Reference is made in each of the three books to the sinking of the HMHS “Llandovery Castle” off the coast of Ireland on the 27th June 1918. The majority of those on board the hospital ship perished and only twenty-four survived. Among those who died was the sister of Major Harry Frank SARE, 87th Battalion, Canadian Infantry, who is buried at Villers Station Cemetery, Villers-au-Bois. Gladys Irene Sare was one of fourteen nursing sisters who died in the tragedy.
Around 2,850 nurses enlisted as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the war, though that figure rises to just over 3,000 if we include Canadian nurses who chose to join the British Army directly. A total of forty-six lost their lives during the conflict, (some calculations put it slightly higher) and so the “Llandovery Castle” tragedy accounted for nearly a third of those deaths. Twenty-two died as a result of illness and one other was drowned in a totally separate incident. A further six were killed during the aerial bombing of hospitals near Etaples and at Doullens in May 1918 and one, Margaret Ann Low(e), is shown dying from gunshot wounds at Etaples during one such air raid. A total of nine Military Medals were awarded to Canadian nursing sisters during the war, mainly in connection with the above-mentioned air raids.
Those who died when the “Llandovery Castle” went down are commemorated on the Halifax Memorial, Nova Scotia, with one notable exception. On 14th October 1918 the body of Captain William James Enright, Canadian Army Medical Corps, was washed up on the French coast. He is now buried at Les Baraques Military Cemetery, Bleriot-Plage, near Calais. He was one of a handful of Canadian officers on board. Here in England, the Five Sisters Window in York Minster is dedicated to the memory of over 3,000 women across the British Empire who served and died during the Great War. The sixth panel in the window is dedicated to those who served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The Canadian Forces Medical School at Borden awards the Llandovery Castle Award each year to its most outstanding student.
The highest ranking casualty aboard the “Llandovery Castle” was Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Howard MacDonald of the Canadian Army Medical Corps. Originally from Nova Scotia, he had initially worked at Bearwood Convalescant Hospital, Wokingham, after enlisting there in April 1915. His younger brother, Captain Harry Condon MacDonald, who served with the Canadian Army Dental Corps, also happened to be on board the ship when it went down, but was one of those lucky enough to survive.
Among the fourteen nursing casualties who drowned on the “Llandovery Castle” was Matron Margaret Marjory Fraser. She was the youngest daughter of Mr. Duncan Cameron Fraser, a prominent lawyer, politician and late Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia. One of her brothers, Lieutenant James Gibson Laurier Fraser, died of wounds on the 4th March 1918 serving with the 16th Battalion, (Canadian Scottish) Canadian Infantry. He is buried at Bully-Grenay Communal Cemetery British Extension. Another of her brothers, Alistair, went on to become Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia between 1952 and 1958. Margaret and the thirteen other nurses who perished with her were also commemorated on a plaque at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in London.
Nursing Sister Rena Maude McLean, the daughter of a successful Canadian businessman and Conservative politician, was a nurse by profession and had been born on Prince Edward Island. She had graduated from Halifax Ladies College, Nova Scotia, in 1896 and had gone on to study nursing at Newport Hospital. Having completed her training in 1908, she went on to become senior nurse in charge of an operating theatre at a hospital in Massachusetts. She enlisted in the Canadian Army Medical Corps at the end of September 1914, leaving for England in November that year. Her first overseas posting was to Le Touquet in France where she served with No.2 Canadian Stationary Hospital. She also gained further valuable experience dealing with the many Canadian gas cases after the Germans had deployed chlorine gas at Ypres in April 1915.
Rena went on to work at No.12 British Stationary Hospital in Rouen before returning to England where she took up an appointment at the Duchess of Connaught’s Canadian Red Cross Hospital in Taplow, Berkshire. After briefly returning to Canada, she went on to serve in Salonika, after which she worked in Orpington in Kent and later aboard HMHS “Araguaya”. In March 1918 she was assigned to the “Llandovery Castle”. In her last letter home, written on the 16th June 1918, she wrote that over half of the ship’s casualties during the last return voyage to Halifax had been amputation cases and that she was intending to seek a transfer to France once she arrived back in England. She was awarded the Royal Red Cross for her work during the war and was affectionately known as ‘Bird’.
Another casualty was Nursing Sister Christina Campbell. She was born in Inverness-shire and was unmarried. She had enlisted in September 1915 at the age of 54.
The remaining Canadian nursing staff who perished on the “Llandovery Castle” are:
Carola Josephine Douglas; Alexina Dussault *; Minnie Asenath Follette *; Margaret Jane Fortescue; Minnie Katherine Gallaher; Jessie Mabel McDiarmid; Mary Agnes McKenzie; Mae Bella Sampson *; Anna Irene Stammers and Jean Templeton. (Those marked with an asterisk had sailed together from Canada to England aboard HMT “Franconia” in 1914 and would probably therefore have known each other quite well. Margaret Fraser and Rena McLean had also been part of the same contingent) Minnie Gallaher’s sister, Maud, a professional nurse, also served, but survived the war and had enlisted at the age of 44.
As mentioned already, all those whose bodies were never recovered from the “Llandovery Castle” tragedy are commemorated on the Halifax Memorial in Nova Scotia. The memorial bears just over 3,100 names of Canadian servicemen and women who lost their lives at sea during both world wars, including merchant seamen and those who died whilst stationed in Canada. There are 274 casualties from the Great War and 2,847 from the Second World War.
The captain of the German U-Boat, U-86, who was responsible for sinking HMHS “Llandovery Castle”, was indicted, but never prosecuted for the outrage, which was justly condemned right across the world. After the war, Captain Patzig returned to his native city, Danzig, which lay outside the jurisdiction of the German courts. The two officers who acted under his orders were tried, found guilty and sentenced to 4 years imprisonment, which was later overturned on appeal. After the ship had been torpedoed, Patzig had deliberately chosen to ram several of the life boats containing survivors, but had then ordered a machine gun be turned on them. Although he had every right to board the hospital ship to check whether it was carrying war material, such as ammunition, his actions in sinking the ship, which was clearly displaying Red Cross markings, was completely unlawful under international rules of engagement. After the event, Patzig had sought to cover up the incident by falsifying his vessel’s log. The machine-gunning of survivors was seen as a desperate attempt to avoid leaving behind any witnesses. The sinking of the “Llandovery Castle” became a rallying cause for men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the months that followed.