This blog was produced in collaboration with the students and Christine Ritsma of Stratford Northwestern Secondary School, and the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies.
By Taylor Hodgson, Julia Rose and Bella Rogers
Nursing Sisters of the First World War were crucial, as they provided care and even saved the lives of many sick and wounded soldiers. These dedicated women did what most others would not and braved the hardships of war to care for their patients. They provided both comfort and treatment for not only battlefield casualties but also individuals with infectious and deadly disease.
Born on 25 August 1894 in Palmerston, Ontario, Pauline Essery grew up in a family of fix siblings and strong religious conviction. She eventually became a house surgeon at Guelph General Hospital, but soon after the First World War began, she enlisted as a Nursing Sister with the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) at the age of thirty five. Essery remained a nursing sister with the CAMC for over three years being discharged in December 1919. She cared for and saved the lives of soldiers who fought in the following battles: Vimy Ridge, the Somme, Passchendaele and the Battle of Cambrai.
After the war, in 1921, Essery married a man she had spent much time with during the war. He was seven years her elder and was a frontline soldier who had become injured. He was afterwards put into the care of the CAMC––and specifically Essery. After their marriage, they moved to 377 Wellington St., London, ON, and their son was born in 1922. A year later, they moved to 417 Dundas St., where Essery’s husband became unemployed and put the family heavily into debt. Tension mounted between the couple until they divorced in 1928 and Essery was given custody of their son. They moved to 156 Victoria St. London and lived there until 1931, when they moved for the last time to 328 Runnymede Rd. in Toronto. Following the separation, Essery’s husband moved to Ottawa and found work as an accountant with the Canadian Census Department earning $75 per month without paying any form of child support.
During the war, Essery developed influenza and carried the disease for a year with part of the time being on bed rest from exhaustion. After the war, Essery continued to experience fatigue and exhaustion, but she also picked up symptoms of nervous illness. Twitching, irritation, parenthesis of the skin, and the left side of her face was often drooping were all her reported in her medical examinations. She eventually received a thyroidectomy operation consisting of an incision in the neck and removal of the tissue. Following the operation, Essery became even more stressed and gained just over forty pounds.
Essery had applied for a disability pension in 1926 and received about $6 per month. Following the war, she became a housekeeper and earned $35 per month while her son contributed an additional $20 per month working around school. Pauline and her son had a combined income of $59.50 per month, while her husband earned almost $20 more a month and ignored her after the divorce.
Clearly Essery’s life was full of complications and sadness. She volunteered to serve her country in a war which most of her female counterparts would have done only in the safety of their homes surrounded by family. Even when she returned to Canada, her life did not return to any sense of normal and she was the sole provider for her only son. Essey died in 1991 at the age of 97 and is buried in a family plot at Palmerston Cemetery.
To view Pauline Essery’s military service record at Library and Archives Canada, Click Here.