Minnie Follette was one of 14 nursing sisters to drown when the Canadian hospital ship was torpedoed
Nov 01, 2016, By: Lesa Light, RN, BA, CETN(C)
Minnie Follette is not buried in the quiet Anglican cemetery in Fox River, N.S. But standing in tribute to this First World War nursing sister is a rough-hewn monument embellished with raised flowers and an etching of His Majesty’s Hospital Ship Llandovery Castle. Follette was lost at sea when the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat on June 27, 1918. All 14 nursing sisters aboard drowned when their lifeboat was sucked into the whirlpool of the sinking ship.
On that fateful night, the Llandovery Castle was near the coast of Ireland on a return voyage to England after discharging 644 patients in Halifax. Its regulation Red Cross lights were blazing and markings to identify it as a hospital ship were evident. At about 9:30 p.m., there was a loud explosion, and all the lights were extinguished. It was quickly determined that the ship had been hit and was sinking. Two of the nurses were in their nightgowns; the rest were in uniforms. They all donned lifebelts.
Lifeboats were launched. The nurses and several crew members, including Sgt. Arthur Knight, were in Lifeboat No. 5. The boat was lowered to the water but was caught in the ropes holding it to the side of the ship. “I broke two axes trying to cut ourselves away, but was unsuccessful,” Sgt. Knight, the lone survivor of this lifeboat, later said. “We tried to keep ourselves away by using the oars, and soon every one of the latter were broken.” The ropes did come loose, but the crew could not row away from the sinking ship.
Sgt. Knight recounted that the nurses were as calm as if they were on parade. “In that whole time I did not hear a complaint or murmur…there was not a cry for help or any outward evidence of fear.” He recalled Matron Margaret Fraser asking him, “Sergeant, do you think there is any hope for us?” He replied, “No.” And then they were pulled into the whirlpool.
Several men from other lifeboats were taken on board the submarine for interrogation, as the Germans believed the ship was carrying American flying officers and ammunition. When they determined this was not the case, they tried to destroy the evidence. The submarine picked off the survivors by ramming and firing upon the lifeboats. Only one lifeboat, containing 24 eyewitnesses, escaped.
The sinking of the Llandovery Castle and the deaths of those aboard was considered a war crime and one of the First World War’s greatest naval atrocities. The event became the rallying cry for Canadian troops during the offensive of the last hundred days of the war.
Follette graduated in 1909 from the Victoria General Hospital school of nursing in Halifax. She joined the No. 2 Canadian Army Medical Corps Hospital in 1911, enrolled in a special military hospital nursing course in 1912 and went overseas with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the fall of 1914. She served at hospitals in England and at the front in France before being treated for nervous exhaustion in 1917. Afterward, she was assigned to hospital ships that transported wounded soldiers back home to Canada. This assignment was considered lighter duty than most, but Follette encountered danger on her first posting. She was on HMHS Letitia in 1917 when it ran aground off the coast of Halifax, due to pilot error. All but one crewman managed to get off safely.
On one of the furloughs she was granted, Follette visited her family in Port Greville and left behind some souvenirs that are still treasured today. One item was an embossed tin, which Princess Mary, daughter of King George V, had given to the troops as a Christmas gift. Marilyn Skidmore and Ross Smith, both of Parrsboro, N.S., fondly remember their grandmother, Beatrice, talking about her sister, Minnie. “She was known as a wonderful nurse,” Skidmore says. “Very kind and caring.”
A portrait of Follette hangs in the Age of Sail Heritage Centre and Museum in Port Greville. She looks directly at the camera with her head held high. She looks proud of herself, and so she should be. It wasn’t every day that a young woman from a small community chose military nursing and went off to war.
The names and birthplaces of the other nursing sisters who died that night: Matron Margaret “Pearl” Fraser, New Glasgow, N.S.; Mary Agnes McKenzie, Toronto; Christina Campbell, Inverness-shire, Scotland; Carola Douglas, Toronto; Alexina Dussault, St-Hyacinthe, Que.; Margaret Fortescue, York Factory, Man.; Minnie Gallaher, Kingston, Ont.; Jessie McDiarmid, Ashton, Ont.; Rena McLean, Souris, P.E.I.; Mae Belle Sampson, Duntroon, Ont.; Gladys Sare, England; Anna Stamers, Saint John, N.B.; and Jean Templeman, Ottawa.
Lesa Light, RN, BA, CETN(C), works in a long-term care facility in Truro, N.S., and is a member of Nursing History Nova Scotia.