One dark night in the summer of 1918, the HMHS Llandovery Castle was steaming through the waters of the North Atlantic. She was far off the southern tip of Ireland, nearly two hundred kilometers from the nearest land. It was a calm night, with a light breeze and a clear sky. The ship had been built in Glasgow and was named after a castle in Wales, but now she was a Canadian vessel. Since the world had been plunged into the bloodiest war it had ever seen, the steamship had been turned into a floating hospital. She was returning from Halifax, where she had just dropped off hundreds of wounded Canadian soldiers. On board were the ship’s crew and her medical personnel — including fourteen nurses. They were just a few of more than two thousand Canadian women who volunteered to serve overseas as “Nursing Sisters,” healing wounds and saving lives and comforting those who couldn’t be saved. As the ship sliced through the water, big red crosses shone out from either side of the hull, bright beacons in the dark. The trip was almost over. Soon, they’d be in Liverpool.
But then, without warning, the calm of the night was shattered by a terrible explosion. The ship had been hit by a torpedo. All the lights on board went black. The wireless had been knocked out, too; there would be no S.O.S. And when the captain ordered the engines reversed, there was no reply; the engine room had been hit, the men inside were already dead or wounded. So the ship continued to surge forward into the waves, filling with water as the prow plunged beneath the surface of the ocean. Within minutes it was clear: the Llandovery Castle was doomed.
The order came to abandon ship. Lifeboats were lowered over the sides and the evacuation began, but it was dangerous work. As the decks pitched forward and the ship lurched through the waves, two of the lifeboats were swamped with water, broken, and swept away. Others had already been destroyed by the explosion. The crew kept at it, though; they were calm, no one panicked. Within a few short minutes, it’s thought that every single person who had survived the blast had been ushered into a lifeboat and lowered to the water below.
Mary Agnes McKenzie was in one of those lifeboats. Her friends called her Nan. She had been born and raised in Toronto. She went to school in St. Jamestown as a young girl — at the Rose Avenue School, which is still there today. She lived in the neighbourhood of Rathnelly, on Macpherson Avenue, near Dupont & Avenue Road. She was still just a teenager when she decided she wanted to become a nurse. She got a job at a hospital here in Toronto and, in the years before the war broke out, got some experience working at the Military Hospital in Halifax. When the war did come, she volunteered for duty. She was originally posted to the Ontario Military Hospital in England, built by our provincial government, and then found herself serving on board the Llandovery Castle. While the ship had been docked in Halifax, she’d hoped for a chance to come home to Toronto for a brief visit with her family. But all leave had been cancelled. She promised her mom she would try again the next time they were back in Canada.
And she wasn’t the only nurse from Toronto in that lifeboat. Carola Josephine Douglas had been born in Panama, but grew up with relatives in Toronto after both her parents died. She graduated from Harbord Collegiate before training to become a nurse. When the war broke out, she too volunteered to head overseas — filling out enlistment forms that still assumed all new recruits were “he” and the “man.” Soon, she found herself in the thick of the action in Europe, tending to the wounded at one of the most dangerous military hospitals in France. As you might expect, the work she did there took a toll. After more than two years helping to stitch people back together near the front lines, she became a patient herself, recuperating from exhaustion. After that, Douglas was assigned to the Llandovery Castle.
The hospital ship was supposed to provide the nurses and other personnel with something of a rest — a relatively easy assignment for those who had already seen more than their fair share of stressful duty. But now, McKenzie, Douglas and the other nurses found themselves back in danger, lowered over the side of the doomed vessel, along with a few men from the crew, in Lifeboat No. 5.
And Lifeboat No. 5 was stuck. After it hit the water, it still was held by ropes to the side of the sinking ship. As they pitched in the waves, the small boat kept smashing against the hull of the big steamer. One of the men — Sergeant Arthur Knight from London, Ontario — grabbed an axe and tried to cut the lifeboat free. But it was no use; the axe broke. So did the second one. After that, they tried to use the oars to brace themselves, to keep from being crushed. One by one, the oars broke too. Until, finally, mercifully, the ropes snapped and they were free.
The lifeboat drifted away, but it still wasn’t out of danger. They realized in horror that they were being drawn back toward the stern of the ship, caught in the suction as the Llandovery Castle sank beneath the waves. They were being dragged into a whirlpool. And there was nothing they could do.
One of the nurses — Matron Margaret Fraser, daughter of the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia — turned to Sergeant Knight as they drifted toward the swirling vacuum. “Sergeant,” she asked, “do you think there is any hope for us?”
He later described those dreadful moments, stranded in a lifeboat with fourteen women who had spent much of the last few years up to their elbows in blood and guts, but whose entire gender was still dismissed by many Canadians as too frail for that kind of work, too weak and emotional to be trusted with an equal say in the world. “Unflinchingly and calmly,” he remembered, “as steady and collected as if on parade, without a complaint or a single sign of emotion, our fourteen devoted nursing sisters faced the terrible ordeal of certain death—only a matter of minutes—as our lifeboat neared that mad whirlpool of waters where all human power was helpless… In that whole time I did not hear a complaint or murmur from one of the sisters. There was not a cry for help or any outward evidence of fear.”
It took only ten minutes from the time of the explosion to the moment when the last of the Llandovery Castle disappeared beneath the waves. And she took Lifeboat No. 5 with her. Everyone on board was flung into the churning water. The nurses were all wearing life jackets, but most — if not all of them — were probably drowned right away. Sergeant Knight never saw any of them ever again. He was only saved by a lucky explosion — maybe the boilers exploding as the ship sank toward the ocean floor — which propelled him back to the surface. If McKenzie or Douglas or any of the other nurses did survive, they found themselves stranded in the dark waters, clinging to the wreckage as the night’s final horrors got underway.
The U-boat wasn’t finished yet.
The captain of the submarine had just committed a war crime. It was illegal to attack a hospital ship. The red crosses on the sides of the Llandovery Castle had been brightly lit and easy to see. The Germans hadn’t given any warning or tried to board and search the ship first — which would have been within their rights. Instead, they’d simply fired their torpedoes. That was against international law and against the standing orders of the Imperial German Navy. So now, it seems, Captain Patzig was anxious to cover his tracks.
At first, the U-86 submarine seized one of the lifeboats and accused the Canadian crew of harbouring American flight officers or of shipping ammunition. But the crew denied it. And when it became clear they weren’t getting anywhere, the Germans let that lifeboat go. As it rowed away to safety, Captain Patzig tried a new approach: the U-boat turned on the other survivors.
For the next two hours, while those in the water clung to the wreckage and cried out for help, U-86 sailed between them, ramming the lifeboats that were still afloat, firing shells at any that weren’t completely destroyed. Then, once all the Canadians had been forced into the water, the machine guns opened fire. They killed everyone they could find. If McKenzie or Douglas or any of the other nurses had managed to survive their initial plunge into the water, they didn’t survive those guns. There had been 258 people on board the Llandovery Castle. By the time the night was over, the only survivors were the 24 lucky enough to be on board the one lifeboat Captain Patzig couldn’t find. They would spend the next 36 hours alone in the middle of the ocean, until they were finally found.
Later, the captain of a British ship sailed through the wreckage. “[S]uddenly,” he remembered, “we began going through corpses…. we were sailing through floating bodies. We were not allowed to stop — we just had to go straight through. It was quite horrific, and my reaction was to vomit over the edge. It was something we could never have imagined… particularly the nurses: seeing these bodies of women and nurses, floating in the ocean, having been there some time. Huge aprons and skirts in billows, which looked almost like sails because they dried in the hot sun.”
Nearly a century later, the sinking of the Llandovery Castle is still considered to be one of the greatest atrocities of the First World War. And it immediately began to a play an inflammatory role in the hatred and violence between the Allies and Germany that would keep the world drenched in blood for decades to come. In the days that followed the attack, Toronto’s newspapers were filled with cries of outrage. The Daily Star denounced “this latest exhibition of Hun deviltry.” The Telegram went with “Hun savagery.” Their words were officially echoed by the Canadian government, which decried the “savagery… and the utter blackness and dastardly character of the enemy…” Whether or not any of the nurses had survived long enough to be shot, Allied propaganda posters showed them there in the water as German submariners mowed them down.
For the remaining days of the war, the Llandovery Castle became a rallying cry for Canadian troops. About a month after the sinking of the ship, the Allies began their final major push — The Hundred Days Offensive — which drove the Germans back out of France and finally to their surrender. The Canadians played a leading role. At the Battle of Amiens, they used “Llandovery Castle” as a code word. One brigadier from Moose Jaw told his men “the battle cry… should be ‘Llandovery Castle,’ and that that cry should be the last to ring in the ears of the Hun as the bayonet was driven home.” Some say the outrages of that night in the North Atlantic helped to inspire some Canadian soldiers to commit their own — choosing to kill surrendering German troops rather than take them prisoner.
In the wake of the war, the Allies insisted that the German officers responsible for the sinking of the Llandovery Castle face charges. The case became one of the Leipzig War Crimes Trials, held by the German government to prosecute their own troops. As Captain Patzig fled the country, two of his lieutenants were tried and convicted to four years of hard labour. But they escaped on their way to prison and were later acquitted on the grounds that only their captain was ultimately responsible for their orders.
For many people living in Allied countries, the Leipzig Trials were seen as an example of the Germans being too lenient with their own war criminals. But many Germans saw the trials as yet another example of the unfair peace terms imposed upon them by the Treaty of Versailles. Some Allies had committed war crimes, too, but it was only the Germans who seemed to be forced to face the consequences. Those who stood trial in Leipzig were hailed as patriotic martyrs.
Many historians believe the anger over the peace terms — including the Leipzig Trials — eventually helped to propel Adolph Hitler into power. And when Hitler launched a Second World War, there was a familiar face on his payroll. Captain Patzig had been welcomed back into the German navy. And this time, he was in charge of an entire flotilla, training a new generation of German submariners how to wage war.
A version of this post originally appeared on the The Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog. You can find more sources, photos, links and related stories there.
Image: Allied propaganda about the sinking of the Llandovery Castle via Wikimedia Commons.