The story of the Llandovery Castle is one of reprieve turned tragedy – the deadliest Canadian naval disaster of World War I. However, its legacy and those of the 14 nursing sisters on board have now been largely forgotten in the pages of history. The implication of this disaster compels a resurfacing of the story and a commemoration of those whose lives were lost.
The hospital ship Llandovery Castle was requisitioned for use in the First World War and served a valiant purpose – transporting sick and wounded Canadian soldiers home from the battlefields of Europe. This purpose was proudly and clearly designated the ship’s regulation Red Cross lights and the large red cross painted on its hull. These markings served to offer the ship protection according to international law. At least they should have.
Five months before the end of WWI, the Llandovery Castle steamed out of Halifax harbour on its return voyage to Liverpool after having just transported 644 wounded soldiers back home to Canada. On board were the ship’s crew and members of the Canadian Army Medical Corps, including 14 nurses who were commissioned as lieutenants in the Canadian army. As some of Canada’s earliest career women, these nurses had tended to soldiers near the front lines at casualty clearing stations. They had firsthand experience with the ravages of war, working with strenuous responsibilities and in constant threat of air raids, and yet they continued to serve, now tending to soldiers on their journey back to Canada.
On that fateful night of 27 June 1918, a loud explosion and immediate extinguishing of all the ship lights gave way to the realization that the ship has been hit… and was rapidly sinking. The ship had been torpedoed by a German U-boat (U-86) under the belief that the ship was carrying troops and ammunition. The 14 nurses donned lifebelts and boarded lifeboat No. 5. However, unexpected difficulty in loosening the ropes left insufficient time for the lifeboat to reach a safe distance from the sinking ship. The lifeboat was dragged into the resulting whirlpool, taking all 14 nurses with it.
Sergeant Arthur Knight, the lone survivor of lifeboat No.5, recounted the demeanour of the nurses as they faced their almost certain demise:
“In that whole time I did not hear a complaint or murmur from one of the sisters. There was not a cry for help or any outward evidence of fear. In the entire time I overheard only one remark when the matron, Nursing Sister M.M. Fraser, turned to me as we drifted helplessly towards the stern of the ship and asked: ‘Sergeant, do you think there is any hope for us?’ I replied, ‘No,’ seeing myself our helplessness without oars and the sinking condition of the stern of the ship.
A few seconds later we were drawn into the whirlpool of the submerged afterdeck, and the last I saw of the nursing sisters was as they were thrown over the side of the boat.”
To add insult to injury, the captain of German U-boat U-86, 1st Lieutenant Helmut Patzig, likely realizing the consequence and magnitude of his error, turned the boat’s guns on the helpless survivors and opened fire to eliminate all witnesses and evidence. Only 24 of the 258 passengers ultimately survived.
The Canadian public was outraged upon hearing the news of the Llandovery Castle. The fate of the ship and nurses became a rallying cry for Canadian troops in the final months of the war, throughout the Hundred Days Offensive. Reports of the how the nursing sisters lost their lives and of their brave professionalism overseas raised a united call of support for the increased participation of women within Canadian society.
The sinking of the Llandovery Castle and the deaths of the passengers was also the subject of one of the first war crime trials in history, which took place in Leipzig. Patzig’s two subordinates were tried and found guilty of murder. Patzig, himself, fled Germany and avoided trial and sentencing.
The lives of the nurses are commemorated in the Halifax Memorial in Point Pleasant Park, which contains the names of all those who died during the sinking of the Llandovery Castle, including the 14 nursing sisters.
Additionally, a new Canadian opera was composed in remembrance of the 14 nurses who lost their lives in the tragedy. The Llandovery Castle, by composer Stephanie Martin and librettist Paul Ciufo, was first performed in Toronto in June 2018. A full production of The Llandovery Castle, staged by students at Wilfrid Laurier University, is available on YouTube. It can be accessed at the link below. While the story of the Llandovery Castle is one of reprieve turned tragedy, the legacy of the 14 nurses lives on in this opera and through other commemorative efforts – a reminder, lest we forget.
More information about the lost nursing sisters can be found by searching their names at www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance.
- Matron Margaret Marjory ‘Pearl’ Fraser, New Glasgow, NS / Moose Jaw SK
- Carola Josephine Douglas, Toronto, ON
- Alexina Dussault, St. Hyacinthe, QB
- Minnie Aenath Follette, Port Greville, NS
- Margaret Jane Fortescue, York Factory, MN
- Minnie Katherine Gallaher, Kingston, ON
- Jessie Mabel McDiarmid, Ashton, ON
- Mary Agnes McKenzie, Toronto, ON (Plaque in Calvin Presbyterian Church, Toronto)
- Christina Campbell, Victoria, BC (Plaque in Royal Jubliee Hospital)
- Rena ‘Bird’ McLean, Souris, P.E.I. (Exhibit and memorial in Souris)
- Mary Belle Sampson, Simcoe, ON (Plaque in Hamilton, ON)
- Gladys Irene Sare, Montreal QB (Plaque in Montreal General Hospital)
- Anna Irene Stamers, St. John, NB
- Jean Templeman, Ottawa, ON