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Nearly 100 years after their deaths, a Canadian diplomat discovers the story of 'nursing sisters' from Ontario and Nova Scotia who died during one of the First World War's most infamous and brutal campaigns

‘I felt we – Canada – had a duty to recognize the courage and dedication that these nurses had represented,” says Robert Peck, Canada’s ambassador to Greece who stumbled upon the nurses’ story two years ago. (Courtesy of Robert Peck)

Angels of mercy

Nearly 100 years after their deaths, a Canadian diplomat discovers the story of two
‘nursing sisters’ from Ontario and Nova Scotia who died during one of the First World War’s most infamous and brutal campaigns

In late September, 1915, as troops from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and other parts of the British Empire were dying by the thousands in the trenches of Gallipoli – one of the great slaughterhouses of the First World War – Jessie B. Jaggard, a matron nurse from Nova Scotia, fell ill but carried on with her duties. She was working in the 3rd Canadian Stationary Hospital on the Greek island of Lemnos, the closest Allied staging-ground to the battlefront on the edge of the Ottoman Empire.

Nursing Sister Mary Frances Elizabeth Munro from Wardsville, Ont. was an excellent student served in the Canadian Army Medical Corps during WW1 in Lemnos, Greece in the summer of 1915 (right). She is one of the few Canadian women who died while serving their country at war. (Courtesy of Robert Peck)

Ms. Jaggard went from hut to hut on the cold nights to make sure the sleeping nurses had enough blankets, undermining her strength. She developed dysentery. “Lying with the picture of her seventeen year old son smiling down on her, one night she closed her eyes for the last time and slept,” a colleague nurse, Kate Wilson, wrote in her diary.

That was on Sept. 25. Ms. Jaggard was 42 and a cousin of war-time prime minister Robert Borden, the fellow Nova Scotian who delivered some 620,000 Canadian soldiers to Western European battlefields in support of the British armies.

Ms. Jaggard was Lemnos’s second Canadian nursing casualty. Eighteen days before she died, her colleague Mary Frances Elizabeth Munro, from Wardsville in Southwestern Ontario, had also succumbed to dysentery. They were the only nurses to die on Lemnos during the Gallipoli campaign and the first women to die in wartime while serving in the Canadian army.

The nursing sisters, as all the Canadian nurses were called, were buried with full military honours in crude wooden coffins near the village of Sarpi on Lemnos. Their lives and graves were soon forgotten. They may have remained so were it not for the curiosity and diligence of Robert Peck, a veteran Canadian diplomat, now ambassador to Greece, who stumbled upon the nurses’ story two years ago and was so moved by the sacrifice they made that he decided to commemorate them at the 100th anniversary of the brutal Gallipoli campaign.

“There was something so inspiring about them,” he says. “They were the last faces these young men saw before they died, and their presence must have meant so much to the soldiers on Lemnos. I felt we – Canada – had a duty to recognize the courage and dedication that these nurses had represented.”

Gallipoli was not a Canadian battleground even if nearly 1,100 soldiers from the Newfoundland Regiment had fought there (Newfoundland became Canada’s 10th province in 1949). When Canadians read about the First World War, it is the Western Front battles of Ypres, Somme, Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele that get star billing, not Gallipoli and certainly not the mouldering Canadian hospitals on a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea.

On April 17 – a week before the centenary of the Allied landings on Gallipoli – this sad footnote in Canadian war history was brought back to life in a special ceremony in Lemnos led by Mr. Peck. From the Portianos military cemetery where the two nurses are buried, he told their stories, read a poem that had been written in their memory nearly a century ago, and unveiled a simple plaque in English and French that commemorates “the selfless dedication of nursing sisters from the Commonwealth in their care of the sick and wounded on the island of Lemnos…”

Mr. Peck, 56, who is from Montreal, is Canada’s former ambassador to Algeria and has been ambassador to Greece and Cyprus since 2011. His wife is Greek and he is an enthusiastic supporter of Canadian cultural events in Greece. In the summer of 2013, he lured Canadian jazz singer Diana Krall to Athens, where she gave a rousing concert at Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the ancient outdoor theatre on the slope of the Acropolis.

Jessie B. Jaggard and Mary Frances Elizabeth Munro were the first women to die in wartime while serving in the Canadian army. (Courtesy Robert Peck)

About the same time, he began to wonder how the Canadian embassy should commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, with the caveat that any event ideally would have both Canadian and Greek elements. “I heard by accident that there were some Canadian graves at Lemnos and that on Anzac Day, members of the Greek Red Cross would lay flowers on the graves of two Canadian nursing sisters who were buried there,” he says.

Anzac is the acronym for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps; Anzac Day is the national day of remembrance for their war dead. Celebrated on April 25, it originally commemorated only those soldiers who had fought and died in Gallipoli. It was the baptism of fire for the two young countries, then dominions of the British Empire, and it did not go well. About 11,000 of them died in the campaign and the losses still haunt Australia and New Zealand. Peter Weir’s 1981 film, Gallipoli, which centres on the futile Aussie attack on the Ottomans at the Battle of the Nek, known as “Godley’s Abattoir,” is considered a classic of its genre.

Mr. Peck has a strong interest in the two world wars, for the very good reason that he comes from a line of fighting men. His father, Robert A. Peck, was a lieutenant commander in the Royal Canadian Navy in the Second World War and was the signals officer on an infantry landing craft on D-Day – the Allied invasion of France – in 1944. His maternal step-grandfather, William Brosseau, was a communications engineer in the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals in the First World War and endured the gruesome Vimy and Passchendaele campaigns. “Our family vacations were spent in a VW camper in Europe, and we must have visited every Commonwealth war cemetery on our routes,” he says.

Mr. Peck learned that seven Newfoundlanders from the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve and the Newfoundland Regiment were buried on Lemnos, along with two Canadian nurses. Trolling through the Internet to find out more about them, he came across an Australian historian named Jim Claven, who had formed the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee. Its goal was to highlight the role of Lemnos not just as the staging ground for the Allied attacks on the Ottoman Empire, but also the heroic roles played by the nurses and the social interaction between the Anzac troops and the Greek islanders. “Lemnos was sort of white-washed out of history,” Mr. Claven says. “It needed to be properly commemorated.”

Canadian nurses served on Lemnos during the Gallipoli campaign as part of the Canadian Army Medical Corps. Canadians Ms. Munro and Ms. Jaggard were buried with full military honours in crude wooden coffins near the village of Sarpi on Lemnos. (Courtesy Robert Peck)

Mr. Peck and Mr. Claven formed a productive on-line relationship (they were together on Lemnos for the nurses dedication ceremony). With the help of Mr. Claven, Mr. Peck put together an extensive file on the two Canadian nurses, whose story captivated him. “In all the accounts I read, the nurses kept going in spite of dysentery until they dropped,” he says. “They were known as the sisters of mercy or the angels of mercy. They were really selfless.”

Mr. Peck decided a plaque dedicated to the nurses was in order and approached Veteran Affairs Canada (VAC) and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) to sponsor the memorial project. The Canadian government contributed £2,300. The plaque, made from Nabresina stone from northern Italy, was carved by CWGC stonemasons in Gallipoli. It was placed in Lemnos’s Portianos Military Cemetery about 20 metres from the nurses’ headstones.

All the Canadian nurses who served in the war were volunteers, mostly young and single, well-trained and apparently brave enough to take life-threatening risks. A 2008 UBC Press paper entitled Place and Practice in Canadian Nursing History says, “Yearning for adventure and a place in history, fired with patriotism and determined to take care of enlisted boyfriends and brothers, these military nurses coveted the limited number of overseas postings.”

By the end of the war, 3,141 nurses had served with the Canadian Army Medical Corps, the vast majority of them on the Western Front, of whom 46 died from enemy action or disease. They earned 328 decorations, among them the Military Medal for gallantry and devotion to duty under fire, and the Royal Red Cross. A sculpture in their memory was erected in the Centre Block of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa in 1926.

The “nursing sisters” were neither siblings nor nuns, though their uniforms, with their blue dresses and white veils, made them look like nuns. Nursing sisters Munro and Jaggard must have been shocked when they arrived on Lemnos in the summer of 2015. Based on the notes on their lives in the VAC files, both had had fairly comfortable and prosperous lives before their transatlantic voyages into the unknown.


The Sisters Buried at Lemnos

A poem by Vera Brittain, a British nurse who wrote this in 1916 after finding the graves of the Canadian nurses.

O golden Isle set in the deep blue Ocean, With purple shadows flitting o-er they crest, I kneel to thee in reverent devotion Of some who on thy bosom lie at rest! Seldom they enter into song or story; Poets praise the soldier’s might and deeds of War, But few exalt the Sisters, and the glory Of women dead beneath a distant star.

No armies threatened in that lonely station, They fought not fire or steel or ruthless foe, But heat and hunger, sickness and privation, And Winter’s deathly chill and blinding snow.

Till mortal frailty could endure no longer Disease’s ravages and climate’s power, In body weak, but spirit ever stronger, Courageously they stayed to meet their hour.

No blazing tribute through the wide world flying, No rich reward of sacrifice they craved, The only meed of their victorious dying Lives in the hearts of humble men they saved.

Who when in light the Final Dawn is breaking, Still faithful, though the world’s regard may cease, Will honour, splendid in triumphant waking, The souls of women, lonely here at peace.

O golden Isle with purple shadows falling Across thy rocky shore and sapphire sea, I shall not picture these without recalling The Sisters sleeping on the heart of thee!

Ms. Munro had been an excellent student at Toronto’s Bishop Strachan School. She won the French prize, tied for the English literature prize, placed second in the German prize and was presented a silver medal by the Governor General. After graduation, she spent a few years abroad and trained as nurse in a New York hospital. But she took long breaks from work because she suffered from breast cancer and had a mastectomy at some point before enlisting as a war nurse. As a nurse, she was level-headed and efficient, as demonstrated in a pre-war incident near Paris, where she was in a train wreck. The notes say that Ms. Munro, with her fluent French and medical training, “was able to take control of the situation at once” and, with the help of two assistants, “had, in less than three hours, some three score badly injured men, women and children bandaged and ready to be taken … into Paris hospitals.

Ms. Jaggard was born in Wolfville, N.S., trained at Massachusetts General Hospital and would go on to become superintendent of a hospital near Philadelphia and, later, University Hospital in the same city. She resigned after a few years of work and married Herbert Jaggard, described as the “president of a well-known railway.”

On Aug. 1, 1915, Ms. Munro and her colleague Ms. Jaggard sailed from Britain to Malta, then to Alexandria, reaching Lemnos on Aug. 16. The island was the Allied gateway to Gallipoli, the long peninsula that forms the northern shore of the Dardanelles Strait, which connects the Mediterranean and Black seas. The strait, controlled by the Ottoman Empire in what is present-day Turkey, meant the Ottomans could cut off access to the warm-water ports of Russia, one of the Allied countries that had declared war on Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.

Their 3rd Canadian Stationary Hospital, with 500 beds, was up and running within a week and the first patient arrived on Aug. 22 (the 1st Canadian Stationary Hospital was even bigger, with 720 beds). The conditions were horrendous. “It needed two nurses to change a patient wound dressing, one to change the dressing and one to fan out the flies off the wound,” the notes say. “Excessive heat and poor sanitary conditions were the contributing factors at spreading disease.”

I felt we – Canada – had a duty to recognize the courage and dedication that these nurses had represented.
Ambassador Robert Peck
Robert Peck, Canada's ambassador to Greece, lays a wreath during a ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign and for the nurses who served and died during it. (Thanasis Panos Hara Voskaki for The Globe and Mail)

A 1925 history of Canadian Forces medical services says the hospital site in the village of Murdos “had no sanitary provision; the water supply was precarious and depended on one borrowed cart; not even latrine pails were at hand…. food was scarce and unsuitable for the personnel, impossible for patients; dust and flies completed the distress.”

The exhausted and malnourished nurses picked up illnesses from the soldiers – dysentery and acute enteritis were rampant. The Australian service records show that the Canadian nurses treated three Aussie soldiers who died not from wounds, but from appendicitis, nephritis and diphtheria. Ms. Munro was admitted to hospital on Sept. 5 and died two days later at age 49. Ms. Jaggard died on Sept. 25.

The Gallipoli campaign was a disaster and the Allied forces were evacuated in January, 1916. In October of that year, a British nurse named Vera Brittain, a pacifist who would later write Testament of Youth, the best-selling memoir of her experience as a nurse in the war, visited Lemnos and found the graves of the Canadian nurses. She was so moved that she wrote a poem that was read by ambassador Peck when he unveiled the plaque on April 17.