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Thursday, 31 May 2018

Lieutenant Charlotte "Lottie" Urquhart—A Military Medal Nursing Sister's Story

Date of Birth: March 27, 1888

Place of Birth: Mountville, Pictou County

Mother: Catherine Ellen Robertson

Father: John Urquhart

Occupation: Professional Nurse

Marital Status: Single

Enlistment: January 16, 1916 at Montreal, QC

Regimental #: None [Nursing Sister]

Rank: Lieutenant

Force: Canadian Army Medical Corps

Units: No. 6 Canadian General Hospital (Laval University); No 1 Canadian General Hospital; No, 7 Canadian General Hospital (Queen’s University)

Service: England & France

Next of Kin: John Urquhart, New Glasgow, NS (father)

Lottie’s younger brother, Edwin (DOB May 28, 1891), served with the 78th Regiment (Pictou Highlanders) for two years prior to the First World War and was among the unit’s soldiers who immediately volunteered for overseas service following Britain’s August 4, 1914 declaration of war on Germany. Edwin attested with the 17th Battalion (Nova Scotia) at Camp Valcartier, QC, on September 26, 1914 and departed for England aboard SS Ruthenia one week later.

After the 17th was re-designated a “reserve battalion,” Edwin was transferred to the 13th Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada) on April 26, 1915. Shortly afterward, he joined his new unit in Belgium’s Ypres Salient. For more than a year, Edwin served in the front lines without incident. On June 13, 1916, the 13th Battalion participated in the Canadian Corps’ successful attack on Mont Sorrel and Tor Top (Hill 62), two strategic locations east of Ypres that had been captured by German forces earlier in the month. During the 13th’s advance, a piece of artillery shrapnel struck Edwin in the left arm above the elbow and exited at the front of his shoulder, fracturing his humerus.

Evacuated for medical treatment, Edwin was admitted to No. 13 General Hospital, Boulogne, France, on June 16. Four days later, surgeons amputated his shattered left arm below the shoulder joint. At month’s end, Edwin was invalided to England, where he gradually recovered from his surgery. Following his discharge from hospital in mid-November 1916, he spent almost one year in England before departing for Canada aboard SS Olympic on November 6, 1917.

Edwin was formally discharged as “medically unfit” on January 15, 1918 and returned home to Pictou County. He soon found employment as a clerk, and married Kathleen Hibbs at Moncton, NB, on March 9, 1920. No further information is available on Edwin’s later life.


Charlotte “Lottie” Urquhart was born at Mountville, Pictou County, on March 27, 1888, the eighth of John and Catherine Ellen (Robertson) Urquhart’s 11 children and the fourth of the couple’s five daughters. Lottie’s oldest sister, Margaret Jane, became a “trained nurse” and  Lottie was determined to follow in her footsteps.

On June 10, 1907, she commenced studies at Boston State Hospital’s Training School for Nurses. The facility provided treatment for patients suffering from mental illness—in modern parlance, a psychiatric hospital.  A July 2, 1908 entry on her school record described Lottie as “very capable, reliable and conscientious. Has done excellent work. Well like [sic] by patients and nurses.” A later note stated: “Excellent in class work when she applies herself.”

Lottie completed the State Hospital’s training program in the spring of 1909 and accepted a nursing position with the institution. She remained on staff into the following year, when—perhaps due to the challenging nature of the hospital’s work— she decided to return to Canada. On March 4, 1910, Lottie enrolled with the Montreal General Hospital’s School of Nursing and graduated from the institution in the spring of 1913.

Montreal General Hospital School of Nursing's 1913 Gradating Class
Following her graduation, Lottie remained in the city, where she worked as a private nurse. Sometime after the outbreak of war in Europe, she volunteered for service with a local Canadian Army Medical Corps unit. In early October 1915, Lottie completed the medical examination required for military service and on January 16, 1916, she formally attested with No. 6 Canadian General Hospital (Laval University) at Montreal, QC. Established in December 1915, the unit recruited its personnel from the staff and graduates of Laval University’s medical and nursing programs, a large number of whom were bilingual.

No. 6 Canadian General Hospital (CGH) departed Halifax aboard SS Baltic on March 23, 1916 and arrived in England two and a half weeks later. Its nursing sisters reported to various hospitals for further training. Lottie was posted to Moore Barracks Hospital, Shorncliffe, which serviced the medical needs of soldiers at a nearby military camp.

On July 3, the Laval Unit departed for Saint-Cloud, on the outskirts of Paris, France. The bilingual skills of its largely Montreal-based staff allowed it to service soldiers from the French Army. Lottie. perhaps less fluent than many of her colleagues, remained at Moore Barracks for almost one year. Finally, on March 4, 1917, she crossed the English Channel and rejoined No. 6 CGH’s nursing staff.

Two months prior to Lottie’s arrival, No. 6 CGH had relocated to Troyes, southeast of Paris, where its personnel operated a 1,400-bed French hospital. Lottie spent the next eight months working at the Troyes facility. While the majority of its patients were “stretcher cases” from other hospitals, about one month after her arrival, the hospital received several hundred soldiers directly from the front lines, casualties of a French Army offensive in the Champagne region.

In late July, Lottie received a 14-day leave, and likely took the opportunity to view the sites in nearby Paris. The following month’s most notable occurrence was the admission of almost 600 patients—“mostly all gas cases”—on August 20 and 21. Lottie’s service at Troyes was temporarily interrupted on October 2, when she was transported to No. 8 General Hospital, Rouen, for treatment of a sprained right ankle. Discharged to a nearby convalescent home at mid-month, she rejoined No. 6 CGH on October 30. Within two weeks of her return, however, Lottie was transferred to No. 1 Canadian General Hospital, Étaples, and reported to her new unit on November 14.

Located on the French coast, the city of Étaples was home to several large British and Canadian general hospitals tasked with processing wounded from the front. Soldiers with minor injuries or illnesses remained under care until sufficiently recovered to permit discharge to nearby convalescent facilities. Once fit for duty, they returned to their front-line units. Patients with serious wounds or illnesses were evacuated by hospital ship to medical facilities in England. As a result, all Étaples hospitals experienced a steady patient turnover.

Map of Hospitals, Étaples, France
Organized at Valcartier, QC in September 1914, No. 1 CGH was the Canadian Army Medical Corps’ most experienced general hospital, having arrived at Étaples in May 1915. Lottie served with the unit throughout the winter of 1917-18. While located well out of range of enemy artillery and ground forces, a major German Spring Offensive in late March 1918 brought the front lines significantly closer. The hospitals were still a safe distance from the forward area when the offensive ground to a halt by mid-April, but a new threat soon materialized.

The previous year, German aircraft manufacturers commenced production of a new aircraft. Dubbed the “Gotha,” the plane was a long-range bomber, specifically designed to conduct night raids on Allied targets well behind the front lines. By the following spring, the aircraft was available for use. The failure of the recent Spring Offensive to make significant progress created a sense of urgency amongst the German high command, who sought new ways to disrupt the Allied war effort. Targeting strategic infrastructure and supply depots behind the forward area, it was hoped, would lessen the effectiveness of Allied forces in the front lines.

On the evening of May 19, 1918, “at the close of what had been a peaceful Sunday[,] enemy aircraft came over the [No. 1 CGH] camp in large numbers… at 10.00 p.m.” The unit’s Matron, Edith Campbell, described the subsequent events in her month-end report:

“The hospital was wrapt in slumber when the planes were immediately overhead. The raid was obviously planned to take place in relays, and during the first pass stage the part that suffered most was the sleeping quarters of the personnel, particularly that of the N.C.O.s [non-commissioned officers] and men. A number of bombs, incendiary and high explosive, were dropped in the midst of the men’s quarters. Fires were immediately started which offered a splendid target for the second part of the attack. The scene was immediately converted into a conflagration and charnel house of dead and wounded men. Bombs were also dropped on the Officers’ and Sisters’ quarters, [the] building being wrecked. The S. E. part of the Sisters’ quadrangle was completely wrecked by a bomb, the inmates being killed and wounded. The portion of the Staff and personnel that had escaped injury immediately attended to the needs of those who had been hit. Sisters and Officers were in attendance upon their wards within a very short time, and while the raid was in progress the operating-room Staff were working on the cases injured. The devotion to duty, with absolute disregard to personal safety, that was exhibited by all ranks is very highly commendable.”

In the raid’s aftermath, the unit’s war diary summarized its casualties. Amongst its staff, one Officer, one Nursing Sister, and 51 “other ranks” (OR) were killed, while one Officer, seven Nursing Sisters and 45 OR were wounded. A total of eight patients were killed, while 31 suffered wounds. During the days following the raid, two Nursing Sisters succumbed to their injuries. Meanwhile, staff constructed a dugout air raid shelter and banked all wards with sand bags.

No. 1 CGH's Nursing Sisters' Quarters after May 19, 1918 air raid
Uninjured during the raid, Lottie was among the Nursing Sisters who tended to the casualties. On May 24, their regular quarters having been destroyed in the raid, 30 Nursing Sisters assumed night-time accommodations in a nearby lodge, while the remainder slept in a wooded area adjacent to No. 1 CGH’s location. A second raid on the night of May 30 spared the hospitals, but the medical units were not so fortunate on May 31, when aircraft returned to the area and several bombs landed on No. 1 CGH’s facilities.

The unit’s war diary summarized the night’s events:

“The raid took the form of three relays and lasted two and a half hours. Much damage was done to Government property, Wards ‘A’ and ‘B’ were disabled. The sand-bagging that had been done round these wards saved the lives of several patients. The patients’ diet-kitchen and bath-house were totally wrecked. The Administration block was hit, and the laboratory rendered temporarily useless. Much damage of a minor nature in the form of broken windows was done over the rest of the hospital. Bombs were dropped in large numbers. One patient was dangerously wounded, but happily no other casualties were reported.”

According to Matron Campbell, the second raid in less than two weeks left “the patients in the Wards terribly shaken and unnerved.” The unit’s Nursing Sisters once more “did splendid work under this awful strain. Sisters off duty in one hut entrenched and sandbagged were uninjured.” On this occasion, Lottie’s efforts received particular notice from her superiors, who described her “gallantry and devotion to duty…, when four bombs fell on her wards. Regardless of danger, she attended to the wounded. Her courage and devotion were an inspiring example to all.” Four months later, Matron Campbell, Lottie and four other No. 1 CGH Nursing Sisters officially received the Military Medal for “bravery in the field,” in acknowledgment of their actions during the May 1918 air-raids.

As No. 1 CGH’s facilities suffered significant damage during the second raid, its patients were quickly evacuated to other hospitals and medical staff were temporarily assigned to other units. On June 1, Lottie was attached “for temp. duty” to No. 2 CGH at Le Tréport, 80 kilometres south of Étaples. Within days of her arrival, no doubt exhausted by the recent events, she received 14 days’ leave. Upon returning to duty, Lottie was transferred to No. 7 CGH (Queen’s University), Le Tréport, where she remained for the duration of her time in France.

Following the November 11, 1918 Armistice, Lottie was fortunate enough to receive 14 days’ leave to Paris during the last two weeks of December. Returning to duty on New Years’ Eve, she served at Le Tréport throughout the first two months of 1919. On March 7, Lottie was admitted to No. 46 Stationary Hospital, Étaples, with a case of scarlet fever. She remained under observation for two weeks before being discharged.

With the exception of an eight-day leave to Paris in mid-April, Lottie remained with No. 7 CGH until May 30, when she proceeded to England with its staff. After several weeks at No. 4 CGH, Basingstoke, and No. 15 CGH, Taplow, Lottie departed for Canada aboard SS Celtic on July 3. The vessel docked at Halifax after an eight-day passage. The following day—July 12, 1919—Lottie was formally discharged from military service.

While Lottie headed home to Pictou County after her discharge, she eventually returned to Montreal, and was living in a Tupper St. apartment when she received her British War and Victory service medals in November 1922. According to available documents, she remained in Montreal at least into the late 1930s. While her whereabouts for most of the following decade are unknown, by 1949, Lottie had relocated to Vancouver, BC. Her two oldest sisters, Margaret Jane (Atkinson) and Anne Louise (Smith), had married and settled there, along with her younger sister, Mabel, who never married. City directories from the period indicate that Lottie worked as a clerk for R. S. Day & Sons, a general insurance broker, for several years after arriving on the west coast.

Sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s, Lottie met and married Reginald William Seys, a native of Monmouthshire, Wales, who had immigrated to Canada in April 1907. Reginald initially lived with an older brother, Charles, and his wife, who had obtained a homestead in Saskatchewan. While he eventually received a land grant, Reginald later enlisted with a Canadian Expeditionary Force artillery unit at Winnipeg, MB, in March 1916. He subsequently served with the 14th Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery, in France from August 1917 until the end of the war.

Upon returning to Canada, Reginald took up residence with Charles and his family near Regina, SK. By 1945, Reginald had relocated to Saskatoon, where he worked as a salesman. Following his retirement, he and a second older brother, Francis, moved to Vancouver, where Reginald met Lottie. By 1962, the couple had married and were living in an apartment on Pandrell St.

Reginald Seys passed away on June 3, 1977. Following her husband’s death, Lottie remained in Vancouver, where she passed away on December 30, 1987, three months shy of her 100th birthday. Lottie Urquhart Seys was laid to rest in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Burnaby, BC. 



Service file of Nursing Sister Lottie Urquhart, Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC). Available online at Library & Archives Canada's website.

War Diaries of No. 1 & No. 6 Canadian General Hospitals, CAMC. Available online at Library & Archives Canada’s web site through its “Enhanced Archives Search” service.

Map of Étaples, France hospitals obtained from E. W. Meynell's article, "Some Account of the British Military Hospitals of World War I at Étaples, in the orbit of Sit Almoth Wright."Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps, Volume 142, 1996, pages 43 - 47. Available online.

Photograph of No. 1 Canadian General Hospital's Nursing Sisters' quarters after the May 19, 1918 air raid obtained from G. W. L. Nicholson's Canada's Nursing Sisters. Toronto, ON, Hakkert & Company, 1975. Available online.
Instructions for using LAC’s “Enhanced Archives Search” available at Steve Clifford’s excellent Doing Our Bit blog.

Special thanks to Lori Podolsky, McGill University Archives, and Lily Szczygiel, Osler Library of the History of Medicine, McGill University, who provided information on Lottie’s years at Montreal General Hospital’s School of Nursing and photographs of its 1913 graduating classes. Unfortunately, no index exists for either photograph, making it impossible to identify Lottie Urquhart in either image.

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