“Canadian Hospital Ship Sunk by German Submarine Off the Irish Coast—Many Nurses and Doctors Missing” read the headline of the July 1, 1918, edition of the Vernon News. The event was one of the most controversial during the Great War, since attacking a hospital ship was against international law as well as the orders of the German navy. The sinking also brought the war home to the citizens of Vernon, since among the hundreds who died from the attack were two former nurses of the Vernon Jubilee Hospital, Margaret Marjory Fraser and Minnie Katherine Gallaher.
On June 27, 1918, The Llandovery Castle was on its way back to England after bringing about 600 Canadian casualties to recover in Halifax. The crew consisted of one hundred and sixty-four men, eighty officers and men of the Canadian Medical Corps, and fourteen nurses, a total of two hundred and fifty-eight people. Special lighting illuminated the ship’s four Red Crosses as she traveled across blackened waters.
Somewhere off the coast of Ireland, around 9:00 PM, the ship was torpedoed by the German submarine U-86. A first-hand account of the sinking was provided by officer Leslie Chapman, who described the horrors of being trapped on a sinking ship: “I found myself blown out of my bunk and landed on the floor of my cabin. On my rude awakening I did not grasp what had happened until a brother officer came running off the bridge, and said we had been torpedoed. The vessel commenced sinking by the stern quickly and the Captain gave the order to abandon ship, and send an SOS on the wireless. This was not possible, because the apparatus had been smashed by the explosion.”
It only took ten minutes for the Llandovery Castle to sink. Many of the nurses had been asleep at the time the boat was struck, but they managed to get into a lifeboat with Sergeant Arthur Knight; tragically, suction from the sinking ship pulled the lifeboat under and all of the fourteen nurses drowned. Knight struggled through the chilling water and was pulled aboard another lifeboat. Only 24 people survived the attack.
Margaret Marjory Fraser was born on the March 20, 1885, to Duncan Cameron Fraser and Bessie Grant. Margaret worked as head nurse at the Vernon Jubilee Hospital, alongside Matron Minnie Katherine Gallaher. She enlisted in the Canadian Army Medical Corps in September of 1914. Before being appointed Matron of the Llandovery Castle, Margaret served as a nurse on the front lines in France. Many of her patients were wounded German soldiers, and she was often one of the first to offer their parched lips a drink of water. She was known for writing down the dying words of German officers and soldiers, and transmitting them to their families through the channels of the Red Cross. Three months after her brother James was killed in action in France, Margaret would board the Llandovery Castle in Halifax for the last time.
Both Margaret and Minnie are immortalized in the Halifax Memorial erected in Point Pleasant Park as a reminder of all the men and women who died at sea.
We will remember them.
Postcard of the Llandovery Castle
Matron Margaret Marjory “Pearl” Fraser (Credit: FWW Veterans of Guysborough County)
Minnie Katherine Gallaher