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Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Remembering Acting Matron Margaret Marjorie “Pearl” Fraser—Perished At Sea June 27, 1918

Margaret Marjorie “Pearl” Fraser was born at New Glasgow, NS, on March 20, 1884, the third of Duncan Cameron “D. C.” and Elizabeth “Bessie” (Graham) Fraser’s five children and the youngest of the couple’s three daughters. D. C., a lawyer by profession, was elected Member of Parliament for Guysborough in 1891, a position he held until his appointment to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court in 1904. Two years later, he assumed the office of Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia and served in that capacity until his untimely death on September 27, 1910, at 64 years of age.

Acting Matron Margaret Marjorie "Pearl" Fraser
By the time of her father’s passing, Pearl had left home to pursue a career in nursing. She completed her training at the Lady Stanley Institute for Trained Nurses, Ottawa, in 1909, and according to its 1912 annual report, was employed as a Head Nurse at Vancouver General Hospital. Meanwhile, following D.C.’s passing, Pearl’s mother, Bessie, relocated to Moose Jaw, SK, where she resided with her oldest daughter, Annie, and her husband, Rev. William G. Wilson.

Following the outbreak of war in early August 1914, Pearl travelled to Quebec City and enlisted with the Canadian Army Medical Corps on September 28, 1914. Her younger brother, Alistair, joined her in uniform, travelling to Camp Valcartier with a Saskatchewan unit but later attesting with the 17th Battalion (Nova Scotia). A lawyer by profession, Alistair received the commissioned rank of Lieutenant at the time of his enlistment. He later served at the front with the 15th Battalion (48th Highlanders of Canada) and merited a Military Cross for bravery at Vimy Ridge, France on April 9, 1917.

Pearl and Alistair crossed the North Atlantic to England with the First Canadian Contingent in October 1914. While Pearl was officially attached to No. 1 Canadian General Hospital (CGH) at the time of her overseas arrival, she was transferred to No. 2 Canadian Stationary Hospital (CSH) on November 1, 1914 and immediately proceeded to France with the unit.

No. 2 CSH holds the distinction of being the first Canadian unit of any kind to set foot in France. As a result, its original staff qualified for the 1914 Mons Star, awarded to military personnel serving in the theatre of war on or before December 31, 1914. For almost one year, the unit operated a hospital at Le Touquet, near Étaples, approximately 40 kilometres south of Boulogne. During that time, its personnel tended to Canadian soldiers who were wounded during the Second Battle of Ypres (April 1915), the Canadian Corps’ first major combat experience.

In October 1915, No. 2 CGH relocated to Outreau, on the outskirts of Boulogne. Gradually, the attraction of service closer to the front drew some of its personnel to other units. In February 1916, Pearl received a transfer to No. 2 Canadian Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), which operated a 200-bed British hospital at Aire-sur-la-Lys, near Béthune, France. Its proximity to the front lines meant that the occasional air raid threatened the facility, and the sound of artillery fire was clearly audible.

A desire to service the needs of Canadian soldiers resulted in No. 2 CGH’s relocation to Remy Siding, near Poperinghe, Belgium in mid-November 1916. Ironically, by the time personnel arrived in the Ypres Salient, the Canadian Corps had departed for the Somme region of France. Pearl and her Canadian colleagues nevertheless remained at Remy Siding throughout the winter of 1916-17. Proximity to the front lines once again resulted in frequent air raids and necessitated construction of an underground shelter for nursing sisters and medical staff.

In May 1917, Pearl returned to England after two and a half years’ service in France and Belgium. While her personnel file makes no mention of health issues, the strains of duty close to the front lines may have contributed to the change in assignment. On May 10, 1917, Pearl was posted to HMHS Letitia, one of several hospital ships introduced into service with the CAMC in the spring of 1917, for the purpose of transporting wounded Canadian soldiers home.

Pearl made at least one—possibly as many as three—crossings on the Letitia before receiving a transfer to King’s Red Cross Special Hospital, Bushey Park, England, on July 27, 1917. The 400-bed facility specialized in the treatment of heart and kidney patients. Pearl was appointed “nurse in charge,” her first promotion since arriving overseas. In October 1917, local news reports suggest that she received a leave to Canada. Pearl spent time with Graham relatives in New Glasgow, NS, before travelling to Moose Jaw, SK, to visit her mother, Bessie.

Upon returning to duty, Pearl was assigned to HMHS Araguaya, the “work horse” of the hospital ship fleet. Before war’s end, the vessel completed 20 trans-Atlantic crossings and carried more than 15,000 wounded Canadian soldiers home. Pearl served aboard the Araguaya throughout the winter of 1917-18.

Meanwhile, the youngest Fraser child, James Gibson Laurier Fraser, had followed his older siblings into military service. Laurier enlisted with the 229th Battalion at Moose Jaw, SK, in February 1916, with the commissioned rank of Lieutenant. After a lengthy wait in England, he was transferred to the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) and served in the forward area for almost one year without incident. On March 4, 1918, Lt. Laurier Fraser was in the trenches with the 16th Battalion near Mazingarbe, France, when he was killed in an enemy artillery barrage.

Laurier's death was the first of two tragedies to befall the Fraser family during the war’s final months. The news of his passing had a significant impact on Pearl. While she was officially appointed Acting Matron of the hospital ship Llandovery Castle on March 22, 1918, she received one month’s sick leave three weeks later. Pearl returned to duty on May 17 and may have made a voyage to Canada aboard the Llandovery Castle in late May - early June.

Whatever the case, Pearl was aboard the vessel when it arrived at Halifax on June 17, with a total of 644 patients on board. Three days later, the Llandovery Castle departed for England, its 97 CAMC staff and the vessel’s crew the only passengers making the crossing. It was a pleasant summer voyage, the medical personnel taking the opportunity to relax on deck during clear weather.

On the evening of June 27, 1918, the Llandovery Castle was approximately 190 kilometres west of Fastnet Rock, located near Ireland’s southern tip, when a German U-boat spotted the vessel. At 9:30 p.m., without prior warning, the enemy ship fired a torpedo that struck the vessel “abaft” its No. 4 engines. The resulting explosion destroyed a large, rear portion of the ship and disabled its engines. Virtually all personnel in the area were killed or wounded, and the Captain on the bridge lost all control over the vessel.

While the ship lurched forward, it was gradually “forced down by the head.” Meanwhile, the CAMC staff and remaining crew members scrambled into lifeboats and abandoned ship. All 14 Nursing Sisters crowded into one boat, under the direction of Sergeant Arthur Knight (regimental number 528654), one of a handful of CAMC staff destined to survive the ordeal. In later testimony, Knight described the ensuing events.

While the lifeboat carrying the Nursing Sisters dropped to the water, the two ropes attaching it to the vessel failed to release. Sgt. Knight broke two axes while attempting to cut the ropes. Meanwhile, passengers used the oars to prevent the boat from smashing against the sinking vessel’s hull, breaking all in the process. The ropes finally released, but the boat drifted helplessly alongside the sinking ship.

Artists' depiction of the Llandovery Castle's sinking
Shortly afterward, a large section of the poop deck fell into the water, creating a vortex near the lifeboat. As it was drawn into the current, the boat capsized, throwing its occupants into the sea. While Knight surfaced three times and eventually clung to a piece of debris, Acting Matron Pearl Fraser and her 13 Nursing Sister colleagues perished as the whirlpool consumed the lifeboat. Within 10 minutes off being struck by the torpedo, the Llandovery Castle slipped beneath the waters. A total of 234 CAMC and vessel crew perished in the incident. Of the 24 passengers who managed to escape the debris field, only one CAMC Officer and five CAMC “other ranks” survived the ordeal.

Acting Matron Margaret Marjorie Fraser’s name is engraved on a Commonwealth War Graves Commission memorial plaque erected at Point Pleasant Park, Halifax, in November 1967, in memory of Army, Navy and Merchant Marine personnel lost at sea during the First and Second World Wars. Numerous other memorials commemorate the loss of the Llandovery Castle’s 14 Nursing Sisters. In Pearl’s hometown, First Presbyterian Church, New Glasgow, installed a stained glass window in her memory.

Having lost an older sister and younger brother in the span of less than four months, Alistair was understandably devastated. He relinquished his duties as Aide-de-Camp to Lt. Gen. Sir Arthur Currie, a post he had commenced on the same day as Laurier’s death, and returned home to Canada, where he carried out administrative duties with Military District # 12 (Regina, SK) for the war’s duration.

Pearl Fraser’s story is one of 64 profiles contained in Bantry Publishing’s First World War Honour Roll of Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, Volume II: 1918 - 1937, available for purchase online at .

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