(Jessie Mabel McDiarmid of Ashton, Ontario, a Canadian Army Medical Corps Nursing Sister drowned on the Llandovery Castle Hospital Ship on June 27, 1918. The sinking of the HMHS Llandovery Castle was the deadliest Canadian naval disaster during the First World War.)
Born on August 14, 1880 at Ashton, Ontario, Mabel McDiarmid’s parentage is in some doubt, but she was raised as the daughter of Peter H. McDiarmid (1818-1892) and Jane B. Brady (1821-1910) of Beckwith Township. When Jessie ‘Mabel’ enlisted on September 16, 1915 in London, Ontario, she indicated that her next of kin was John McDiarmid, whom it is believed was her brother, as her father had passed away. Jessie ‘Mabel’ also had a twin sister, Bertha who passed away in 1902.
She received her primary and secondary education at Ashton and Carleton Place and was a graduate of the Royal Jubilee Nursing School, Victoria, British Columbia.
McDiarmid worked as a nurse in the United States for a number of years and was living at San Francisco when WW1 broke out in 1914. She returned to Canada and enlisted as a Nursing Sister with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), attached No.5 General Hospital, a medical team organized that summer at Victoria. She was formally attested as a member of the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) at London, England, when No.5 Hospital reached the UK in September.
After a temporary assignment to the Red Cross Hospital at Taplow, Buckinghamshire, in December 1915 McDiarmid and #5 Hospital travelled via Cairo, Egypt, to Salonika, Greece. There, in extremes of heat and cold, they established a 1,240-bed field hospital treating casualties from the ill-fated allied defence of Serbia. In September 1917 the hospital was transferred back to England and re-established at Liverpool.
On October 25, 1917 Nursing Sister J. M. McDiarmid was mentioned in dispatches by Lieutenant General G. F. Milne, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army at Salonika, for “gallant and distinguished service in the field”, in recognition of her work under the brutally difficult conditions at Salonika.
In early June 1918, Lt. McDiarmid was assigned to the nursing contingent aboard the 622-bed hospital ship HMHS Llandovery Castle, (one of five Canadian hospital ships in the First World War) carrying CEF wounded back to Canada. As the ship was returning to England from Halifax on June 27, 1918 – although it was flying Red Cross flags and was fully lit as dictated by protocol – the vessel was torpedoed by German submarine U-86, at approximately 114 miles south-west of the Fastnet Rock (off the coast of Ireland).
More than 150 of those aboard managed to launch life rafts. The U-boat Commander, 1st Lieutenant Helmut Patzig, interrogated the survivors believing the Llandovery Castle was carrying American airmen and ammunition. When Patzig realized that he had committed what amounted to a war crime, he ordered his men to ram and sink the lifeboats and machine gun the survivors in an effort to eliminate all witnesses to his attack on an unarmed hospital ship.
Of the 234 crew and medical personnel that included 14 nursing sisters aboard the Llandovery Castle, only 24 survived – including 18 crewmen and six Canadians – who were later rescued by the destroyer HMS Lysander. The other lifeboats were either sucked under the ship as it went down or targeted by the U-boat. Nursing Sister Jessie ‘Mabel’ McDiarmid was among those killed in the lifeboats.
McDiarmid’s body was not recovered. She is memorialized on the Halifax Memorial to those who died at sea during the conflict. There are also memorial plaques to the 13 nurses who died at Stradacona Hospital, Halifax, and at Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in London, England. Jessie Mabel McDiarmid is also remembered on the Beckwith Township War Memorial and is mentioned on a family stone at Dewar Cemetery, Beckwith Township. An entry for Jessie ‘Mabel’ also appears on Page 455 in the Book of Remembrance Memorials in the Memorial Chamber at the Peace Tower in Centre Block. This particular page is always displayed on September 28th of each year.
The HALIFAX MEMORIAL in Nova Scotia’s capital, erected in Point Pleasant Park, is one of the few tangible reminders of those who died at sea. This Memorial was erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and was unveiled in November 1967. The monument is a great granite Cross of Sacrifice over 12 metres high, clearly visible to all ships approaching Halifax. The cross is mounted on a large podium bearing 23 bronze panels upon which are inscribed the names of over 3,000 Canadian men and women who were buried at sea. The dedicatory inscription, in French and English, reads as follows:
IN THE HONOUR OF
THE MEN AND WOMEN
OF THE NAVY
ARMY AND MERCHANT NAVY
ARE INSCRIBED HERE
THEIR GRAVES ARE UNKNOWN
BUT THEIR MEMORY
The strongest reaction to the loss of the Llandovery Castle was in Canada. The government even used this tragedy for propaganda purposes, particularly to promote the sale of war bonds. Also known as “victory bonds”, these bonds were a way for governments to borrow money from their citizens, usually by appealing to their desire to help win the war. These loans were repaid with interest after a set period of time. Sarah Holla, Collections Officer, at the Goulbourn Museum said, “the tragedy of the attack on the Llandovery Castle inspired art in the form of propaganda posters”.
There is no doubt that the challenges of military nursing shaped a generation of nurses who were independent and less submissive to authority. After the war, reports of the brave professionalism of the nursing sisters overseas were used to support calls for the increased participation of women in Canadian society.
You can read more about Jessie ‘Mabel’ McDiarmid on the Library and Archives website at this link: https://central.bac-lac.gc.ca/.item/?op=pdf&app=CEF&id=B6689-S018.