MISSISSAUGA, ONTARIO: The author of a new book about nurses during World War I says his work is relevant for these unprecedented times as health care workers toil on the front lines.
Former Port Hawkesbury and River Bourgeois resident William Graham is the author of Canadian Nursing Sisters – The Forgotten Heroes, a story about 14 Canadian Nursing Sisters who drowned when the Llandovery Castle sank in 1918.
Aside from the fact that soldiers returning from World War I helped spread the Spanish Flu, Graham said the story of the nurses resounds today.
“It’s an appropriate story for the times right now because a lot of the nurses right now are working pretty long shifts and they’re running the risk of the disease,” Graham stated. “Where at that time, they were working in trenches where there were shells going off all around them, but they were still there bringing the bodies back.”
The Llandovery Castle was sailing at a speed of about 14 knots and about 114 miles south-west of Faster Rock on the night of June 27, 1918. The vessel just brought 644 wounded soldiers to Halifax and was on its return voyage to pick up more wounded patients in Europe, when it was torpedoed by a German U-Boat.
The torpedo struck the vessel’s engines, and a large portion of the ship was destroyed. Within 10 minutes, the H.M.S. Llandovery Castle started to sink.
A large section of the poop deck fell into the water creating a vortex which consumed the lifeboat holding all nursing sisters.
“The U-boats came to the surface then machine-gunned the ones in the boats,” Graham recalled. “The used the U-boat to ram the boats to try to sink them because they’re hope was there would be no survivors to tell the tale.”
The sinking of the Llandovery Castle was the deadliest Canadian naval disaster of the war and the way the nursing sisters lost their lives was used as a rallying cry for Canadian troops during the Battle of Amiens, one of the last great battles of the Great War. Victory posters went up across Canada and it served as a rallying point for men and women to enlist and for additional monetary and material support for the war during the last 100-day offensive.
Graham, who is also a former employee of the Heavy Water Plant in Point Tupper, pointed out that the Chief Medical Officer on the Llandovery Castle was Lt. Col. Thomas Howard MacDonald from Port Hawkesbury.
“His parents were doctors too, this was the turn-of-the-century,” Graham noted. “The doctor’s parents had a clinic in Port Hawkesbury… He started a clinic also which he left when he went overseas in 1914.”
MacDonald was born in Mulgrave to Annie Bridget (Condon) and Dr. Patrick Alexander, who established a family medical practice in Port Hawkesbury.
Howard graduated from St. Francis Xavier University in 1896 and completed his medical studies at New York Medical College in Valhalla, New York. In 1901, he returned to Nova Scotia and established a medical practice at Port Hawkesbury. Dr. MacDonald also enlisted with a local militia unit as its medical officer. He eventually made his services available to the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) and departed for England on December 30, 1915.
Dr. MacDonald was appointed Commanding Officer of HMHS Llandovery Castle’s CAMC staff on March 19, 1918. The assignment included a promotion to the rank of “temporary Lieutenant Colonel.”
For two months, he served aboard the vessel without incident. On June 17, the Llandovery Castle docked at Halifax and its 644 sick and wounded passengers were transferred to onshore facilities, while the vessel obtained fuel and supplies for the return journey. Three days later, the ship sailed out of Halifax harbour, making it the last time Dr. MacDonald would see his native province.
Lt. Col MacDonald and his CAMC comrades are among the individuals commemorated on a Commonwealth War Graves Commission memorial erected in Point Pleasant Park, Halifax in November 1967.
Not just about the boat’s sinking, the book also looks at the history of nursing in Canada, the origins of World War I, then details nursing during the war. There are also biographies of the 14 nursing victims of the Llandovery Castle’s sinking.
“They went over there, ended up in field hospitals, building field hospitals, cleaning up and some of them, right up at the front as stretcher-bearers, and they did this for four years,” Graham noted. “Right now, when you look at what nurses are doing in the hospitals, there’s quite a bit of comparison. It really did happen before, it happened during the war.”
A legionnaire, Graham said the Canadian war effort at the turn of the 20th century – training 27,000 soldiers, getting all the equipment and support mobilized in months – is an achievement that does not get the attention it deserves.
“Without Canada, I doubt that Britain would have won the war,” Graham added. “It’s history that really the kids should know growing up. They should have that in schools.”