October 18 of that year, she departed England for the Greek isle of Lemnos on the Royal Mail Ship (R.M.S.) Kildonan Castle.

Lemnos was a major centre of the Allies’ efforts against the Ottoman Empire. It would be the launching point for the Battle of Gallipoli, an ill-fated Allied campaign to capture the Dardanelles Straits. This would allow them to link up with Russian forces on the Black Sea to oppose Turkey.

Nurses in the Mediterranean dealt with the same heavy workloads as those elsewhere but with the added complications of extreme weather – both hot and cold – and disease outbreaks.

Colonel G.W.L. Nicholson, the late Deputy Director of the Historical Section at Army Headquarters in Ottawa, later wrote: “It was characteristic of the element of unpreparedness associated with so much of the Gallipoli campaign that no sanitary provisions had been made for the Canadian units before they arrived. Each hospital depended for its water on a single cart, which daily brought in from a considerable distance a very limited supply. For the first two months on the island, until engineers sank wells locally, the meagre ration of water for washing was one quart a day … Food was scarce, and of poor quality, often impossible for sick patients to eat.”

The Gallipoli campaign, which lasted from February 1915 to January 1916, began with a failed attack by British and French naval forces. A subsequent land invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula that began in April proved to be equally unsuccessful and, by the time of Ms. Gamble’s arrival, the Allies (including troops from Australia and New Zealand) had suffered heavy losses.

An Allied evacuation would begin in December 1915. In her journals, which are part of the Library and Archives Canada collection, Ms. Gamble wrote that at Lemnos, “We surely saw active service at its worst.”

Ms. Gamble would next serve near the Greek coastal city of Thessaloniki, part of the Macedonian Front, on which the Allies fought to aid Serbia against the combined forces of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s First World War histories note that the military presence at Thessaloniki, which included troops from India, Indo-China, and Africa “was perhaps the most diverse of the First World War.”

Ms. Gamble would later be recalled to Canada to serve as Matron of St. Andrew’s Military Hospital in Toronto. Her distinguished career path in Canada would include being among the first group of nurses to take a then-new public health course at the University of Toronto. She would then join the Toronto Department of Public Health, earning the title of Acting District Superintendent.

Following her death in 1939, Reverend Chaplain Sidney Lambert of the Christie Street Hospital in Toronto wrote to Ms. Gamble’s parents in Ottawa on behalf of himself and his wife, who’d served with her.

 The letter is part of Library and Archives Canada’s collection and in it, he writes: “I know many ex-service men who were cared for by her tender hands and comforted by her buoyant and loving spirit of service … She was a wonderful nurse with great talents and an ability to lead and inspire others to which so many could testify.”

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