Helen Kendall

Nursing Sister

1892 - 1982

Sepia photograph of Helen Kendall's passport photo. Helen is wearing her uniform and looking directly at the camera.

Born in Sydney in 1892, Helen was the daughter of Dr. Henry Ernest and Ida (Burchell) Kendall. Her youth was spent in Cape Breton, but she moved to Montreal to study surgical nursing at the prestigious Royal Victoria Hospital.

After her graduation in December 1916, Helen enlisted with the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) in Halifax and went to England, where she began her career as a nursing sister and anaesthetist in early 1917.

A Life In Photographs

Explore the photograph gallery below to learn more about Helen’s life and military service.

A Call to Care
Black and white photograph of five nursing sisters in uniform standing outside in front of a wall.

Nursing Staff of the Canadian Forestry Corps Hospital at Lajoux, Jura, France, 1918.

When thinking about the First World War, we often imagine the thousands of men who served in the military. One of the most important parts of the army was its medical service, made up of doctors (all male) but also nurses (called nursing sisters). These nursing sisters made significant contributions to the war effort, but their experiences are often overshadowed by those of the men.

At the outbreak of the war in August of 1914, there were only five nurses in the Canadian Army Nursing Corps, including their matron, Margaret Macdonald of Bailey’s Brook, Pictou County. By October, that number had increased, and the first group of 105 nursing sisters travelled overseas for service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).

Many more followed, and by the end of the war, 2,504 nursing sisters had served overseas, approximately 200 of whom were from Nova Scotia. Other women worked in military hospitals on the home front, and several joined (QAIMNS), the nursing corps of the British Army. Dozens of Canada’s nursing sisters came from communities across Cape Breton Island, including Helen Mary Kendall of Sydney.

A Life in the Midst of War
Image is a black and white photograph of personnel in an operating room of a military hospital in England. Several unoccupied patient beds and pieces of surgical equipment are visible. Several men and women are featured in hospital dress. Helen Kendall is pictured at far left. She is seated at the head of a patient bed in preparation to administer an anaesthetic.

Anaesthetist Helen Kendall (pictured at far left) in an operating room at the Ontario Military Hospital (No. 16 Canadian General Hospital) Orpington, England, 1917.

Helen served in a hospital at Orpington, England until September 1917, when she was posted to No. 2 Canadian General Hospital at Le Tréport on the French coast near Boulogne. She served in several other hospitals in various locations in France, including the Canadian Forestry Corps Hospital at Lajoux, where the men of No. 2 Canadian Construction Company (also known as Canada’s Black Battalion) were deployed.

In May 1918, Helen was posted to No. 7 Canadian General Hospital at Étaples and was there when it was attacked by German bombers on May 31st. She was awarded the Royal Red Cross (2nd Class) for her “exceptional act of bravery and devotion at her post of duty” during the air raid. Like many of her fellow nursing sisters and soldiers, she contracted the Spanish Flu later in 1918 but recovered quickly, and completed her war service in England in early 1919.

Women and the War
Image is a watercolour and pencil sketch showing a soldier suffering from an injury to his eyes. The sketch is by Katharine McLennan, created in 1917 at l’Hôpital d’Évacuation no. 18 in Vasseny, France where she served as a nurse's aide during the First World War.

Blessé des yeux, 1917. Katharine McLennan. Cape Breton Regional Library.

In the early 20th century, women did not have the same opportunities for work as men. This was especially true of the predominantly male medical profession, in which there was great resistance to the idea of women becoming doctors. One profession that was open to them, however, was nursing, and many women seized the opportunity to enter the field.

During the war, women from professional nursing programs were needed by the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) for service in military hospitals both at home and overseas. These women were known as nursing sisters, and 2,504 Canadian women served in this role. Others who lacked professional training volunteered as nursing assistants with various organizations, including the Voluntary Aid Detachment and the Red Cross. Women without the proper training requirements were not permitted to serve with the CAMC.

Sisters of Mercy
Image is a black and white aerial photograph of a military hospital in France. There are a large number of white tents and other buildings, with several service roads.

General view of No. 2 Canadian General Hospital, Le Tréport, France, ca. 1916-1917. Photographer: Éditions Arnault. Credit: Library and Archives Canada/Alice Isaacson/e007150651

The CAMC applied strict racial, religious, and educational criteria in their selection of nursing sisters. Most of these women were almost exclusively white, unmarried British subjects between the ages of 21-38 who were graduates of recognized training programs. They worked long hours, often in difficult circumstances, treating soldiers with injuries ranging from mild to horrific.

The work was also dangerous, and many Canadian nursing sisters died in or shortly after the war: 61 in total, eight of whom were from Nova Scotia. Those who died were casualties of air raids on military hospitals, drowning (from a German submarine attack on the Canadian hospital ship Llandovery Castle in 1918), and disease. Two Cape Breton nursing sisters – Margaret MacLeod of Donkin and Rebecca McIntosh of Pleasant Bay – fell victim to the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1919.

The Cape Breton Contingent
Sepia photograph of a First World War soldier and a nursing sister in uniform.

Nursing Sister Mary Belle MacNeill, ca. 1918.

Like Helen, several women from Cape Breton served overseas during the war and continued their careers in nursing (and other professions) in the years that followed. Garfield MacKay (1887-1963) of Baddeck travelled alongside Helen on a nursing mission to Romania in 1920. She also worked with renowned physicist Marie Curie in France, in public health nursing in New York City, and as the Librarian in Baddeck. Minerva Blanche Anderson (1889-1991) of Big Baddeck, also a graduate of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, served in England and France and later became Director of Nursing at the Sydney City Hospital.

Numerous other women from the Island served as nursing sisters, including Monica Connell of New Victoria, Frances Dodd of Bridgeport, Lillian Fife of Big Bras D’Or, Christina MacKenzie of Lower Middle River, Annie MacDonald of Sydney Mines, Hilda MacDonald of Glendyer, Sadie Ethel MacLean of Glace Bay, Katherine Maubourquette of L’Ardoise, Mary MacNeil of Port Hood, and Euphemia McKinnon of Whycocomagh, to name a few.

Help on the Home Front
Sepia photograph of four women working on a lifeboat in a large warehouse. Two women are in the background of the photograph inspecting a boat hung from the ceiling. The women are wearing work shirts, overalls, and matching wool hats.

Bell Boatyard, Alexander Graham Bell Laboratories, Beinn Bhreagh, 1917-1918. Photograph by Charles Martin, National Geographic Society. Women worked at the Beinn Bhreagh Boatyard during the war to build lifeboats for the navy.

In Cape Breton and across Canada, women made important contributions to the war effort. Moving beyond their work in the home, they organized various community initiatives, including auctions, milling frolics, knitting clubs, and more. Local branches of the National Council of Women and the Nova Scotia Red Cross Society actively fundraised and coordinated the production and collection of medical supplies.

Women prepared care packages, including woollen goods like socks and scarves for soldiers, and parcels of food for prisoners of war. This work provided much needed financial and material assistance to the conflict in Europe, and bolstered the spirits of those in the midst of war.

A Lifelong Dedication
Black and white photograph of a soldier and three nursing sisters in uniform, sitting outdoors on a stone wall in France.

Colonel Garnet Strong, Commanding Officer of the Canadian Forestry Corps, and Nursing Sisters at Lajoux, Jura, France, 1918. Helen Kendall is pictured third from the left.

Helen returned to Canada in October 1919, and was demobilized from duty the following month. She spent the remainder of her working life at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. Her nursing career provided her many interesting opportunities, including her participation in a nursing mission to Romania led by Dorothy Cotton in 1920, and her work under the direction of neurologist Dr. Wilder Penfield at the Montreal Neurological Institute and No. 1 Neurological Hospital in England during the Second World War.

Helen also served as sister-in-charge of No. 4 Canadian Casualty Clearing Station of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps in England. She returned home in 1942, and resumed her work at the Royal Victoria Hospital until her retirement. She died in Cape Breton in 1982, aged 90.

A Life, Illustrated

Experience Helen's story through illustrations of her life and work.

Helen Kendall is one of six young female nursing students sitting in class taking notes while listening to a lecture from an instructor. All women are wearing nursing uniforms. Windows of classroom show a snowy city cityscape.
Three student nurses, including Helen, are attending the three operating doctors, while their nurse instructor oversees their work. Their work is taking place in the operating theatre of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. There are thirteen men seated in a viewing gallery above, may taking notes.
Helen Kendall is pictured in her nursing uniform and graduation robe.  She is walking across the stage and accepting a diploma from a man in academic robes while a nursing instructor looks on.
Helen Kendall arrives in Orpington, England. Helen is in her nursing uniform, coat, and is carrying a duffel bag over her shoulders. She is leading a group of fellow nurses through the street which is rubble filled and lined with solders.
A busy hospital ward shows three soldiers with different bandages, each with a nurse tending to their needs. Helen Kendall is in the foreground assisting a soldier with a drink. Large windows who the exterior cityscape.
While stationed in St. Omer and later Étaples Helen Kendall underwent heaving bombing.  Two nurses surrounded by rubble and fire look distressed. Helen is in the foreground assisting another nurse injured in the rubble, while a third nurse in the background looks down through the rubble.
Helen Kendall is in her nursing uniform riding in the front passenger seat of a military truck. The driver is a young, tired looking soldier, and other soldiers in uniform and with backpacks are walking alongside the vehicle. Many soldiers are outlined walking in the distance.
Three nurses in uniform are working in a laboratory. Helen is in the middle and fills a vial with the contents of another nurse takes notes. The third nurse carries a tray of vials away from them. Large windows show a cityscape with the Eiffel Tower in the distance.
An older Helen Kendall is at the forefront wears bright hiking clothing, a backpack and holding a hiking stick. She is standing on a hillside overlooking a mountainous coastal view dotted with homes, and with three boats in the water.

“I was an anaesthetist. I put people to sleep.”

Helen’s family played a key role in her decision to volunteer for service in the war. Her father, Dr. Henry Ernest Kendall, and uncle, Dr. Arthur Samuel Kendall, were well-known and respected physicians, who introduced Helen to the medical profession from an early age.

Her father went to England and France with No. 9 Canadian Stationary Hospital sponsored by St. Francis Xavier University, and was appointed the unit’s commanding officer in January 1917.

Her brother, Ernest James (Jim) Kendall, who had emigrated to Australia, served in the Australian army.

Helen’s close friend, Katharine McLennan, volunteered as a nursing aid in France in 1916, and Katharine’s brother Hugh was one of Cape Breton’s first casualties of the war, killed in action at Ypres, Belgium in 1915.

Listen to Helen Kendall describe her experience during the war in an interview with Ronald Caplan for Cape Breton's Magazine, ca. 1980.

Listen to Helen Kendall | Read Helen Kendall's Audio Transcript

00:00 / x:xx

HK: Helen Kendall

I: Interviewer

HK: I hope that it’ll be worth listening to. I’m getting on. I’m 88 years old you know!

I: You were born and raised here in Cape Breton.

HK: In Sydney, oh absolutely. I’m a Sydney-ite, a Cape Bretoner, and I spent all my youthful life all around Cape Breton.

I: I want to know – why did you decide to train for a nurse? Why did you make that decision?

HK: Oh, I wanted to—I wanted to make some money, and be independent.

I: Do you remember why you chose to go over though?

HK: Oh, well, there was a great deal – the whole communities here, we were close to the war, and all our men went off… we were just going over where our men were. We wanted to go over there and to see them and to help them. I was an anesthetist. I put people to sleep. Because I had trained in Montreal. I belonged to the Royal Victoria Hospital, and they gave me my education there, and then I was very handy because, when you went overseas, there weren’t doctors available to give anesthetics. The doctors were too busy looking after them, and operating on them, and were very glad to have people giving anesthetics. And we were well trained, and we were valuable.

I: Now you graduated in 1916 – I see your class was 1916...

HK: Yeah.

I: So you must have gone right over when you graduated because you were in France in 1917 I see here.

HK: Oh yes, we were in among it. We were right on the water. We looked across to England. The Canadians and the British built hospitals in France and then we went over and worked in them. The people who were fighting then were brought right down to our hospital, and we used to look after them. But they were the devil to give anesthetics to. They could fight like thieves! They were strong, and they weren’t going to be put upon, and we used to have two or three orderlies holding on to our patients while we were giving them the anesthetics to get them asleep.

I: I think it’s very exciting the work that you did during the war...

HK: Oh well of course it was, and we were lucky, lucky people to have that experience.

“We Nearly Did Not Get Here.”

On March 7, 1917, Helen and a reinforcement draft of 50 other nursing sisters sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Liverpool, England aboard the S.S. Essequibo, a Canadian Pacific liner that served as a hospital ship during the war.

On March 15, at approximately 2:30 pm, the Essequibo was intercepted 100 nautical miles west of Ireland by U-54, a German submarine which surfaced and when the captain was satisfied that the ship was not

Carrying troops or munitions and was a legitimate hospital ship, he allowed it to continue on its way, much to the relief and surprise of the Canadians. It arrived safely at its destination the next day.

Listen to a Dramatization | Read Dramatization Audio Transcript

00:00 / x:xx

Well, we nearly did not get here – nearly, more nearly than I ever expect or hope to be again to departing this life. It was perfectly ghastly the whole affair. It happened on Thursday. Up to then we had had a good trip – racks on the table – some pretty sick – but most of us feeling all right.

The very day we struck the war zone, it happened to be perfectly calm, and up comes a German sub. I was asleep, but the slowing of the engines woke me. It was about 2.30 in the afternoon. Just after I woke Miss Cairns dashed down to my cabin and told me to “get up right off” which I did right off; put on everything warm I could get, and put a few things such as soap, tooth brush, powder, bed socks, and other necessities to take to the bottom of the sea with me into my leather case. It was quite the weirdest feeling looking hopelessly around and realising that it was useless to touch a thing, so up I came without my boots laced even and was just in time to see a good shot fall about 200 yards short of one side. After 3 signals we zigzagged stopped, and then they came up and stayed a good broadshot’s distance off. They hovered about for what seemed ages, and then said to send a boat over.

Our first officer rowed across and answered many questions, had he soldiers aboard? any civilians? Had we sent out any wireless for help? Had we seen a ship named Palasco? Having got “no” for every answer, they said we could go. We were close enough to hear their voices, and as the officers rowed back the suspense of waiting to hear our verdict was horrible.

The captain on our boat said, as did all the officers, that they did not for one minute think that we would be let off. They thought the captain and first engineer would be taken for hostages, and the rest of us put off in the boats and the ship sunk unless they just let us have one straight as we stood all on board. I think that is what most people expected every second.

After that she circled around us for a few times, and we thought they were changing their minds, but finally after an hour’s suspense left us. It was an experience and made us think all right. After that we had a day and a half but got along safely.

I forgot to mention that there was another sub, which appeared for a short time on the other side of us, when we were held up, but it did not bother us.

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