Blanche-Olive Lavallée

The Great War of Blanche-Olive Lavallée

The work of nurses in Canadian military hospitals at the time of the Spanish flu

Véronique Dupuis, Université du Québec à Rimouski

France, spring 1918. The explosions, the fighting and the horror have been going on for four years. Thousands of soldiers are dead, but even more return home maimed and will be left with severe injuries from that interminable war, which was supposed to last only a few months. In the trenches, the deplorable living conditions sap morale and make proper sanitation difficult. This is the situation when, in April 1918, a new player enters the great battlefield that Europe has become. The intruder quickly paves the way for a scourge that will transcend borders and decimate communities in the months to come. The Spanish flu claims victims in the Allied and enemy camps alike, not to mention the havoc it wreaks in the civilian population. While the troops at the front are battling this new adversary, the people behind the lines are inevitably experiencing its aftereffects. Already overwhelmed by the incessant influx of wounded soldiers arriving in droves, the military hospitals now have to care for men suffering from a virulent, aggressive disease. Overworked for months, the medical corps has to adjust once again and try to do whatever it can for people who are already weakened, battered and stressed by four years of fighting. Inevitably, some of the nurses and physicians also contract the illness. A century later, what space in our collective memory is reserved for the work of those medical professionals who had to deal with the Spanish flu in war-torn Europe, where, at one point, the epidemic was taking a higher toll than the artillery?

Lieutenant Blanche Lavallée departing for the Front, 1915. BAC, R112-5687-1-E, vol. 217.

The war is over!

November 11, 1918: “The war is ended official announcement says armistice signed at 5 am and hostilities will cease at 11 am.[1]

With the announcement of the Armistice in November 1918, the guns fell silent. Yet, even though it was a time for celebration following this declaration, the sense of relief was not universal. Since the spring, the Spanish flu had claimed 210,000 lives in France alone.[2] Civilians and soldiers alike were stricken by the disease, which spread like wildfire. The first wave of cases was reported between April and late June. The outbreak appears to have started between April 10 and 20 in the trenches near Villers-sur-Coudun,[3] where the soldiers were living in extremely difficult conditions. Since close quarters make it easier for the virus to spread, it is no surprise that this was a perfect breeding ground. The disease established footholds in trench after trench, then worked its way back behind the lines, and finally swept through hospitals, public buildings and private homes. No one was spared, not the Allies or the enemy. Affected by the higher summer temperatures, the virus began losing momentum. Nevertheless, the lightning speed at which it spread in the initial few months was just a foretaste of the second wave to come.

Between September and November 1918, a new outbreak was reported, further hampering the troops. This phase was so lethal and explosive that it caused critical situations for the armies. In France, it was reported in the weekly municipal statistics bulletin that a total of 2,000 French soldiers had died by the end of September.[4] Since the French were living in the same environment as thousands of Canadians, it is likely that Canadian troops were also affected. While concern was growing, soldiers on the front lines were quickly becoming infected. In the trenches, the combined effects of the virus and the shelling escalated the carnage. It is hardly surprising that the disease spread so quickly there. Among the contributing factors were the close quarters, the mud, the dirty water, the squalor, the decomposing bodies lying all around, the vermin, the movement of combatants, and soldiers on leave departing from the front. Exacerbating the situation were malnutrition, fatigue and the soldiers’ precarious mental state. This is an excellent recipe for explosive transmission of the disease. From the outset, the Spanish flu was killing three times as many soldiers as civilians. What was to be done with that multitude of soldiers who had to be treated and quarantined? Were the medical authorities ready for the situation? Should infected soldiers be taken to hospitals behind the lines or treated in medical facilities near the combat zone? Was moving them away from the front likely to be even more harmful to them than the flu itself?

Blanche-Olive Lavallée, Saint-Cloud, France.: Collection privée de Mme Françoise Trudeau

The war had been raging for four years, filling beds in military hospitals with large numbers of wounded and dying men. From the beginning, the medical corpsmen had to adjust quickly to new types of wounds that many of them had never seen before. Severe facial injuries, amputations, surgery without anaesthesia, and shell shock became part of the daily routine for the doctors and nurses. While combatants and their superiors were affected by the virus’s surprise attack and the resulting chaos, medical personnel were rocked by a storm. In this interminable, deafening cacophony, nurses caring for soldiers found themselves on the front lines of a different, though just as deadly, kind of war.

The case of Blanche-Olive Lavallée

Blanche-Olive Lavallée was of French-Canadian descent. Two months after finishing her nursing program at Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal in the spring of 1915, she enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force to serve in Europe. Since Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal was a francophone institution, the Canadian army did not recruit students there. Blanche-Olive went to the General Hospital to volunteer, and at the age of 23, in the company of some 30 other nurses, she left Canada aboard the SS Metagama on May 6, 1915.[5] There were only two French-Canadians in the group. Soon after Blanche-Olive arrived in England, she was recruited by Dr. Arthur Migneault to oversee the installation of Stationary Hospital No. 4, which later became General Hospital No. 8, based in the Saint-Cloud racetrack on the outskirts of Paris.[6] Over the years, the facility treated many poilus[7] and became one of the busiest Canadian hospitals. Once the French-Canadian hospital was up and running, Blanche-Olive was put in charge of the operating room.[8] She assisted the doctors in every surgery and made sure that the unit in general ran smoothly. Her work was far from easy, and she had to deal with the most horrendous injuries. Yet, in the many letters she wrote to her mother, she never once described her work environment.

Portrait of Blanche Lavallée by R.G. Mathews St-Cloud, 26 June 1916. BAC, 1992-444-1.

Blanche-Olive’s case is similar to those of the 2,845 other nurses who served in the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC).[9] While living conditions were miserable for the soldiers at the front, they were not much better for the nurses. Because of the heavy flow of wounded men from the combat zones, they were run off their feet. They regularly worked more than 24 hours at a stretch, which did not leave much time for rest. They were housed in rudimentary tents with no amenities and, because of the constant din of artillery, they probably managed to snatch only a few hours of fitful sleep. In fact, by early 1918, these essential personnel were starting to flag. As a result of the stress caused by the workload and the appalling work environment, many of them fell prey to physical and mental exhaustion.[10] That is what happened to Blanche-Olive. The entry in her medical record for April 6, 1917, indicates that she had contracted typhoid fever. Later, there was the following note, dated December 4, 1917:

Sister states she has constant pain in region of appendix. Has had three attacks of appendicitis each commencing with vomiting and increase temperature, constant frontal headaches, tires easily, poor appetite, constipation alternating with diarrhea. M.C.S. shows Sister reported Nov. 23, 1917, suffering from symptoms of chronic appendicitis, anemia and general debility.[11]

Through overwork, the women who were normally expected to provide care to young soldiers, for whom they were often the last hope and comfort, sometimes became just as vulnerable, possibly even unable to perform their duties.

In addition to the severe wounds that they had to deal with, they were now exposed to the new danger of the Spanish flu. Like her fellow nurses, Blanche-Olive had learned to manage epidemics in her training program. When they arrived in Europe, they were already well versed in the subject. As a result, treating soldiers suffering from tuberculosis or dysentery was just part of the routine. The problem that the Spanish flu presented was its severity and the rapidity with which it spread. Combined with the thousands of wounded soldiers and the difficult working conditions, this factor made it extremely challenging for them to carry out their duties. To make matters worse, the already exhausted nurses were exposed to the highly contagious virus. It is not surprising that many of them were infected. In the First World War, 39 Canadian nurses died from disease, including 18 from influenza, pneumonia and bronchitis.[12] However, according to Dianne Dodd, in filling out medical records, military authorities made no distinction between the so-called ordinary flu and the Spanish flu. Nor was any association made with pneumonia and bronchitis, common complications of the Spanish flu. In other words, when a nurse was hospitalized or died because of the flu, there was no indication in the medical record that it was specifically because of Spanish flu.[13] But when we look at the symptoms listed in those records and the symptoms presented by the soldiers, it seems clear that there were more cases of Spanish flu among medical personnel than the records suggest.

Medical file of Blanche-Olive Lavallée. BAC, RG 150, 1992-93/166, boîte 5437 – 52.

In the spring of 1918, Blanche-Olive was hospitalized and later sent back to Canada from England aboard the HMHS Braemar Castle.[14] The medical record is unequivocal: pneumonia, bronchitis, influenza and acute appendicitis.[15] This is also corroborated by family accounts.[16] So Blanche-Olive arrived in Canada carrying the virus she had caught from combatants. How many other nurses and soldiers became unwitting carriers of the epidemic in the same way? Troop movements and repatriations certainly led to the disease’s emergence in various parts of the world, which turned it into a pandemic.

Despite rumours that the war would soon end, increasing numbers of soldiers at the front were catching the virus. While Blanche-Olive was receiving treatment in Canada, the man she loved, officer Georges-Alexandre-Henri Trudeau, who served in the Royal Flying Corps, was also infected. Henri’s case was similar to that of hundreds of other Canadian soldiers. The only good luck that Blanche-Olive and Henri had in this story is that they both survived the Spanish flu, unlike many of their less fortunate colleagues. Later, France awarded Blanche-Olive the Épidémies silver medal for her service and dedication during the epidemic. The other French-Canadian nurse who arrived on the SS Metagama, Évelyne Héon, also received the same decoration. This is an exceptional honour, since only 58 such medals were awarded to Canadians.

Medical file of Blanche-Olive Lavallée. BAC, RG 150, 1992- 93/166, boîte 5437 – 52.

In all, 25 Canadian stationary and general hospitals were in operation between 1914 and 1918. They were located in France, Great Britain, Egypt and Salonika.[17] All the nurses who served in them had to cope with the atrocities of war and care for soldiers who they knew were facing certain death or a return to the front. The addition of the Spanish flu to this already deadly mix merely exacerbated the general anxiety and the chaotic state of medical and military logistics. Were the hospitals ready for so many patients? As early as the first few months of the conflict, more beds had to be brought in because the flow of patients was so heavy and, above all, unexpected. In the last couple of years, at the height of the epidemic, the hospitals were desperately short of everything, and medical reinforcements were needed to relieve the exhausted nurses.

Were Canadian medical personnel prepared for the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918? While the nurses had to deal with a number of epidemic scenarios during their training, it is highly unlikely that any of them was ready for an outbreak of this scale and virulence. After toiling for four years in health- and life-threatening conditions, the nurses were facing a new crisis. Those “bluebirds,” who served as a buffer between the wounded and the front, were now fighting the same battle as the soldiers and the civilian population. In that Great War, no one was safe from death, artillery fire, gas, disease, extreme living conditions, fear and anxiety. For the nurses and other medical personnel, the Spanish flu was probably the ultimate fight in a world battered by years of bloody conflict.


[1] Telegram from London on November 11, 1918, announcing world peace, Fonds Séminaire de Rimouski, Correspondances 1904-1926, Box 1 A 017 01-06-003B-01, BAnQ Rimouski, November 1911.

[2] Pierre Darmon, “Une tragédie dans la tragédie : la grippe espagnole en France (avril 1918-avril 1919)”, Annales de démographie historique, no. 2, 2000, p. 152.

[3] Darmon, “Une tragédie dans la tragédie”, p. 152.

[4] Darmon, “Une tragédie dans la tragédie”, p. 157.

[5] Productions PVP, “Blanche et Henri : l’amour en temps de guerre”, Le Canada en amour, Episode 2, Ciné-Fête, 2006, 30 minutes.

[6]Michel Litalien, Dans la tourmente. Deux hôpitaux militaires canadiens-français dans la France en guerre (1915-1919), Outremont, Éditions Athéna, military history collection, 2003, p. 49.

[7] In the First World War, French soldiers were nicknamed “poilus.” 

[8] Productions PVP, “Blanche et Henri”.

[9] Dianne Dodd, “Canadian Military Nurse Deaths in the First World War”, CBMH/BCHM, 2017, p. 329.

[10] Litalien, Dans la tourmente, p. 89.

[11] Library and Archives Canada (LAC), Military and medical records of Blanche-Olive Lavallée, RG 150, Accrual 1992-93/166, Box 5437 – 52.

[12] Dodd, “Canadian Military Nurse”, p. 332-337.

[13] Dodd, “Canadian Military Nurse”, p. 348.

[14] Military and medical records of Blanche-Olive Lavallée, Library and Archives Canada.

[15] LAC, Military and medical records of Blanche-Olive Lavallée.

[16] Véronique Dupuis, Interview with Françoise Trudeau, daughter of Blanche-Olive Lavallée, Québec City, April 18, 2015, 123 minutes.

[17] Michel Litalien, Dans la tourmente, p. 139.