She steamed toward England, the red crosses on her sides and above her bridge illuminating the murky waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The Canadian Hospital Ship, Llandovery Castle, carried 258 passengers, many of whom were members of the Canadian Medical Corps, including fourteen Canadian Nursing Sisters. The history of Canada’s Nursing Sisters began as early as 1885, when they were deployed, along with other medical personnel, to offer aid during the Saskatchewan Rebellion. According to Veterans Affairs Canada, “The first nurses to serve in war were women who belonged to religious orders – hence, the designation of ‘Nursing Sister’ and the traditional white veil.” Over 3,100 Canadian nurses served during World War I, and forty six died in service.
Near the end of the Great War, on June 27, 1918, the Llandovery Castle was torpedoed without warning by a German U-86 submarine. The hospital ship sank within ten minutes, though not before several lifeboats were launched. The U-boat then proceeded to surface beside the lifeboats, dashing to and fro amongst the survivors before pulling away, only to shell the lifeboats. Just twenty four survivors in one lifeboat survived. After the war, the Captain and two lieutenants of the U-boat were brought up on charges. Unfortunately, the Captain had disappeared and was never brought to trial. The lieutenants were found guilty of war crimes, but escaped from custody before they could serve their time.
All fourteen Canadian Nursing Sisters aboard the Llandovery Castle lost their lives that night. Among them was Mary Agnes McKenzie, a 1903 graduate of the Rochester City Hospital Training School for Nurses. Mary was born in Toronto, Ontario, April 28, 1880 (1877, according to RCH records) to Thomas and Mary McKenzie. After attending public school and the Collegiate Institute, Mary entered the three-year course at the RCH Training School on May 22, 1900. Her school records show that Mary excelled when put in charge of the surgical pavilion, she worked with unquestioned diligence and was graced with better than average perception. Although Mary obeyed “the letter of the law”, her lack of neatness was called into question. Another note in the record states that she stood just 5′ 2″ tall, and was a “pretty blond – jolly – expresses herself well.” Mary Agnes McKenzie graduated from the RCH Training School on May 23, 1903. She was one of just ten graduates that year.
After Mary’s graduation from RCH, she practiced as a nurse in Toronto before entering the Military Hospital in Halifax, Nova Scotia. When war broke out, she enlisted for overseas service, working at both Ontario Hospital in Orpington, England, and the War Hospital in Kent. Ultimately, she was transferred to duty on the Llandovery Castle, which was commissioned a wartime hospital ship in 1916 to transport wounded Canadian soldiers from Europe to Nova Scotia.
Soon after the Llandovery Castle was torpedoed, the June-July 1918 issue of The Hospital Review expressed concern for Mary’s safety, as “no cable of her having been rescued has been received, her relatives have given up all hope, and now believe her to be a victim of this latest exhibition of Hun deviltry.” On March 29, 1920, a brass tablet was unveiled, adhered to the wall of the Parliament Building in Toronto, Ontario. Inscribed upon it were the names of the nurses of the Ontario Hospital who lost their lives during the Great War. When the Halifax Memorial was erected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1967, it commemorated the 3,000 service members who lost their lives between 1914-1945. Mary Agnes McKenzie’s name is immortalized on both monuments.
The photo of Mary in her uniform from the RCH files shows a vibrant and confident young woman ready to face life’s challenges. How sad that a life of service in the medical field was cut short so soon. A final entry was made in the RCH Training School record of Mary Agnes McKenzie: “1918 – Lost on hospital ship Llandovery Castle torpedoed on trip between England and Canada.”
Notes from the author: I first became aware of Mary Agnes McKenzie when I came across her photo in “To Serve the Community: A Celebration of Rochester General Hospital 1847-1997”, a wonderful book by Teresa K. Lehr and Philip G. Maples. Mary’s photo called to me, and I felt a need to learn more about her. This article was originally published in the Rochester Medical Museum & Archive’s newsletter, the “Baker-Cederberg Notebook”, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring-Summer 2011.
To learn more about the Rochester Medical Museum & Archives, please visit their website, http://www.rochestergeneral.org/rochester-general-hospital/about-us/rochester-medical-museum-and-archives/.